Leaky oil storage tank guidance for homeowners: issues surrounding leaking oil tanks, describes oil tank inspection and tank testing methods, suggests what a home owner or home inspector is obligated to do and report if an oil leak is found. This article also provides links to more detail about above ground and buried oil and other storage tanks.
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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 equipment and even simply-suspect equipment have been extremely costly to address.
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Such 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. This article explores opinions and suggestions culled from news articles, discussions in several states and provinces, and discussions among several home inspectors. Also see OIL FILL PIPE LEAKS
Back in 1961, traditional heating oil tank installation procedures and standards recommended that all oil-storage tanks be buried outside wherever feasible. That was then. This is now.
New concerns about leakage and environmental pollution raise warnings about buried tanks. (Reference: Standards of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, as referenced by "Domestic and Commercial Oil Burners,", Charles H. Burkhardt, 1961, 3rd Ed., McGraw Hill Book Company, p. 172.)
In states where oil is used for residential space and water heaters, oil storage tanks are found buried outside (550 or 1080 gallons), outside above ground (often a 275-gallon "indoor" tank never intended for weather exposure), and inside (275 to 550 gallons maximum). Leaks at any of these tanks are at risk of causing environmental damage. In one older property we found an indoor tank leaking directly into the casing of a private well which was located in the basement!
New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation has been developing and enforcing a Petroleum Bulk Storage Program since the early 1980's. The goal of this program is to prevent leaks and spills of petroleum into the environment.
The New York State DEC estimates that there may be as many as 185,000 above and underground tanks storing petroleum in New York State subject to DEC regulations. Many of the tanks installed in the 1950's and 60's are bare steel and have a fifty percent chance of developing leaks today.
Currently the regulations apply to any facility with a combined capacity (liquid non-waste petroleum-based oils) which exceeds 1,100 gallons but is less than 400,000 gallons. No individual unregulated site can exceed 1,100 gallons; if the owner has a 1,000 gallon tank out by the garage and another 275 gallon tank for heating oil the regulations still apply. (Reference: Telephone conversation, author with Southern New York office of the Department of Environmental Conservation, DEC ca 1988.)
The regulations require that these facilities must be registered with the state. Depending on the size, age, location, and type of product stored the system may have to be upgraded or tested.
In New England for a two year period [1984-5] among customers who have buried heating oil tanks (16% of total customers or one buried oil tank per 10,000 oil heat customers) surveyors found an average of 1.7 tank leaks per thousand customers.
They also found 2.5 fuel line leaks per 1000 customers. (Fuel Oil and Oil Heat magazine, August 1985 p.18.)
A study of 500 underground fuel storage tanks was completed for the U.S. EPA and studied tanks on Long Island in New York in 1988. See "[Fuel Storage] Tank Corrosion Study", U.S. EPA report on gasoline and oil tank corrosion, November 1988. Of those 500 storage tanks about half were used for gasoline storage and about one fourth were used for home heating oil storage. But significantly the underground storage tank leak rate did not depend on what fuel was being stored.
More recent oil tank leak data scan be difficult to obtain, but the two articles below provide additional detail and specifics.
Underground fuel storage tanks usually fail from rust perforation due to several effects of water inside the tank including, in the case of heating oil, combination of water with sulphur in the fuel. External rust, unless very heavy, isn't highly correlated with internal rust. A new tank can involve significant expense.
Oil tank leaks are also caused by mechanical damage during installation,oil fill, vent, or supply piping errors, corrosive soil conditions, possibly by oil tank manufacturing defects, possibly indirectly, by weather conditions and in-tank condensation, and finally, by delivery of bad oil that contains excessive amounts of water.
The U.S. Department of Environmental Conservation has a program registering buried tanks at any site storing more than 1100 gallons of heating oil. Requirements for gas (auto fuel), or other fuels may be different. Eventually this concern may spread to smaller residential tanks. The concern is for leaks which contaminate the environment.
Oil storage tanks located where they may leak into a local waterway or into the water supply are a special environmental concerns.
Free publications are available from New York DEC regional offices: Petroleum Storage Regulations, How to Register Your Petroleum Storage Facility, Testing Underground Storage Tanks. A New York Help-line number is also available at 1-800-242-4351. Other state environmental regulators and their contact information are listed at OIL TANK REGULATIONS.
OIL TANK REGULATIONS gives details about the regulations which require reporting leaks and which govern oil tank abandonment
On-site oil storage capacity can require tank registration: It is not unusual for a homeowner in the Northeastern U.S. to have installed additional storage tanks during the energy crisis of the 1970.
The added storage can bring the capacity of the property above the 1,100 gallon threshold and under the DEC regulations.
Many older homes with underground steel tanks have a good chance of developing a leak. We should provide our clients with this information. They can then make an informed decision to seek additional data and can also decide if testing should be performed.
A leaking above ground oil tank may be discovered by simple visual observation. Leaks in buried tanks require special testing methods to locate and then test the tank for leaks or the soil for past leakage.
If you see a leaky oil tank or an oil spill: In New York (and in most other jurisdictions) anyone visually inspecting a petroleum storage tank of any size and finding that the system is leaking must report the leak to state environmental authorities. In New York State an oil leak must be reported within two hours to New York DEC. The New York Oil spill hotline is 1-800-457-6362. For other states see the state contact information listed at OIL TANK REGULATIONS.
We do not consider a minor drip onto the boiler room floor at a bad fitting a reportable leak for these purposes. (Beware! A small leak at an oil line can result in air entry into the system which can create other dangerous conditions at the equipment.)
Buried fuel tanks should be tested for amount of water present in tank bottom, and any water should be pumped out. Water corrodes the tank and leads to leaks. So if there is a lot of water in the tank we are more concerned about the chances that inside-tank corrosion is severe and there is a greater risk of tank leaks.
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.
A buried oil storage tank is installed at this property. Such components are not inspected (tested) during a home or building inspection unless specific prior test arrangements have been made for advice by an appropriate expert. More information on what to do about inspecting, testing, abandoning, or replacing oil tanks is available at the "Oil Tank Home Page" found at http://inspectapedia.com/oiltanks/Oil_Storage_Tanks.htm
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We are purchasing a house that has been unoccupied for approximately 8 months. In late October it was discovered the furnace had leaked oil in basement. Because the house is unoccupied it is not clear how long the oil had been leaked. The smell is throughout the whole house.
The owners have have it professionally cleaned up and floor repainted around the leaked area. Months later, the smell is still strong.
I am concerned the smell exists because the paint was not an epoxy or covered the entire basement floor.
1) is there a way to test safe levels of the air quality in the house?
2) If basement windows left open 24 hours a day for a long period, will smell go away?
3) Will covering the basement floor in a watertight finish - like an epoxy garage flooring help contain smell?
Finally could smell have seeped into drywall throughout the whole house and would repainting the whole house help?
If you can smell the oil odor in the home then there is little doubt that it will be an irritant to at least some occupants - regardless of what testing shows. And some tests use questionable methodology - it's a bit easy to skew test results. I'm not sure I'd bother. I'm not able to assess the probable outcome of the oil smell case you describe - with no property inspection that would detail where oil leaked, where it may remain, where and what sealants were applied. But in general the steps you name often help. Usually a professional cleaner uses a solvent-deodorant followed by drying and sealing all affected surfaces.
I suspect - and emphasize this is speculative - that heating oil VOCs may have penetrated more than just the painted floor area. For example, if VOCs penetrated drywall and insulation, painting the floor won't stop odors coming from those secondary sources. Following sealant attempts that don't work one is ultimately forced to remove affected materials, seal other possibly-affected materials, and wait a reasonable period before follow-up sniff testing or more costly tests. Keep in mind that people's ability to smell odors varies widely.
Yes oil odor vocs may have penetrated materials throughout the home, though most likely some areas and materials are more significant as odor sources than others. The painting that is used to seal against odors often uses products used to seal odors in building framing or materials after a fire. That coating is followed by appropriate finish coats.
It might help pinpoint what materials have absorbed MVOCs using the smell patch test kit approach we describe at SMELL PATCH TEST to Track Down Odors
OPINION: Don't panic, but on discussion with your attorney I'd expect him or her to aggee that you should not proceed with the purchase before this question is absolutely closed to your satisfaction. The problem is that I cannot imagine any escrow fund amount other than total purchase price plus an additional amount to be spent on mitigation that could protect a buyer in an oil spill case. And where a leak is discovered to extend into soils in most states there is a legal requirement that the leak be reported to the state environmental authorities who then get into the act specifying what cleanup is required. Again I don't know if this applies to your home or not.
In extreme cases of oil leaks and spills in buildings I've known of a few cases in which the home was no longer habitable even after repeated and extensive attempts at odor control. If the leak at your home was limited in scope I'd be more optimistic.
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