Old oil storage tanks may need upgrade
If the tank that holds your home heating oil is more than 10 years old, a new Massachusetts environmental law may require that you make some changes to prevent costly, smelly, and dangerous spills. The law, which was passed in 2008 and became effective on Jan. 1, 2009, requires that homeowners be in compliance by July 1, 2010.
The law says that in one- to four-unit residences, the oil tank must have a safety valve on the tank itself or an oil supply line with an approved protective sleeve all the way from the tank to the furnace. The safety valve works by sensing a drop in pressure, indicating a rupture. The sleeve is supposed to protect the oil line from corrosion.
Oil storage tanks installed since Jan. 1, 1990, probably already have these protective devices, which were required after that date. Bob Fischer of Vineyard Propane and Oil has recently reminded 1,700 customers of this year's July 1 deadline and strongly suggested that they have older oil burner systems inspected by a licensed oil burner technician. David Cartier of Cartier Oil Service adds that it is a good idea to ask to see the inspector's license, as not all service providers are licensed.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) estimates that the upgrade will cost between $150 AND $350 (including labor, parts, and local permit fees). Mr. Fischer reports that the technicians he recommends say this is an accurate ballpark figure. For those households that meet certain income criteria, financial assistance of up to $300 is available through the low-income home energy assistance program.
The new law also requires insurance companies to offer insurance against oil spills, though buying this insurance is optional for the homeowner. Such protection may no longer be provided by standard homeowner's insurance. To qualify for insurance, the system must be in compliance with the new law.
Cleaning up an oil spill is expensive. According to the DEP, the cost of cleaning up a "simple" leak can be as much as $15,000. If the leak affects the groundwater or someone else's property, the cost can reach $250,000 or more. Mr. Fischer reports that an insurance company recently paid over $350,000 to clean up a home heating oil spill in West Tisbury. Each year, says the DEP, several hundred Massachusetts families experience some kind of leak.
What should you do?
The DEP says that the first step is to determine whether you have gravity feed from your oil tank to your furnace. If the oil comes out of the tank at the bottom, it's a gravity feed. If the oil comes from the top of the tank, your furnace is supplied by a pump, you do not need the safety valve, and you need to install a sleeve only if the line passes through concrete. If you have a gravity feed and an oil safety valve or a new oil supply line with a protective sleeve installed since Jan. 1, 1990, your permit from the fire department can document your compliance. If you do not have an oil safety valve or the correct protective sleeve, have one or the other installed. Mr. Fischer strongly recommends installing both.
The DEP also recommends that you consider buying oil spill insurance.
Mr. Cartier suggests that owners of older systems consider the option of replacing the tank. "If someone has a 20-year-old tank, my recommendation is to get rid of it - it's probably on the cusp of leaking," he says. Removing an underground tank costs $5,000 to $6,000, if there are no leaks.
Mr. Fischer says better quality oil tanks may last as long as 30 years. He advises that a homeowner inspect the underside of the oil tank. A smooth, even finish suggests that the tank is probably still okay. A dimpled, rough appearance is a warning that the tank may be at the end of its useful life.
If your oil storage tank is underground or in your basement, you may one day be required to get rid of it anyway. Old installations are grandfathered, but new regulations do not permit oil tanks in basements or underground tanks without a concrete enclosure. Oil lines encased in concrete are also no longer up to code and should be replaced.u
Additional reporting by Janet Hefler. For more information, see www.mass.gov/dep/cleanup/laws/hhsl.htm, or contact your home heating oil supplier.