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The new age of NH3

12/12/2011 @ 11:22am

Anhydrous ammonia may be 50 years old, but today's system is not your granddad's NH3. The product is the same efficient and economical source of nitrogen, but the methods of applying and distributing it are undergoing some dramatic changes.

“The era of the 1,000-gallon nurse tank that was designed to serve a four- to five-shank toolbar is rapidly coming to an end,” says Craig Rife, owner of Ag Associates LLC, Hutchinson, Kansas, and regional distributor for Exactrix NH3 Systems.

“Those tanks deliver a flow of only 8 to 12 gallons per minute when temperatures are cool. But the 40- to 60-foot applicators many large farmers are pulling today require a flow rate of 25 gallons per minute or more. Anhydrous ammonia's transportation and delivery system – as well as the regulations that control it – needs to catch up to this application capacity because farmers need to use NH3 to remain competitive,” adds Rife.

To boost their NH3 capabilities, farmers are turning to larger nurse tanks, tender trucks, transport deliveries, and on-farm storage. Because it's a hazardous material, each of these options falls under a host of federal, state, and local regulations.

“Generally, it's the state regulations that determine what can be done,” says Rife. “These vary widely, so it's critical that farmers understand them before investing in their NH3 handling system.”

It's estimated that 250,000 of the traditional 1,000-gallon and 1,450-gallon nurse trailers are in the field. Once worth only a few hundred dollars at auction, these trailers are now prized for stacking on twin and triple trailers to get NH3 to the field faster and to keep big applicators running longer. New 2,000-gallon nurse trailers have also become popular and even 3,000-gallon units (the largest allowed on roads by DOT regulations) are now available.

There's also a trend for farmers to own their own nurse trailers, rather than using those from a fertilizer dealer, so they can better control delivery and availability of the product. In most states, however, those tanks are still subject to the same safety regulations and inspection requirements as fertilizer dealers face.

“In Kansas, vapor relief valves on nurse tanks must be no more than five years old, and hoses must be replaced according to the date stamped on them. Nylon hoses (green stripe) have a six-year life; stainless steel hose (gray stripe) has an eight-year life,” says Rick Wiedmann, fertilizer section chief with the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

Shipman, Illinois, farmer Richard Shelton added ten, 2,000-gallon nurse tanks, along with an 18,000-gallon stationary tank, to his operation over the past two years.

“We were afraid of not being able to get NH3 in a timely manner,” he says. “This would have occurred in 2010 if we didn't have on-farm storage. We invested about $110,000 in the project and figure we've gotten a 20% annual return on the after-tax portion of that amount because we can buy tanker loads when prices are low.

“We're saving $50 to $80 per ton on the product and have saved up to $200 per ton. However, I would do this again even if there were no savings because of how it has streamlined our operation,” adds Shelton.

A 30,000-gallon NH3 storage tank at Southwest Family Farms near Plains, Kansas, allows Brett Reiss to also take advantage of good buying opportunities. “Our goal is to save $100 per ton over retail,” says Reiss.

Reiss says the tank – a one-time propane unit that was converted to NH3 – cost about $1.40 per gallon to buy and deliver. The valves, plumbing, high-speed 2-inch liquid pump, safety equipment, and professional installation added another $1.20 per gallon to the total cost.

“We really stressed safety in our installation and even went beyond some of the features the state requires,” says Reiss. “NH3 is dangerous, and we want to be very proactive in our safety features and operating procedures.”

Like other NH3 regulations, those for on-farm storage vary by region, but it's generally more difficult to get a tank approved if it's from outside the state. Many states require used tanks to have a national board number and a legible data plate verifying certification to 250 psi.

Some older propane tanks are only certified for 200 psi, so they can't be used for NH3. The brass fittings used for propane must be changed for use with NH3.

Inspections required

On-farm NH3 storage tanks are also subject to annual inspection, and the farmers using them are required to undergo training every three years, says Kevin Runkle, regulatory affairs manager with the Illinois Fertilizer Chemical Association. “Illinois EPA has taken enforcement action against some farmers who have had an NH3 release,” he says.

On-farm NH3 storage wasn't the first choice for either Reiss or Shelton. “We wanted to run two tanker trucks hauling NH3 from nearby plants and terminals directly to our two twin 1,000-gallon trailers in the field. But state regulations wouldn't allow it,” says Reiss.

“Kansas regulations require that the applicator tank hold at least 4,000 gallons of NH3 for transfer to occur in the field,” says Wiedmann.

Shelton says he held off building on-farm NH3 storage in hopes that Illinois would follow the lead of other states and allow tankers to unload in the field without restriction. Instead, Illinois rules permit in-the-field transfer only from tankers holding 6,000 gallons or less.

Regulations in Missouri, Colorado, and Texas are most favorable in this area, according to St. Charles County (Missouri) Co-op transportation manager Bill Houck.

“We can haul to a field in Missouri and unload a 9,500-gallon tanker into whatever size trailers the farmer has, as long as he can take the entire load,” says Houck. “There are safety benefits to delivering large tanker loads of NH3 directly to the field, because that takes up to 10 of the 1,000-gallon tanks off the road, which is where most accidents occur,” says Houck.