Tips: Avoiding a Heating Oil Leak or Spill

The winter heating season is upon us. But before the weather turns too frosty, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP -- offers several sensible, precautionary steps homeowners who heat with oil can take to head off potentially costly problems caused by fuel leaks and spills. The typical cleanup cost from spills ranges from $20,000 to $50,000.

For All Heating Oil Systems

Every fall you should:

  • Inspect for leaks. Look at the tank, fuel delivery line, valves, piping and fittings.
  • Have your oil company clean the furnace, and repair or replace damaged parts. A well-maintained furnace means lower fuel bills and cleaner emissions.
  • Inspect the vent pipe to ensure that it is free of obstructions and that an audible signal (whistle) is on the vent. Oil company personnel listen for the whistle to help avoid overfills.

Year-round you should:

  • Retain all oil delivery receipts. Keep them handy so you can track your oil demand. Unexpected increases may indicate a leak.
  • Ensure that your street number is clearly visible from the road to prevent oil company personnel from delivering fuel to the wrong address.
  • Clearly mark the location of the tank's fill pipe to ensure that oil company personnel deliver your order to the right place.

At least every 10 years, have the oil tank cleaned out. Over time, water (from condensation) and sludge can cause corrosion, resulting in leaks.

If you remove your tank, also remove fill and vent pipes immediately to prevent a fuel delivery to a location without an attached tank. For your new tank, consider purchasing one with double walls; they provide an extra layer of protection regardless of where the tank is located.

For Indoor Aboveground Storage Tanks

Inspect indoor aboveground storage tanks for signs of pitting and corrosion, particularly at the bottom of the tank. Tanks primarily rust from the inside out, so if signs of aging are present, replace the tank. Indoor tanks generally do not last more than about 30 years, and often their lifespan is much shorter.

Consider installing two inexpensive upgrades. Place a plastic heating oil tray or pan under the tank, and replace the fuel delivery line with one encased in a protective sleeve. The pan or tray will make it easier to keep the tank area clean and help identify and contain small leaks. Installing a sleeve, which covers the delivery line, protects it from physical damage and moisture.

For Underground Storage Tanks

Determine if the underground storage tank is made of steel (common) or fiberglass (rare). Most steel underground storage tanks will last approximately 10 to 20 years. If the tank is older than that or the age is unknown, replace it with an above ground storage tank. Locate your new tank under a shelter, or inside a basement or garage to prevent rust, corrosion, or damage.

For Outdoor Aboveground Tanks

Ask an oil technician to inspect the stability of the aboveground tank. A full 275-gallon tank weighs more than 2,000 pounds. They have metal legs and should sit on a concrete pad. If the legs become loose or the pad cracks, the tank can fall over and rupture.

Replace an outdoor above-ground storage tank that has been uncovered for 10 years or longer. These tanks rust from the inside out, so cleaning or painting the outside does not usually prolong their life.

Protect the tank from the weather, such as falling snow and ice, and prevent ruptures by tree limbs.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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