One of the more annoying aspects of most renovation projects is that a solution to an old problem often creates a new problem. In many cases, the new problem involves getting rid of debris left over from a repair or change. That's the case for a Baltimore reader who wants to know how to get rid of an old oil-storage tank.
"I switched over to natural gas," he writes, "and I would like to drain my [oil] tank and remove it from my basement by myself. I'm concerned about a fire hazard if I leave it or, while removing it. I must cut it in sections to get it out of my basement."
First, we can reassure the reader that fire is not a hazard.
"If you had a bucket of oil and threw a match in, the match would go out," said Bill Bass, sales manager of Operator's Heat Inc., an oil-delivery firm in Baltimore. Most often people who cut up a tank use a reciprocating saw, and there's no danger that the oil will ignite while the tank is being cut, he said. "The flash point is high enough that a reciprocating saw won't catch the oil on fire."
That was confirmed by Dave Sevison, owner of Petro Express Co., a petroleum hauling company in Baltimore. "Home heating oil won't burn with a match," he said.
He suggested that before cutting up an oil tank, you first stand it on the end opposite the valve and let it sit for 24 hours. "That way only one end has oil and sludge in it," Mr. Sevison said. Then you cut around the middle of the tank with the reciprocating saw.
But, having done that, you get to the real problem with an old tank. "Cutting it in half and getting it out of the house is easy," Mr. Sevison said. "Disposing of it is the hard part."
That's because oil is environmentally toxic waste. Think about tanker spills. Oil can kill or ruin everything it touches, sometimes for years to come. So you can't simply take the old tank to the local landfill and dump it.
Oil and other petroleum products have to be disposed of properly. "You can't dispose of it in the sewer or on the ground," Mr. Sevison said.
So the real trick in getting rid of an old oil tank is finding someone who can take it off your hands and dispose of it in an environmentally sound manner.
It's common for heating-oil tanks to be installed before a house is built, meaning they're almost always too big to go through basement openings, according to Malcolm Layton, president of Tank Preparation Services Inc. of Baltimore, a full-service environmental company.
A basement tank has to be pumped out, and any sludge or oil that's left needs to be taken to a recycler, or someone who deals in waste oil, Mr. Layton said. All lines that led into it must be disconnected and capped. Then the tank has to be cleaned; once it's cleaned -- and this is the good news -- it can be taken to a scrap dealer.
Pumping, cleaning and recycling are generally more than the average homeowner can tackle, however; they need a tank removal expert. Check with the local department of the environment, or look in the Yellow Pages for tank installation and removal or recyclers. Such services are not expensive; it typically costs $100 or less to have a tank pumped and cleaned and the oil recycled.
The Maryland Department of the Environment doesn't regulate home heating-oil tanks "as yet," Mr. Layton said, though he noted, "the regulations are constantly changing."
The state and some counties do monitor removal or abandonment of underground tanks, however, requiring among other things, 30 days prior notice in writing, 48-hour telephone notice, an inspector on site while work is being done and soil-testing. In some cases, tanks situated in a basement in such a way that removing them could endanger the structure of the house can be abandonned in place; but they must be pumped out, cleaned and the soil tested; if the soil tests are negative for hydrocarbons or naphthalene (a component of heating oil), the tank can be filled with concrete.
Mr. Layton said only about 15 percent of home tanks are in the basement; most of the rest are underground, though a few are outside. A common problem in rural areas, Mr. Layton said, is underground gasoline tanks used to supply farm equipment, which can become a liability issue if the land is sold for development. Mr. Layton said most states follow strict EPA regulations on underground tank removal.
Oil burners aren't the only place where toxic or dangerous substances can lurk. Old steam or water boilers may be lined with asbestos, which may not be visible from the outside. Old furnaces, water heaters or expansion water tanks from a steam system might also have hidden asbestos. (Asbestos was widely used for insulation, especially in heating devices, because it was so resistant to heat, until it was shown in recent years to be a carcinogen.)