Oil Tank Test Methods
How Oil Tanks are Tested for Evidence Leaks, of Current or Previous Oil Spills

  • OIL TANK LEAK TEST METHODS - CONTENTS: What types of oil storage tank leak tests are available. What are the pros and cons of alterative methods of testing for oil tank leaks? Oil tank testing method choices: pressure testing, oil tank sonogram testing, oil tank leak soil tests. Soil testing for oil tank leaks & Oil tank pressure testing for oil tank leaks, Oil tank fill pressures - to what pressure is an oil tank subjected during an oil delivery? Simple tests for water in oil tanks, & Electronic oil tank leak scanning & ground scanning radar for hidden oil tank location.
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about choosing among oil tank leak testing methods

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Guide to types of oil storage tank leak tests available:

This article discusses the types of oil storage tank tests that may be performed on buried oil tanks and above ground oil storage tanks to check for leaks or imminent leaks. Not all storage tank tests are equal in accuracy nor cost, and some are more appropriate than others, depending on other factors.

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Guide to Oil Storage Tank Testing: Oil Tank Inspection and Oil Leak Testing Choices

LARGER IMAGEOil tank leak testing guide: this document describes the common methods used to test oil storage tanks for evidence of leakage, either by soil testing, pressure testing of the tank, or by other tank screening measurements.

[Click to enlarge any image]

Article Contents

Other steps to locate and test heating oil storage tanks at properties, both buried tanks and above ground tanks are discussed at other documents at this website.

Leaking oil tanks are not only a concern as contaminants of the water supply, but have become an increasing general environmental concern addressed by the DEC. Leaking commercial oil storage equipment and even simply-suspect oil storage equipment have been extremely costly to address.

Oil storage tank leak on tank bottom (C) Daniel FriedmanSuch burdens were never anticipated when the equipment was installed. While similar regulations pertaining to residential installations are scarce, this topic is of growing concern to home owners and home buyers.

Look for yourself: Before deciding to hire a tank testing company for professional inspection and testing, some basic information such as the age (property and tank), tank location, and type of oil tank, and for above-ground tanks, a simple visual inspection of the tank and its piping, can give you and idea of the risks involved.

Look for obvious leaks such as oil stains on the ground or floor under or around the tank and around the oil fired equipment. Remember to look under the oil tank at its bottom, as most leaks occur in the lower portion of the tank.

The leaky oil storage tank shown at left is discussed
at OIL TANK LEAK or FAILURE MECHANISMS where we explain the various causes of leaks in oil tanks.

Hire an expert: Specialty companies and some oil companies have equipment to test buried tanks for leaks. Soil testing, simple low-psi pressure-testing and sophisticated electronic testing are commonly used.

IOil tank leak (C) Daniel Friedman advise home buyers to have a soil test performed rather than a pressure test of an existing oil tank, since even if the tank is not currently leaking we would prefer an assurance that it didn't leak before, say from a plumbing connection that was repaired.

at OIL TANK TESTING COs we include a listing of oil and fuel storage tank testing companies and services, and invite (no-fee) listings from other companies providing that service.

Many storage tank testing companies also offer storage tank removal and site cleanup services as well.

From a previous use, a buried oil tank may be present or may have been present at a property 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.

OIL TANK LEAK TESTING METHODS - How Oil Tanks are Tested for Evidence of Leakage

Oil tank sonogram (C) Daniel FriedmanTesting for water in an oil tank (above ground or buried) is simple and can be done by any service person. Tank testing methods for oil leaks or for the risk of oil leakage vary in risk to the tank, cost, invasiveness, length of time to complete, and more.

In addition to oil tank inspection, oil piping inspection, and oil tank testing to "pass" or "fail" an oil storage tank, more sophisticated tests are available to assess the chances that an existing heating oil storage tank has leaked or is likely to have a serious leak soon.

These include a oil tank corrosion analysis which adds to the basic tank inspection and tests an assessment of the level of corrosion of the tank walls and thus the chances of its leaking or failure, and soil corrosion or soil corrosivity evaluation which includes an evaluation of soil samples collected from around the tank in order to assess the degree to which the soil in which the oil tank has been buried will contribute to the process of corrosion of the (presumably steel) buried oil tank.

Specialists and some oil companies have equipment to test buried tanks for leaks. Both simple pressure-testing and sophisticated electronic testing are used, mostly on commercial equipment, and more recently on residential tanks. Testing for water in the tank is simple and can be done by any service person using a simple chemical paste on a probe. A lot of water in the tank is a reason
to be pessimistic about its condition.

There are a number of tank testing methods currently in use, varying in risk to the tank, cost, invasiveness, length of time to complete, and some, requiring shutting down of the heating system during test period. See "How do you choose the right tank testing method?" Cynthia Johnson, Fuel Oil & Oil Heat Magazine, November 1995.

  • Low-psi oil tank pressure-testing for leaks is used to test a tank for existing leaks. To conduct an oil tank pressure test, the oil tank and its piping system are sealed off (and taken out of use), pressurized to a low value, typically just a few psi, and monitored over 24 hours for a pressure drop.

    An advantage of this simple test is that it can detect leaks not just in the oil storage tank but also in piping systems connected to the tank - an important feature for buried oil tanks whose underground fill and vent pipes or supply pipes are not visible. For a discussion of the normal operating pressures to which an oil storage tank is subjected
  • Soil testing for oil tank leaks looks for evidence of actual oil contamination in the soil. A proper soil test is based on having located the buried tank or the site where a tank was buried, and taking borings to a depth approximately just below the tank bottom.
  • Electronic testing of oil tanks to check for leak scan also screen tanks for evidence of damage - usually this was used only on commercial jobs. Also
    see Mesa 2-D TEST for OIL TANK LEAKS.
  • Oil tank ultrasound oil tank leak risk screening program (photo above) is offered by some oil companies who scan the bottom section of above ground oil tanks to measure the thickness of the tank steel. Tanks that pass an ultrasound screening test may be insured against future leakage.

    We discuss ultrasound screening of oil tanks at ULTRASOUND TEST for AST OIL TANKS
  • Water testing in oil tanks can indicate the risk of in-tank corrosion and thus leakage - an easy first-pass which can be used at both above ground tanks and buried oil tanks. See WATER in OIL TANKS, TEST FOR.
  • Ground scanning radar or magnetic sensing is also used to locate buried steel tanks.

OIL TANK LEAK TEST: Mesa 2-D Digital Non volumetric Oil Tank Tightness Test

This test for oil tank tightness developed by Mesa Engineering, uses a digital probe and using ultrasound, examines frequency changes to detect a leak in the oil tank or its piping.

The Mesa 2-D Digital test includes a "U-L" frequency leak test that detects leaks in the oil tank or its piping. The Mesa 2-D test also detects vapor bubbling ("P-L" frequency leak) indicating that the oil storage tank or its piping contains a leak in the oil piping or oil filler piping portion of the system.

This is a low "negative pressure" or vacuum test using a vacuum of 60 inches of water or –2.16 psig. The manufacturer requires that test operators be certified at least every two years.

According to the developer, Mesa Engineering, a U-L frequency leak typically occurs in the oil vent pipe or fill pipe, and can often be repaired, while a P-L frequency leak usually indicates a critical system failure that means the tank will probably be taken out of service and abandoned.

Watch out: In reader correspondence we have a report of an owner's concern about an apparent "coincidence" that within two weeks following a Mesa 2-D oil tank test a catastrophic oil tank leak was found and a costly cleanup followed. Not only is the Mesa 2-D oil tank test considered "safe" (it does not expose the oil tank to high pressure or high vacuum), but a review of the Mesa 2-D tank test report for this case disclosed that the test itself detected a tank failure.

Our OPINION was that provided the test was conducted properly, the most likely explanation of the apparent coincidence was that the test had correctly detected an oil tank leak that was not previously recognized, and that had existed for a considerable time.

Mesa 2-D Oil Tank Test Report Example #1 - see this example of a Mesa 2-D oil tank leak test that found significant evidence of an oil tank leak. The owners reported that within two weeks a major oil leak was confirmed and a cost underground oil tank replacement and oil spill cleanup was required.

The company who conducted this test, ATS Environmental Services Co., includes in their Mesa 2-D test description

MESA 2-D test results are 100% digital & computer analyzed which eliminates the chances of human error affecting test results. Many other tank test systems are analog and not computer controlled. These inferior test methods rely heavily on the testing technician listening for leaks or bubbles in the tank bottom.

The MESA 2-D uses computer and digital acoustic profiling technology to evaluate the integrity of underground tank systems. The MESA 2-D test system will not damage the tank or heating system. This is not an air pressure test! MESA 2-D test system can test tanks with any level of fuel including tank that are empty.

Mesa Oil Tank Test Report Example #2 - this example of a MESA oil tank test also found that the tank was leaking. As we pointed out to the reader who contributed this oil tank test report, the test found a tank leak, called for appropriate repair action, and did not (indeed could not) indicate the extent of soil contamination that may be present.

Interpreting a MESA 2-D oil tank test report

In the example MESA 2-D oil tank leak test Mesa Oil Tank Test Report Example #2 the test company recommended that possibly leaking oil piping be inspected and repaired if found faulty (though it appears that the technician didn't think that was the problem. The company continues to indicate that if piping repairs do not stop the leak, the tank will need to be abandoned according to proper procedures.

OPINION-DF: even if the oil piping is repaired and the repairperson believes that a leak was fixed, there is a potential for significant increases in the later cost to abandon the oil tank if in fact it continues to leak, and because there can be multiple leak defects in any tank and piping system (so that fixing one may not fix them all). For that reason, a follow-up test might be appropriate.

Mesa 2-D Method with ACT v1 Water Level Sensor - test description and specifications from Mesa Engineering - web search 6/22/2010. Mesa Engineering, 5801 Dierker, Houston TX 77041 713-895-7000, [company website link in this literature is not functional]

OIL TANK LEAK TEST: PRESSURE TESTING - Oil Tank Pressure Testing Advice

Oil tank pressure test limits (C) Daniel FriedmanUsing this tank testing method the oil tank is sealed and pressurized to a low psi level, then carefully monitored for a pressure drop, perhaps for 24 hours. This method is comparatively quick to execute but I don't care for it.

Notice (in our photo at left) that some oil tank manufacturers do not want their oil tanks pressure-tested after the tank has been installed.

Details are at OIL TANK PRESSURE.

  • First, if there is a pressure drop, additional testing will be required to determine if there has been actual oil seepage into the soil. (A leak could have been a minor one at the tank top, for example.)

    The additional testing is pretty-much the same as my second method described below, so the consumer ends up paying for testing twice in this case.
  • Second, even if there is not a pressure drop, I'm not sure that there hasn't been a tank leak in the past, perhaps fixed by a plumbing repair or other method.

Some home owners balk at this test, fearing that the pressure of the test procedure will "burst" an oil tank that is about to fail. I am doubtful that this is a legitimate concern. The pressure at which the tank is being tested is almost certainly a much lower psi than the pressure to which the tank is subjected while it is being filled by the oil delivery truck and driver.

OIL TANK LEAK TEST: SOIL TESTING - Soil Tests for evidence of tank leakage

We prefer this method for testing for evidence of leaks at buried oil tanks if there is a question of whether or not an oil tank has already leaked. The cost for soil testing is about the same as the first method where buried tanks are installed.

Multiple soil borings are collected around the tank, at a depth just past the level of the tank bottom. The soil samples are tested for petroleum product contamination.

This is considered the definitive test for oil tank leakage, and if the tank has not leaked, it provides more reliable documentation of that fact. More time is needed to complete the test as there is a delay for the lab work.

Consider that if you opted for the tank pressure test described earlier, and if the test showed that the tank has leaked oil into its surrounding soil, some additional testing is going to be needed to confirm the extent of soil contamination. It seems to me it's better to test the soil in the first place, thus also covering not only current but past conditions.

Finally, if we are told that an oil tank has been "remove" or "abandoned" at a property, we expect to be given the documentation that outlines who did what when, and importantly, what steps were taken to assure that there was no oil leak that was simply left for the next owner to discover and clean-up.

If adequate documentation is not provided, a soil test is certainly appropriate. One of my clients took this advice and discovered, and avoided having to pay for, a $60,000. site cleanup at the property he was buying.

OIL TANK LEAK TEST: TEST FOR WATER - Test oil tanks for presence of water

Oil tank taking water (C) Daniel FriedmanSee OIL TANK WATER CONTAMINATION for detailed advice on how to remove water from oil storage tanks. Excerpts are below.

Buried tanks, such as heating oil tanks, should be tested for amount of water present in tank bottom, and water should be pumped out. Even above-ground tanks can take on large amounts of water from roof spillage, condensation, or a bad oil delivery. (Photo at left).

In fact, water can accumulate in indoor or outdoor above ground oil storage tanks too, either from exposure to varying temperatures (in-tank condensation) or from the occasional delivery of bad oil which contains excessive water content.

A neat way to look for a history of water in the heating oil storage tank is to check the oil filter canister itself. Many oil burners are protected by a heating oil filter installed either at the tank or at the oil burner. (Every heating boiler burning oil should have one of these filters installed to protect the equipment.)

If the oil tank has a high level of water, especially if the oil lines run to the oil burner from the bottom of the oil tank, some of that water will have been making its way to the oil burner where, en route, it is (usually) trapped in the oil filter. If you open an oil filter container and see that its metal parts are rusted, or that there is a lot of rusty sludge in the bottom of the filter holding canister, the oil tank needs to be checked further for water

The oil service technician can check the level of water in an oil tank by putting some "oil finder paste" on the bottom of a stick or probe which is inserted into the tank and to its bottom. The paste changes color in the presence of water, showing, by the length of color change on the probe, the depth of water in the bottom of the tank. Obviously this trick is much easier if the tank is outside than indoors where a basement ceiling can make probing the oil tank difficult.

Ask your oil service company to perform this test.

Alternatively, if an underground oil storage tank also needs an oil tank tightness test or oil tank leak test, the Mesa 2-D TEST for OIL TANK LEAKS can also detect water leakage into the tank.

While we've found them lasting longer, a common life expectancy of buried oil tanks is 10-15 years. We do not have the same data for gas tanks. Life may be similar.

If the tank is to remain in use, ask your fuel supplier about using an additive or other methods to help remove water. Warning: on some older oil tanks which had a lot of sludge in the tank, as the de-watering additive (such as "4-in-1-HOT (TM)") was added to the tank we found an increase in the debris making its way to the heating oil filter. You should inspect the filter cartridge for water and debris and have it changed more frequently until this question is closed. It's more trouble but the end result is a more reliable oil storage tank and heating system.

See OIL TANK WATER CONTAMINATION for detailed advice on how to remove water from oil storage tanks.

OIL TANK LEAK TEST: Ultrasound testing of above ground oil tanks for tank leak risk

Oil tank sonogram (C) Daniel FriedmanOil tank ultrasound screening program (photo above) is offered by some oil companies who scan the bottom section of above ground oil tanks to measure the thickness of the tank steel. Tanks that pass an ultrasound screening test may be insured against future leakage.

The oil company technician uses an ultrasound scanner to make twelve thickness measurements on the lower portion of the oil tank and records the thickness at each location.

Typical oil tank thickness readings on an older above-ground indoor oil tank may range from 0.105 to 0.185 inches in thickness.

If all 12 sample point thicknesses exceed 0.100" the oil tank "passes" and the dealer offers $1000. insurance for a year as part of the fee. Our photo (above) shows an oil tank sonogram in process for the author, conducted by Nash Brothers Oil Company, Hyde Park, NY

Oil tank bottom thickness measured by sonogram (C) Daniel FriedmanWatch out: observing some above ground oil tank tests using the ultrasound screening program makes us nervous. It is inconvenient for the technician to both observe the instrument readings and then climb out of the position shown in our photo (above) to write down the data.

As a result we have seen tank test technicians "memorize" ten or 20 readings and then write them down by recollection of the "ballpark" figures. This is reasonable in that the technician is really just looking for any readings that cross the threshold of unacceptable tank steel thickness.

But it remains inaccurate and risks oil tank test data errors or skewing by operator error.

Further, if the test finds steel thickness readings close to the threshold of acceptability, we recommend that additional "spot checks" be taken of the tank's thickness in that area, rather than simply screening the tank bottom at larger spatial intervals.

See OIL TANK TREATMENTS for an oil treatment manufacturer's cautions about spot tests of oil tank thickness.

See WATER in OIL TANKS for added suggestions for finding and removing water from oil storage tanks.

What is the Most Reliable Approach to Evaluating an Oil Storage Tank for Risk of Near Term Leaks & Spills?

Leaky oil tank coated with an epoxy sealant to extent life & stop leakage (C) InspectApediaWatch out: critics argue that spot testing the oil tank bottom and lower sides for thin metal will not detect find all possible oil tank problems and may itself miss an existing pinhole oil leak. While I agree with that caveat there is more to be said.

Our tank photo at left shows an oil storage tank whose bottom area has been coated with an epoxy sealant in an attempt to cope with leaks. We already know the condition of this tank, without testing. It leaks.

  • Tests alone are never complete: Any oil tank evaluation method that relies only on a test, that is with the omission of informed visual inspection of the site, piping, equipment, and site and equipment history, is by definition of limited scope and in my view incomplete.
  • Tests of oil tank metal condition and thickness are useful A test that measures the thickness of the oil tank steel remaining is a useful indicator of the extent of corrosion going on inside the oil tank.

    What we gain by testing the thickness of an oil storage tank where there is no visible leakage is an idea of the remaining metal material, its strength and thus the risk of an upcoming oil leak or spill.
  • Oil Storage Tank Corrosion Zone or Band: Oil tank corrosion occurs at the oil-water interface line inside the oil storage tank. The area described by this high-risk zone is hardly a pinpoint. It extends along the entire tank wall, all around the sides and ends of the oil tank, in a band of varying width and height depending on the history of level of water in the tank.

    Just as in bird watching we find the birds by looking at areas where they are expected to be found, in my opinion, tests such as an ultrasonic thickness test of the tank wall ought to test the tank areas most likely to be corroded: not just the tank bottom, but the tank's lower sides. And such a test would be ridiculous if the test technician did not also look at the tank by eye for obvious, existing evidence of leaks, seepage, or pinholes.
  • Using visual inspection plus technical tests is the more reliable approach to spotting an oil tank at higher risk of a leak or spill than either approach alone.

    Indeed when a corrosion-caused tank leak in an oil or water tank finally begins to actually leak, excepting the exciting cases of someone punching a hole in a tank, the leak usually begins as a pinhole, seepage, and small oil release. How rapidly that leak grows to a catastrophe depends on the nature and extent of the corrosion or other cause of tank deterioration or damage.


U.S. & Canadian Standards groups and authorities pertaining to oil or other fuel storage tanks and tank testing include

  • ASTM
    • ASTM #-1739 - 95 (2002) Standard Guide for Risk-Based Corrective Action Applied at Petroleum Release Sites, quoting from ASTM:

      1.1 This is a guide to risk-based corrective action (RBCA), which is a consistent decision-making process for the assessment and response to a petroleum release, based on the protection of human health and the environment. Sites with petroleum release vary greatly in terms of complexity, physical and chemical characteristics, and in the risk that they may pose to human health and the environment.

      The RBCA process recognizes this diversity, and uses a tiered approach where corrective action activities are tailored to site-specific conditions and risks. While the RBCA process is not limited to a particular class of compounds, this guide emphasizes the application of RBCA to petroleum product releases through the use of the examples. Ecological risk assessment, as discussed in this guide, is a qualitative evaluation of the actual or potential impacts to environmental (nonhuman) receptors. There may be circumstances under which a more detailed ecological risk assessment is necessary (see Ref (1).

      1.2 The decision process described in this guide integrates risk and exposure assessment practices, as suggested by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), with site assessment activities and remedial measure selection to ensure that the chosen action is protective of human health and the environment. The following general sequence of events is prescribed in RBCA, once the process is triggered by the suspicion or confirmation of petroleum release: ...

      - ASTM - www.astm.org

  • CSA Standards - Canada
  • NFPA
    • NFPA 30: Flammable and Combustible Liquids COde (2008)
    • NFPA 31: Standard for the Installation of Oil-Burning Equipment (2006)
    • NFPA 54: National Fuel Gas Code (2009)
    • NFPA 58: Liquefied Petroleum Gas Code (2008)
    • NFPA 101: Life Safety Code (2009)
    • NFPA 225: Model Manufactured Home Installation Standard
    • NFPA 329: Handling Underground Releases of Flammable and Combustible Liquid
  • UL & UL-Canada
    • Aboveground Tanks, ULC-S601, -S630, ULC/ORD-C142.18, ULC-S653
    • Protective Coating for Underground Steel Tanks, ULC-S616, CAN/ULC-S603.1
    • Storage Cabinets for Flammable Liquid Containers, ULC/ORD-C1275
    • Bulk Containers, Nonmetallic, for Combustible and Non-combustible Liquids {containers-Tanks}, ULC/ORD-C142.14
    • Tanks for Used Oil, ULC-S652
    • Tanks for Heating and / or Generator Fuels, Aboveground, CAN/ULC-S602
    • Underground Tanks, ULC-S615, 603, CAN/ULC-S603.1
    • Anode Assemblies, Underground Tank Protection, ULC-S618
    • Shop Fabricated Steel Aboveground Tanks For Flammable and Combustible Liquids, CAN/ULC-S601
    • Aboveground Steel Tanks for Fuel Oil and Lubricating Oil, CAN/ULC-S602
    • Underground Tanks, ULC-S615, Steel Underground Tanks for Flammable and Combustible Liquids, ULC-S615
    • External corrosion Protection Systems for Steel Underground Tanks for Flammable and Combustible Liquids, CAN/ULC-S603.1
    • Aboveground Steel contained Tank Assemblies for Flammable and Combustible Liquids, CAN/ULC-S653
    • Tank Assemblies for the Collection, Storage and Removal of Used Oil, CAN/ULC-S652
    • Hose and Hose assemblies for Flammable and Combustible Liquids, CAN/ULC-S612
    • Hose Nozzle Valves for Flammable and Combustible Liquids, CAN/ULC-S620
    • Non-metallic Underground Piping for Flammable and Combustible Liquids, CAN/ULC-S660
    • Double Containment Fibre Reinforced Plastic Linings for Flammable and Combustible Liquid Storage Tanks, ULC/ORD-C58.4

  • US EPA

A discussion of methods for finding evidence of previous or current buried tanks at properties is

More detail about the causes of oil tank leaks, both buried and above ground tanks, is

Home buyers should be sure to also review

  • OIL TANK LEGAL ISSUES - Home Buyers and Home Owners Guide to Leaky Heating Oil Tanks - What to Do About & When to Report Oil Tank Leaks.

Home owners who have old oil tanks above ground or any age oil tank below ground should also be sure to review

  • OIL TANK ABANDONING PROCEDURE - Abandoning Commercial vs. Residential Underground Oil Storage Tanks (UST) - Procedures & Regulations

  • Regulations governing tank leak reporting and tank abandonment as well as the registration of oil tanks at properties is



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