Remedying A Leaky Underground Oil Tank

Surprise! This was the scene at our house yesterday:

Allow me to explain. We decided to test the soil around our home’s underground oil tank (we have oil heat) a few weeks back to assure any interested buyer that it’s in tip top shape. Much to our horror, it wasn’t. Soil tests came back indicating that we had a small leak. We felt like somebody punched us in the face. Here we are with our rain barrel and our compost bin along with all of our energy star appliances and our cloth diapers in an effort to be green while our oil tank has been oozing nastiness underground without our knowledge. Shudder.

Luckily we learned that it’s something that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality feels so strongly about fixing that they actually offer a credit to homeowners in our situation, so we only had to pay a $500 deductible for the removal of the old leaky underground tank (and the gross oil-riddled soil around it – hence the excavator pictured above) while the government covers the rest of the usually-around-$2,000 project. Nice right? But we did have to kick in about $1300 to install a new above ground tank (which will never secretly leak since it’ll be visible instead of buried). The good news is that it’s kind of like we’re paying it forward since we’re leaving a new tank for our home’s next owners and our new house actually also just got a new above ground tank (so we’ll inherit one that’s just as new and shiny). Ain’t she pretty all tucked quietly behind our azalea bushes?

Especially when you compare her to ol’ Rusty. They estimated that our tank was about 30 years old after unearthing it. Here’s hoping 30 is kinder to me when I hit it next year.

The funny thing is that as gross as that sucker looks, they could only find this dime-sized hole at the bottom (though they said others might be too dirt-clogged to see).

The good news of the whole oil-leakage incident is that since oil doesn’t move very much through compacted dirt like ours, it’s not believed to have traveled very far underground. So the Virginia DEQ just requires the removal of the tank and a bit of surrounding soil to rectify the situation. Okay, maybe a “bit of soil” is an understatement. This was the hole they dug:

They had to dig up two azalea bushes to make that hole but luckily the process didn’t disturb the driveway or any large trees. And they replanted the pristinely removed azaleas after filling the gorge with gravel and topsoil (though they were the first to say that they make no guarantees about their future survival). Cross your fingers, I guess?

Even though it’s bittersweet to have sunk money into unsinking this leaky tank for our buyers (yay environment, boo spending) we’re definitely comforted by the fact that we’re getting a new shiny tank at our new house (how funny is it that the current owners ran into a similar situation with their underground tank and just upgraded to an above ground version too?). So I guess we could call it good house karma paying off. If you can count following government orders as karma.

Have you guys had oil issues? Or other appallingly ungreen discoveries in general? Nothing like a little unplanned spending around the holidays to get your blood pumping.

Psst- Holy amazingness. Check out this sweet DIY play kitchen that was made from an old TV unit over on BabyCenter.


  1. says

    this happened to my parents when i was in college. the leak was detected by a neighbor who was digging on my parents’ property (she claims she didn’t know where the line was, but she was a good 15 feet over it) to create a “water feature.” My parents’ oil tank had slowly leaked (they never noticed a rapid change in oil usage, so it was estimated at less than 1 gallon per 10 years) into the soil. The DEP in Mass came out and we had to hire an environmentalist, the crew to remove all the contaminated dirt, the tank removal, etc… and rebut a claim from the neighbor about toxins leaking into her property. In the end: $30k estimated, $10k spent. The neighbor (who moved) had filed suit against my parents for contaminating “her yard” (which was ours); a land survey ($200) favored us :)

  2. Lindsay says

    Whoa! I deal with this all the time at work (I’m an environmental engineer). I’m glad you’re such responsible homeowners and caught the problem early, before it became a BIG spill.

  3. Denise says

    I think having government regulations and/or assistance in cleaning up environmental hazards such as leaking oil tanks and leaky septic systems is a win win for everyone. We live in a rural area and our backup heating source is propane. Our tank is above ground so that it can be checked for leaks and corrosion. For aesthetics, we located it out of sight amid native rhododendrons.

    Glad to hear you’ll have a brand new tank at your new home!

  4. Lorna says

    I’m sorry to hear about your sudden shocking expense, but better at your leisure with contractors you’ve chosen than in a rush (after an inspection) with whoever’s available.

    Our last house actually had the oil tank inside the basement, which I thought was a brilliant idea. The filler and vent pipes obviously came up outside in a convenient location, so it was easy for the oil company to take care of it. The tank was safe and protected from water, dirt, rocks, and digging. It was completely sealed from the house, so it didn’t smell in the least, and we could see at a glance that there were no leaks. I’ve never heard of another inside tank – does anyone know if it’s illegal or something? Coz if we ever had oil heat again, I’d definitely want the tank inside!

    • Jeffro says

      Wow… 2 years late I guess… but for the record, no, not illegal, very common in fact. Some local jurisdictions may have local regulations but for the most part indoor installations are fine.

  5. says

    When we bought our house 3 years ago, there was a decommissioned underground oil tank. We ended getting the old owners to pay half the cost of removing it, just so there wouldn’t be any problems in the future. I’m sure the new owners of your house are so glad they don’t have to deal with it!

  6. Andrea says

    The house we’re moving into has an old window unit (hidden behind a built in cabinet shelf thing) and you can actually see the outside trees around the unit.. wasted heating and air anyone?

  7. says

    Excellent karma oozing from your pores! What great home sellers you are! I love that! You don’t find that much anymore!

    No leaks for us… but that is why we don’t own, I don’t want to upkeep the house! =) So we rent.. one day I will buy a house but not for a long time!

  8. says

    Yea for cleaning up the environment. And even though you would have done it anyway, it is nice to know you’re getting a nice new tank at your new house (which will be yours so soon!!!)

    Are you guys doing a BabyCenter post today? I’m not even a mom, but I love the extra dose of YHL on Tuesdays! Just curious…

    • says

      Hey Allison,

      We just added the BabyCenter link at the end of this post! They were having some site changes this morning so we decided to post it this afternoon instead.


  9. Tiffany S. says

    We went through a similar sitch when we suddenly didn’t have heat because water had entered the tank through the leak. In WA State we have an insurance program that covers this, and, fortunately, there had been no disruption of insurance through all three owners of our house. We had to decommission one tank and bury a new one (they don’t do above ground here because it never freezes). We paid nothing though the guy did say, “Do you want to pay the $11,000 this costs?” Um, hello? Seriously, how can anything cost that much? So we got lucky I feel and the rest of our soil wasn’t that contaminated (though I wouldn’t grow veggies in it).

    Sounds like you did the right thing taking care of it.

  10. Ashley says

    I have a friend who went through this same thing, but her leak was huge and had gone into the water supply where she lived, needless to say she had a lot to pay since she damaged other people and the water, and on top of that fixing her stuff.

    We live in the country with fuel oil, after hearing all these horror storys I am afraid to see what ours might be doing, our house was built in the 40s…

  11. says

    A few days before we closed on our house, the bank appraiser said he saw a possible buried (no longer in use) oil tank. The bank would not give us the loan unless it was removed, so the previous owner had to have it dug up and disposed of. It was in February, in Michigan so it was a huge mess. I am so thankful to that bank appraiser for saying something!! Our own home inspector didn’t catch it.

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