For any of a variety of reasons, you may at some point decide to switch from your current oil-fired furnace to one fueled by electricity or natural gas. Part of the changeover process is the removal or abandonment of the old fuel oil tank that supplied raw oil to the furnace, and there are some very strict procedures for dealing with these tanks properly.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not specifically regulate residential oil tanks unless they are leaking, and if you have knowledge that an oil tank is leaking you are required by law to report the situation immediately. Different state Environmental Protection Agencies and some local jurisdictions also have regulation ordinances in place, so your first step following an oil furnace changeover should be to contact your local city or county building department – they can tell you if local ordinances are in effect, and direct you to the proper agency.
While you are not actually required to do anything with a non-leaking tank, aging tanks can present a variety of potential health, environmental, and liability problems, so it’s still in your best interest to permanently and properly abandon the tank as soon as possible – especially if it’s located underground. This process, called “decommissioning,” involves draining any remaining fuel oil from the tank and then either removing the tank from the ground or filling it with sand. This prevents any possible future contamination from a leak as the tank degrades over time, and it also should eliminate the possibility of the ground sinking or even collapsing if the tank were to corrode through completely and collapse. Even if you do not intend to decommission the tank at this time, you should drain any remaining fuel oil to prevent possible soil contamination if the tank should rupture.
You can perform the work yourself, or you can hire it out to a contractor. The cost for decommissioning a fuel-oil tank typically starts at around $500 and goes up from there, depending on what’s involved. If you have a leaking tank that has contaminated the soil, EPA-regulated cleanup can easily run into the thousands.
Another issue with old oil tanks comes up if you are selling your home. Once you become aware of the existence of the tank, most states require that you and your real estate agent disclose its presence to the new buyers. Even at that, under the quirks of some of today’s laws and with the propensity for lawsuits in every conceivable situation, you will probably continue to have some potential liability for cleanup costs in the event of a current or future leak – even long after you’ve sold the house. Also at risk in some situations are any of the previous owners of the house — if the previous owners did not disclose the tank’s presence to you when you bought the house, they often must share liability for leaks, repairs, and cleanup as well.
If you have an oil tank that is no longer in use — whether it’s above or below ground — it is strongly recommended that you talk with your local city or county agencies first to find out about local regulations. If you want to decommission the tank or if you suspect a leak, the next step would then be to contact your local heating oil supplier to get the names of contractors in your area who are licensed for underground tank work, and get them out to take a look.
Once again, if the house is up for sale you need to discuss the situation with your real estate agent – who should, by the way, be fully aware of all laws and liabilities regarding oil tanks and disclosure laws. As a last resort you may also have to discuss things with an attorney if you feel you or the previous owners have some liability. Typically, oil tank situations can be handled with minimum expense and hassle. However, the potential liabilities today can be huge so don’t ignore the situation. All work must be done by an EPA approved company.