The weather is getting cooler, which means that for the nearly two million homes in New York heated by fuel oil, the first delivery of the season may be on the way soon.  My colleague and I represent some home fuel delivery companies and I can tell you that if you live in one of these homes heated by fuel oil, this is the time to inspect your tank or–better yet–have a professional inspection service inspect it for you.  Few things are worse for homeowners than getting a fuel delivery and discovering that your fuel storage tank has failed.  Cleanups can be costly, cause harm to the environment, take a long time to complete and just generally be the source of many a headache.  As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

So what are some telltale signs of concern that your fuel oil tank may have issues?  The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, or NYSDEC, puts out a good press release every few years ( advising homeowners what to look for when they inspect their tanks:

For aboveground storage tanks (ASTs), which are common in basements, NYSDEC says that homeowners should look for:

  • Bent, rusty, or wobbly tank legs or tank located on an unstable foundation.
  • Signs of rust, weeps, wet spots, or excessive dents on the tank’s surface.
  • Drips or any signs of leaks around the oil filter or valves.
  • Fuel oil lines not covered in a protective casing – even if under concrete.
  • Overhanging leaves where snow and ice could fall onto the tank.
  • Stains on ground or strong oil odor around the tank location.
  • Browning, dying or loss of vegetation around the tank location.
  • Silent overfill whistle while tank is being filled – ask fuel delivery person.
  • Clogged or restricted tank vent due to snow, ice or insect nests.
  • Signs of spills around fill pipe or vent pipe.
  • Improperly sized vent pipes.
  • Cracked, stuck or frozen fuel level gauge or signs of fuel around it.

Some of these things you may be able to observe yourself, while others probably require a professional assessment.  In any case, whoever is doing the inspecting, these signs are common indicators that you may have a problem with your fuel tank—and while, say, a strong odor of fuel or surficial staining may be more of a sign of a problem than areas where snow or ice can gather, I can tell you, from firsthand experience, that a heavy icicle falling on a fuel line can do lots of damage.  It is surprising, sometimes, how a hole or fracture no bigger than a part of a dime can cause a sizeable leak.

If you have an underground storage tank (UST), NYSDEC asks you to pay attention to these signs:

  • Water in the tank.
  • Oil or oil sheen in your basement sump or French drain.
  • Silent overfill whistle while tank is being filled.
  • Clogged or restricted tank vent due to snow, ice or insect nests.
  • Signs of spills around fill pipe or vent pipe.
  • Well water has strange tastes or smells.
  • Complaints from neighbors of fuel oil smells.
  • Using more than normal amount of fuel.

If you inspect your AST or UST and find one or more of these signs above, you should strongly consider calling a professional tank service to see if your tank needs to be replaced.  Keep in mind that if you know of a defect in a tank, and that defect leads to an oil spill, you can be held liable as a discharger under New York’s Oil Spill Act because you failed to take the actions necessary to fix the problem.  Cleanups commonly run in the tens of thousands of dollars and sometimes are even more costly.  I’ve worked on many cases, including ones where the fuel tank owner wished he paid more attention to the condition of his tank before there was a spill.

Finally, if you do see a spill, make sure you report it, right away to the NYSDEC Spill Hotline at 1-800-457-7362.