Understanding Underground Oil Tanks

December 11th 2009
Understanding Underground Oil Tanks

If your house is more than 35 years old, there probably was an underground heating oil storage tank somewhere on the property. Many homes built between the 1920s and 1960s used oil as a heating fuel, with oil tanks buried close to the foundation of a home. Few homes use oil now, and home owners may not realize that they have an old tank on their property. Tanks have an average life of 20 to 25 years, after which they can begin to leak hazardous materials.

Clues to its existence might be a metal cap in yard or a vent pipe with elbow coming into house. And there may be more than an old metal tank below the surface. The contents of these unused tanks may have leaked into the soil and groundwater creating a potential contaminated site right in your yard. The migrating oil can also get into a house's drainage system causing an unpleasant smell inside. Checking into the existence of an oil tank is a crucial step of an informed buyer as it may affect the purchase price if removal and clean up is required and the ability to get home insurance.

Current and past owners are usually responsible for cleaning up the mess on their property and even the neighbors' land if the spill has migrated. Local municipalities may also have bylaws regarding underground storage tanks.

Before purchasing a property that contains or contained an oil tank, it is important to have a solid environmental inspection of the grounds to ensure there is no contamination or migration of a material to neighboring properties. If you suspect there is still an old tank on your property, it can be verified using a magnetometer to detect metal up to 27 feet below the surface. Once a tank is found, the necessity to drain it and the accessibility for removal are assessed and a plan put into place. Always check with your municipality as well to ensure you comply with their regulations and any permitting requirements.

Not only does an old tank have to be removed and properly disposed of, its contents need to be pumped out. It is important to track where the old oil goes or another environmental problem may be created. It is critical to make sure the oil from the tank is disposed of properly. Hire company that is licensed and bonded to handle such materials and dispose of them according to guidelines at disposal site.

If the tank has leaked, a soil sample is tested at a laboratory and a plan formed with engineers for the clean up and approvals and permits are obtained. After the remediation, the site is restored and a report drawn up to provide a clean bill of health for the property. Penalties and fines for not tackling a leaking tank can be in the thousands of dollars and your property could be flagged by the province on its database as a contaminated site, all of which can have adverse affects on its value.

A home is one of the biggest investments people make and protecting its value will enhance the value of the surrounding environment at the same time.

Oil Tank Facts:

It is a homeowner's legal responsibility to properly maintain the oil tank and clean up any spills or leaks that may occur.

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, a home with an exterior oil tank older than 15 years of age, preparation should be made to have it replaced.

Buying a home with an Oil Tank:

The onus is on the seller to provide all documentation pertaining to the tank removal and costs.

Typically 9 out of 10 properties with a free standing above ground tank, also have a buried tank as well.

Never purchase a property "as is," especially if it has an oil tank. In this event you are accepting all legal responsibilities and associated costs in the event there are any environmental issues. Oil tanks located close to rainwater leaders from your roof will fill up and disperse between storms.

Tanks decommissioned 10 years ago or prior need to be removed now, unless a soil sample from around the tank area was tested/analyzed by a lab.

Many lenders & home Insurance companies will insist on the removal of an oil tank, otherwise they may not provide their services.

Signs that you may have an underground tank include:
- A filler pipe sticking out of the ground
- A vent pipe at the side of the house
- A metal pipe cap close to the front or back yard
- A sunken area on your lawn.
Even if these signs are not visible, it is still possible that a tank may exist on your property. Hiring a professional Metal Detection Technician, is the best way to ensure your property is tank free.

Other Links:

Insurance Bureau of Canada
Canadian Real Estate Association

Safety standards for oil tanks vary in each Province, for information about oil tanks relevant to your area, contact your local municipal and provincial government office.