Imagine: You’re days away from closing on your dream home, a 1940s craftsman-style house in Westfield, NJ. It’s filled with midcentury charm like original chunky door casings, stained-glass windows, and glass doorknobs. All is going well until the inspection, when the home inspector discovers there’s another relic from the past, buried deep in the front yard. Beneath the lush lawn, something is hiding — a defunct, below-ground oil tank.
With the introduction of forced-air furnaces in the mid-1930s, oil became a popular way of heating houses, which required an above-ground or below-ground tank to store the family’s truck-delivered supply of fuel. Today, an estimated 10% of U.S. homes, many of them in the Northeast, still use heating oil, while most have switched to natural gas or electric sources of heat. If you’re buying a home built between the 1930s and the 1990s, there’s a chance an abandoned oil tank is buried on the property.
The presence of a buried oil tank should be noted by the seller during the disclosure statement stage of a sale or during a home inspector’s visual examination of the property grounds. Oil tank laws vary widely between states, but it is common practice in most that property owners get an inspection of the tank and check for leakage and/or contaminated soil. Many areas further require that unused tanks without contaminated soil be issued a decommissioned certification before a real estate sale can proceed. In some instances, especially when a tank is deteriorating or there is soil contamination, owners may be forced to have an oil tank removed — a much more expensive option.
During initial inspection, a licensed tank expert checks first for soil contamination around the tank to see if any oil has leaked from the vessel. If no soil contamination is found, an owner can opt for abandonment of the tank, which involves pumping it (in the event any unused oil remains), cleaning the tank, and then filling it with structural foam, sand, or a filler that’s mixed with lean concrete. This filler keeps the ground around the tank from settling — considerably lessening the chances of any future sinkholes. Once the tank is filled with material, the fill and vent pipes to the tank are capped, cut off, or removed and a decommissioned certificate is issued.
Because it’s less expensive, abandoning a tank with the filling method is a common practice — but again, that’s if no soil contamination is found. An intact tank with no leakage can be removed, but that option, because of having to fill the huge hole that remains once the tank is out, can cost a homeowner several thousand dollars. Then there’s the ultimate horror that could enter the picture: If an inspection shows that a tank is leaking and contaminating the soil, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars (or more, if groundwater is affected) to clean up and correct the problem.
The lesson here is clear: Homeowners who are aware of an abandoned oil tank beneath their grounds should get the tank inspected and fix any issues as soon as possible, especially if you’re thinking about selling your home. Typically, the responsibility to remediate or remove the tank lies with the seller, so don’t wait until the last minute. A licensed oil tank inspector can advise you of state and local laws and ensure the oil tank on your property won’t prevent you from closing on a home sale.