Heating Oil Tanks

Oil Tank Solid State Home Inspections

Heating technology in our houses have changed radically in North America over the last few centuries. We have progressed from burning wood for heat and cooking, to coal, to oil, then propane, natural gas, and electricity. In the process of this change in energy technology, we have left behind some legacies of the older technologies such as heating oil tanks.

Why Did Homes Have Oil Tanks?

Natural gas and electricity are now the two most common energy types to heat our houses partly as they are now very safe and efficient to deliver to our house heating systems. For about 60 years leading up to the 1970’s, the most efficient method of maintaining a supply of heating energy to our homes was through the use of heating oil. This heating oil was delivered by truck and needed to be stored between deliveries so homes had either buried or above ground tanks to have enough energy available between deliveries.

Why Do We Need to Remove Oil Tanks?

As natural gas replaced heating oil, the oil tanks were no longer needed. The best practice was to remove the oil tanks during the natural gas conversion but in order to save costs, many oil tanks were simply abandoned in place.

Above Ground Oil Tank

Oil tanks that are not actively used will begin to rust due to condensation inside the tank and water outside the tank. As tanks rust, they will eventually leak residual oil into the ground. In some cases oil tanks were abandoned nearly full of oil which could be 1,000 liters, enough to cause a very large contamination. 

Spilled heating oil is classified as a toxic material and leaks are very serious to the environment and taken very seriously by all levels of government. In British Columbia, the fire code requires the removal of all oil tanks if they have not been used for more than two years due to potential fire hazards associated with heating oil.

Who is Responsible for Removing an Oil Tank?

Current home owners and past home owners are responsible for removal of oil tanks and any possible clean up costs related to environmental damage from leaking oil. It is possible for a previous or current home owner who never knew about a buried oil tank on the property to become responsible for thousands of dollars in clean-up costs associated with an oil tank leak. For these reasons, it is very important in a real estate transaction for potential buyers to know if a tank is present on a property or if one had been properly removed.

Do Home Inspectors Look for Oil Tanks?

Home inspectors are looking for visual clues about the past of any home including possibilities the home was heated with oil from an oil tank. Some clues home inspectors look for are the age and location of the home, the location and type of furnace venting, oil pipes in the basement, oil fill and air vent pipes on the property. Unfortunately, home inspectors are unable to visually confirm the presence of or correct removal of a previous oil tank. If signs of a past oil tank are present, a good home inspector will recommend the client investigate this issue further with an oil tank expert however a home inspector is not obligated by professional standards to find an oil tank in a home inspection.

How Do I Remove an Old Oil Tank?

Underground Oil Tank

If you know or learn you have an old oil tank, you need to call in experts at oil tank removal. These experts will work with you on a plan to safely remove any remaining oil, extract the tank from the site, test the site for contamination, and return the site as found. They will also get correct permits and help you notify the municipality about the removal of the tank for property records which will help you with a future real estate sale. Do not try and remove oil tanks without the help of removal experts as you risk creating a larger environmental clean-up.

If The Oil Tank is Removed, Is the Property Safe?

Unfortunately, the responsibility of the current and previous house owners does not stop at the physical removal of the oil tank. They are also responsible for any environmental damage or oil leaks that had occurred at any time on the property. Oil leaks may have happened when oil was spilled during an oil delivery, while the tank was in the ground, or during the tank removal. To be safe, house buyers should also be requesting from sellers an environmental certificate showing the soil around the previous oil tank had been tested for contamination and was found clean. Home Inspectors cannot confirm the presence of environmental contamination during a home inspection. Your Realtor can help you get the documents you need to know your site is free from contamination.

Final Thoughts

Buying a home is never a risk free proposition. Hiring professionals like Realtor’s and Home Inspectors will help you reduce risks and recognize potential costs in buying a home but there will always be unexpected costs and risks. Buried and above ground oil tanks are potentially expensive relics of the past for house buyers but there are professionals who can help.

By James Bell - Owner/Operator of Solid State Inspections Inc.