Photograph of - is this heating oil running across the basement floor? Notice the abandoned oil line at the furnace? Oil tank safety warnings
Fuel Oil & Heating Oil Storage Tank Explosion & Other Hazards

  • OIL TANK SAFETY - CONTENTS: Fire & Explosion hazards of No. 2 home heating oil and No. 4 fuel oil. List of fuel oil safety hazards and detailed articles on each. Safety warnings concerning residential and small commercial heating oil storage tanks. Links to articles on other oil heat safety concerns, measures, controls, devices
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about heating oil storage tank safety, leaks, fire, explosions & other hazards

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Oil storage tank safety hazards: this document discusses safety issues involving residential and light commercial oil storage tanks and oil tank leaks, fire hazards, large oil storage tank fume explosions, and other risks.

Beyond the costly problem of actual leaks from oil storage tanks, oil leaks into buildings, and leaky oil piping, this document lists other important safety or oil-fired equipment concerns in home and light commercial heating oil storage and piping systems.

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Oil and LP/Natural Gas Tank & Fuel Explosion Hazards

"Deaths Draw Attention to Dangers of Oil Tanks" reported the New York Times 13 April 2010. The explosions and deaths of (usually) teenagers described in the NY Times article did not involve residential oil storage tanks.

The deaths reported by the Times have been associated with larger outdoor above-ground storage tanks often found in residential areas in the rural southern and western U.S. Accidents, explosions, and sometimes deaths occur when oil (or natural gas) vapors, released through a storage tank roof hatch are ignited by a spark from a cigarette, firework, cigarette lighter, or gun.

"The explosions are so violent that victims' bodies are often thrown up to 200 feet from the tanks." the Times reported. Property owners where these fuel storage tanks are installed are encouraged (sometimes legally required) to post adequate safety warning signs and access control fencing.

COMMENT: Why would a 14-year-old Springtown TX teenaged boy drop burning paper into an active fuel storage tank?
OPINION: Because teens, believing they are invincible, try stupid stunts. Attorneys may argue that unprotected outdoor fuel storage tanks are an attractive nuisance to teens.

What is the Risk of an Explosion or Fire From No. 2 Home Heating Oil Fumes?

Heating oil needs to be heated to 140 degF and sprayed or atomized in order to burn. Some oil sales and delivery companies inform us that unlike LP or natural gas fumes, heating oil fumes are not combustible. [Oregon Oil Heat Assoc. and others]. Indeed, in oil burner service school, a demonstration of the low combustibility of home heating oil was demonstrated in the classroom (a huge garage) by tossing a lit match into a coffee can of No. 2 home heating oil. The match went out.

At a typical home heating boiler or furnace that burns No. 2 home heating oil, the oil is ignited by a combination of conversion of the fuel to a fine spray through an oil nozzle (typically at 100 psi or higher), and the presence of a pair of high-voltage electrodes that produce a continuous spark to ignite and keep lit this spray of fuel. The hot sides of the oil burner's combustion chamber liner help complete the combustion of the fine droplets of oil that may miss the flame pattern and stray to the chamber sides.

But the difficulty in igniting a coffee can of home heating oil in a garage is not the whole story. a review of an example MSDS for No. 2 Fuel Oil (home heating oil) such as this example from the responsible professionals at Hess Corporationdiscloses the following indication that Fuel Oil Fumes are indeed combustible:


OSHA and NFPA Class 2 COMBUSTIBLE LIQUID (see Section 14 for transportation classification). Vapors may be ignited rapidly when exposed to heat, spark, open flame or other source of ignition. When mixed with air and exposed to an ignition source, flammable vapors can burn in the open or explode in confined spaces. Being heavier than air, vapors may travel long distances to an ignition source and flash back. Runoff to sewer may cause fire or explosion hazard.

And a review of an example MSDS for No. 4 Fuel Oil (heavier oil used in industry) contains a similar warning, with an explanation about a reduced explosion risk for this heavier fuel: [The Hess MSDS for No. 6 Fuel Oil contains the same warning as below.]


Vapors may be ignited rapidly when exposed to heat, spark, open flame or other source of ignition. When mixed with air and exposed to an ignition source, flammable vapors can burn in the open or explode in confined spaces. Being heavier than air, vapors may travel long distances to an ignition source and flash back. Runoff to sewer may cause fire or explosion hazard.

CAUTION: flammable vapor production at ambient temperature in the open is expected to be minimal unless the oil is heated above its flash point. However, industry experience indicates that light hydrocarbon vapors can build up in the headspace of storage tanks at temperatures below the flash point of the oil, presenting a flammability and explosion hazard.

Tank headspaces should be regarded a potentially flammable, since the oil’s point can not be regarded as a reliable indicator of the potential flammability in tank headspaces.

The bold font (our edit) in the MSDS text above may explain the tragic explosions and deaths reported by the NY Times to have occurred around oil storage tanks.

OPINION: the risk of fire or explosion from normal use of No. 2 home heating oil inside private residences, including during oil tank fill-up, heating system service procedures, or minor drips at an oil pipe fitting, is asserted by home heating oil delivery companies to be very low, and we agree that it is likely to be considerably less than the hazards discussed above where larger storage facilities and a variety of fuels are involved.

Articles About Heating Oil Storage Tank and Oil Piping, Control, Exposure, and Management Safety

Fusible link oil line valve (C) Daniel Friedman
  • Oil Tank Cave In Hazards: AVOIDING CAVE-INs at OUTDOOR OIL TANKS - cave-ins at abandoned oil tanks risk personal injury or possible fatalities for pets or small children.

    Also see OUTDOOR OIL TANK ABANDONMENT for proper procedures. Old, long-abandoned oil storage tanks that were not properly abandoned (by filling in the empty tank) can form a sudden collapse or cave-in risk.
  • Fossil Fuel Combustion Gas Hazards for Home Heating Oil:
    at COMBUSTION GASES & PARTICLE HAZARDS we discuss the hazards from burning fossil fuels to heat buildings or to make hot water. Discusses are the most likely hazards from combustible fuels, oil and gas, in or around buildings. Our quote below is from an MSDS example MSDS for No. 2 Fuel Oil from Hess Corporation.

    WARNING: the burning of any hydrocarbon as a fuel in an area without adequate ventilation may result in hazardous levels of combustion products, including carbon monoxide, and inadequate oxygen levels, which may cause unconsciousness, suffocation, and death.
  • Building Fire Safety Hazards: FIRE SAFETY CONTROLS - for residential oil heat storage tanks and piping, oil burners, discusses the required or recommended fire safety devices installed on oil piping and at heating equipment

  • HEAT TAPE HAZARD ON OIL TANK - fire hazards from using heat tapes on outdoor oil storage tank piping - using a heat tape to protect oil lines from waxing or freezing (to avoid loss of heat) can lead to too much heat, all at once, in the form of a building fire.
  • Heating Oil Fumes or Liquid Exposure Health Hazards: HEATING OIL EXPOSURE HAZARDS, LIMITS - hazards from breathing heating oil fumes or from skin contact with home heating oil. Our quote below is from an MSDS example MSDS for No. 2 Fuel Oil from Hess Corporation.

    SKIN CONTACT with No. 2 Home Heating Oil Exposure
    Practically non-toxic if absorbed following acute (single) exposure. May cause skin irritation with prolonged or repeated contact. Liquid may be absorbed through the skin in toxic amounts if large areas of skin are repeatedly exposed.

    INGESTION of No. 2 Home Heating Oil Exposure
    The major health threat of ingestion occurs from the danger of aspiration (breathing) of liquid drops into the lungs, particularly from vomiting. Aspiration may result in chemical pneumonia (fluid in the lungs), severe lung damage, respiratory failure and even death. Ingestion may cause gastrointestinal disturbances, including irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and central nervous system (brain) effects similar to alcohol intoxication. In severe cases, tremors, convulsions, loss of consciousness, coma, respiratory arrest, and death may occur.

    INHALATION of No. 2 Home Heating Oil Exposure
    Excessive exposure may cause irritations to the nose, throat, lungs and respiratory tract. Central nervous system (brain) effects may include headache, dizziness, loss of balance and coordination, unconsciousness, coma, respiratory failure, and death.

    CHRONIC EFFECTS and CARCINOGENICITY of No. 2 Home Heating Oil Exposure
    Similar products have produced skin cancer and systemic toxicity in laboratory animals following repeated applications. The significance of these results to human exposures has not been determined - see Section 11 Toxicological Information.
  • Fire Safety Protection for Home Heating Oil Piping: OIL LINE SAFETY VALVES, OSVs - what is the function of the Fire-o-Matic oil safety valve - a fusible link valve on oil piping, and where should these valves be installed? The oil safety valve is used by the service technician to shut off oil supply during oil burner servicing, but its safety function is to avoid spraying heating oil onto a building fire.
  • Oil Storage Tank Burst or Rupture Risks? OIL TANK PRESSURE - what pressure would be needed to burst an oil tank, what pressures occur during tank fill-up?

    Also see PRESSURE TESTING OIL TANKS - how likely are oil tanks to burst?
  • Oil Tank Fall or Tip Over Hazards: OIL TANK SUPPORT - tippy oil tanks risk spills, or (probably unlikely) cases, falling over on someone
  • Oil Tank Vent Pipe Errors & Oil Fume Hazards: OIL TANK VENT PIPE MISSING - risks spilling fuel gases into a building - at least a respiratory and health concern. What are the hazards of breathing heating oil fumes?
  • Watch for Abandoned Buried Tanks: BURIED OIL TANK, SIGNS OF - clues warn of a possible abandoned buried oil tank - a collapse hazard - how do we look for evidence of old abandoned buried oil storage tanks?


Continue reading at OIL TANK LEAKS & SMELLS or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.

Or see HEATING OIL EXPOSURE HAZARDS, LIMITS where we describe the health risks to humans from exposure to home heating oil liquid or fumes.

Or see BOILER NOISE SMOKE ODORS for a discussion of flue gas leaks, smells, and hazards from the combustion products of oil burning heating appliances.

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OIL TANK SAFETY at - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

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