Photograph of sketch of parts of a buried oil tank 10 Visual Clues to Find Underground Oil Tanks - how to inspect for evidence of buried oil tanks

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How to find buried oil tanks:

This article assists property buyers, owners, and inspectors in the location of buried oil tanks or the detection of evidence that an underground (or even an above ground) oil tank is or was in use at a property. We provide an illustrated guide to finding buried oil storage tanks by visual inspection.

The article and photographs used to show the reader ways to find buried oil tanks include examples of clues leading to the discovery of "nearly hidden" buried or underground oil tanks which were found at residential properties and which avoided very costly surprises later for the new owner.

We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.

Site Inspection Procedures: Visual Inspection of a Building Site for Evidence of "Nearly Hidden" Buried Oil Tanks

Buried oil tank schematic (C) CCarson Dunlop AssociatesHere are investigation methods that any home buyer, owner, or home inspector can apply to reduce these risks by looking for evidence that a buried oil tank is or was at a property.

Also see Above Ground Oil Tanks: Visual Inspection

[Click to enlarge any image]

Underground oil storage tanks, or UST's, whether still present or previously removed, involve a risk of costly oil leaks and soil contamination which may need to be addressed.

Before hiring an expert oil tank testing or removal company to find the oil tank, test an oil tank for leaks, and perhaps remove or abandon a buried oil tank in place, first we describe and illustrate a series of visual clues that can help you find the most likely location for a buried oil tank at any property.

Take A Walk Around the Property Looking for Buried Tank Clues

Buried Tanks: Look at the property before deciding to hire a tank testing company for professional inspection and testing. You can obtain basic information such as the age (property and tank), tank location, and type of oil tank.

Our sketch at left, courtesy of Carson Dunlop, shows a common buried oil tank installation except that the oil line is shown leaving the bottom of the buried oil tank.

Modern practice usually connects a pair of oil lines to the top of a buried oil tank, avoiding picking up water and sludge from the tank bottom, and avoiding the chance that a leak in piping between oil and building interior will flood the inside of the building with oil.

But the sketch above shows that many buried oil tanks are installed close to the building foundation wall, usually parallel to the wall, since it's easiest to bury the tank in that position during new construction. (The sketch shows the tank at right angles to the wall so that we could portray the various piping arrangements with clarity.) So one of the first places to look for a buried oil tank is close to the building.

Coffee can tank filler cover © D Friedman at But that's not the only possible location for an outdoor buried oil tank at a property. We saw this coffee can in the bushes near a New York home and picked it up thinking we were just cleaning up trash left on the ground. Later in this article you'll see what we found.

Watch out: from a previous use, a buried oil tank may be present or may have been present at a property even if it is now served by an indoor, above ground oil tank or even by LP or natural gas. So don't assume that because you don't see a tank that none was ever used or present at a property. Make a visual site inspection for clues suggesting that one or more tanks is or was present.

Even an alert home buyer or home inspector, not charged with an environmental site survey (nor paid for one) might discover evidence of very costly buried tank problems at a property, simply by attending certain visual details and thinking about what they mean. For the case of buried oil tanks, the next few photographs show two cases of the discovery of a nearly-hidden outside oil tank fill pipe which led to the discovery of buried oil tanks. These tanks had not been properly abandoned, risking significant cost to the property owner or buyer.

Here are Visual Clues of the Presence of a Buried Oil Tank at a Residential Property

The first three photos below show us exploring a hole in a bald patch of grass. Oil spills, such as during a heating oil delivery, can poison the soil so that even when no heating oil is visible or no odors remain, the grass may still refuse to grow in this spot. So we explored further as our photos show.

Many visual or historical clues may indicate that there is or was a buried oil or other fuel tank at a property.

Visible oil tank fill or vent pipes protruding from the ground, depressions near a building, or even areas of dead grass or plantings in a small spot where a buried or previous fuel tank fill pipe may have been installed - from spillage of fuel.

At one site this clue led to the discovery that the tank "removal" had consisted of nothing more than the unscrewing and removal of the fill and vent pipes from the leaky oil tank.

Age and type of property, existing oil fill and vent piping locations, existing oil tank size and ratings, abandoned heating oil lines, marks where equipment was previously mounted, footprints of old heating equipment, and other clues can form strong enough evidence of a risk of a hidden or improperly removed oil tank that we might then advise further investigation.

Coffee Can Hides an Improperly Abandoned Oil Tank Still in Place

The next two photos show us exploring what appeared to be a simple coffee can tossed in the yard of a residential property.

The buried oil tanks discovered below these "nearly hidden" filler pipe openings needed to be tested for leakage and then properly abandoned - a significant expense

What is significant about this "abandoned" UST is that the evidence right at ground level (we could see down into the oil storage tank still in place but not in use) one could infer that the oil storage tank had not been properly abandoned. The risks include un-discovered heating oil leaks into the soil at this property.

See SIGNS OF BURIED OIL TANKS for a detailed discussion of the study of outdoor clues used to find a buried oil tank at a residential property.

Here are Indoor Visual Clues of the Presence of an Indoor or Outdoor Abandoned Oil Tank

In the author's view (DJF), oil tank testing services and professional environmental inspectors are expected to include both a visual screen of the property for clues such as these, and also a combination of other methods to detect buried oil tanks. Some clues that area strong evidence of a buried oil tank at a property are listed and illustrated below.

Abandoned oil lines at a basement wall (C) Daniel Friedman Abandoned dual set of indoor oil pipelines (C) Daniel Friedman Evidence of oil pipes below a concrete basement floor (C) Daniel Friedman

This photo (above) provides evidence of buried oil lines and possibly an abandoned buried oil tank, as explained in text just above.

Evidence of a buried oil tank, oil leaking through a foundation wall (C) Daniel Friedman

Our photo at above left shows heating oil found seeping through the foundation wall in a crawl space. We suspected that a buried oil tank was or had been outside of this foundation wall and that it had leaked through the building foundation.

Further investigation discovered an abandoned heating oil tank buried just outside of this wall, under a driveway.

See INDOOR CLUES TO BURIED OIL TANKS for a detailed discussion of the study of indoor visual clues used to find a buried oil tank at a residential property.

Articles on Finding Buried Oil Tanks


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