Olympia Home Inspection and Abandoned Oil Tanks

Watermeade Valley Home Inspection performed an Olympia home inspection last weekend on an older home in a long-developed area.  One of the things we look for when inspecting an older home – and rarely find – is evidence of past oil heat.  This weekend’s inspection turned up the kind of evidence we look for.

The Problem

Many Thurston County residents have underground heating oil tanks no longer in use.  These unused tanks can pose a problem for both homeowners and the environment.  A typical home heating oil tank lasts thirty years before corrosion causes leaking, but lifespan varies widely depending on the properties of the surrounding soil.  A leaking tank will contaminate your soil, and possibly your neighbors’ soil.  These oil leaks can also migrate into groundwater, potentially polluting a source of drinking water.  It is also possible that old or unused heating oil tanks will cave in, causing sink holes.

Homeowners can be held liable for contamination caused by a leaking tank on their property. Because of this threat of liability, many lending institutions and homebuyers require closure of unused heating oil tanks before they will finalize a sale. In addition, delaying the cleanup of any contamination may allow contaminants to spread and potentially increase cleanup costs.

It is in the best interest of a homeowner to remove an unused heating oil tank, and a home with a known abandoned oil tank must have that tank dealt with before a real estate sale can take place.

So what do we look for?  Ruling out anything as obvious as the smell of oil, the clues we look for are the existence of fill and breather tubes – steel tubes approximately 2” wide, usually within about 8’ of the foundation of the home, and small copper tubes about ¼” wide sticking up out of the concrete basement floor adjacent to the heating appliance.  These smaller tubes carried oil to and from the heater, and when the older oil furnace is removed and a newer – often gas – furnace is installed, the tubes are cut off and bent over to stem any continued flow of oil.

If we find either of these clues, we strongly recommend our client confirm what was done with the oil tank when abandoned.  On the home we inspected this weekend, the tubes jutting up from the basement floor were evident, but no fill or breather tubes were observed.  This would suggest either that the tank was properly removed or cleaned and filled… or it could suggest that someone just cut off the pipes and covered them up.  Either is possible, and we recommended our clients confirm the details before completing the sale.

The Regulatory Environment

Under the WA Model Toxics Control Act (the state law governing investigation and cleanup of contaminated sites), you may be held liable for any damage caused by petroleum products leaking from your tank.

The Uniform Fire Code requires removal of underground storage tanks that have been out of use for more than one year.  If removal of a tank will cause structural damage, the Fire Marshall may allow the tank to be decommissioned in place. The fire code also requires that tanks out of service for more than ninety days be safeguarded by having all flammable or combustible materials removed. Your local building and/or fire department oversee enforcement of fire code requirements for residential tanks.  Many jurisdictions require that you apply for a permit to remove or decommission a tank.  The permitting process provides review of your site plan, inspection and written documentation.  Permit applications often require a site plan or drawing showing the location of the tank in relation to other structures. Some jurisdictions also require written documentation regarding where you will dispose of your tank.  The building department or fire department will review your application and grant you a permit to have the tank removed or decommissioned in place.  The following is a list of the different municipal requirements in Thurston County.

Unincorporated Thurston County

  • Building Dept Phone #: 360-786-5490
  • Contacting fire dept not required
  • *Permit and site plan is required
  • *Inspection is required
  • **Soil test required: Yes, if inspector detects contamination or if tank is decommissioned in place

Bucoda

  • Building Dept Phone #: 360-278-3525
  • Contacting fire dept not required
  • *Permit and site plan is required
  • *Inspection is required
  • **Soil test required: Yes, if inspector detects contamination or if tank is decommissioned in place

Lacey

  • Building Dept Phone #: 360-491-5642
  • Contacting fire dept not required
  • *Permit and site plan not required
  • *Inspection not required
  • **Soil test required: Only if tank is leaking

Olympia

  • Building Dept Phone #: 360-753-8314
  • Also contact fire dept at 360-753-8348
  • *Permit and site plan is required
  • *Inspection is required
  • **Soil test is required

Rainier

  • Building Dept Phone #: 360-446-2265
  • Contacting fire dept not required
  • *Permit and site plan is required
  • *Inspection is required
  • **Soil test required: Yes, if inspector detects contamination or if tank is decommissioned in place

Tenino

  • Building Dept Phone #: 360-264-2368
  • Contacting fire dept not required
  • *Permit and site plan not required
  • *Inspection is required
  • **Soil test required: Yes, if inspector detects contamination

Tumwater

  • Building Dept Phone #: 360-754-4180
  • Contacting fire dept not required
  • *Permit and site plan is required
  • *Inspection is required
  • **Soil test required: Yes, if inspector detects contamination

Yelm

  • Building Dept Phone #: 360-458-8407
  • Contacting fire dept not required
  • *Permit and site plan is required
  • *Inspection is required
  • **Soil test required: Yes, if inspector detects contamination

*Obtaining the proper permit is the responsibility of the homeowner, not the contractor. However, many contractors include this process in their service. If your contractor obtains the permit, make sure you receive a copy.

**Soil tests are always strongly recommended because they are the only way to legally document that your site is not contaminated.

So… should all of this cause you to shy away from an older home?  Absolutely not!  We love older homes!  We just recommend that buyers approach older homes with open eyes and a home inspector schooled in older home issues.  We currently live in a home built in 1920 that is on our local historical register… and we have old oil feed copper tubes sticking out of our basement floor!  We know the issues, because we paid over $7000 to remove the in-ground tank and contaminated soil on our property.

And it wasn’t even the first heating source for our home… but I don’t think we will need to remove the coal chute!

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