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.


    • says

      Hey Kari,

      What people in this area like about it is that it heats up the house fast, so it doesn’t take a lot of time to get things warm. We’ve had it for nearly five years and really like it – except for the obvious oil heat fiasco and the fact that oil isn’t exactly cheap these days. Maybe someday we’ll get a system that runs on corn or something. For now we’ll settle for our programmable thermostat (which saves some loot and keeps the house from getting too warm or too cold, which is far less efficient than keeping things regulated).


  1. Megan says

    No environmental issues lately, but some serious pre-Christmas spending. Sunday morning our car wouldn’t start. I figured it the the starter or the coil, not cool but not too big of a deal. We had to have it towed to the shop, thank goodness for the AAA gift membership received last year. Turns out is was the gas pump… $800 plus the cost of new brakes (which we anticipated) = a very un-merry total. Bah humbug.

  2. says

    You are really lucky. I’m a RE Agent here in Oregon and the gov’t does NOT help with that at all! I had a Seller this year who had to pay almost $15,000 to fix the contamination it was that bad. You guys got off easy! :)

  3. says

    Wow! Good for you taking care of that and not dumping it on the next owners! As the SECOND owners of a house built in 1951 we are always finding things that are…less than green. We just discovered that the exhaust fan in the kitchen (which no longer works) was open to the outside! Not exactly energy efficient. We’ve temporarily sealed it shut until we can close it up more permanently. We also replaced the old mercury-containing thermostat with a new programmable one (thanks to your blog post about it!). Next up we have to figure out a safe way to deal with the asbestos tile in the basement!

  4. says

    My dad’s oil tank is in his basement and is at least 50 years old. A few years ago the line going from the tank to the furnace corroded through and he had a bit of an oil spill in the cellar. Lucky for him, he’s good friends with the oil man and barters services with him all the time, so he was able to get it cleaned up and a new line installed with very little hassle and cost.

  5. Laura says

    Wow, not the kind of excitment you want when you’re trying to move out!

    When we moved into our place there was an oddly placed bush in the back yard. I went to go dig it up and the shovel hit metal. Low and behold there were two pipes sticking out of the ground. After many months of ignoring it, I tracked down the right person at our county’s EPA department and he came out *for free* to check the tank. It turns out that, like many other houses in our town, our house used to have oil for heating but changed to another form over the years. The tank had been drained and capped. We simply recut the pipes even lower (several inches into the dirt), recapped them, and buried them. Now we’re just waiting for the grass to regrow over it. The only cost involved was my husband buying a new tool (I forget the name) to cut the pipes lower after we found out the tank was safe.

    A useful tidbit of information – the EPA guy said that the life expectancy of tanks like ours is 40 years, meaning the tanks that are exposed to the elements, completely ignored, and no protective coatings are expected to last 40 years. Ours is buried and has a protective layer of tar, so it probably has a few decades left before it deteriorates to the point of making a sinkhole in our yard.

  6. says

    This is fairly common, especially in houses of this age in the Richmond area. The issue usually surfaces as part of the home inspection and the state requires an environmental inspection. And then there are subsidies to do the clean up. The results of the labwork indicate what level of correction is needed. For both the house we sold, and the one we bought, all that was required was a removal of the fill pipe, and a concrete patch to seal up the opening. It most often happens when houses change hands.

  7. says

    I just hate the idea of sellers doing the bare minimum, so I applaud you for your hard work (and your hard earned cash) going into a project like this. We are in our first home and have found a number of problems that ought to have been fixed by the previous owner. I’m not any one to wish ill to another person, but if karma is real, he’s not going to be in a very good place. Fortunately, we have natural gas (ha!) so no oil issues here. Here’s hoping that your family has many years of care-free heating!

  8. NancyV908 says

    You were very lucky. Where I used to live, all the houses had underground tanks. When we sold we had the soil tested, as all buyers demand. It was contaminated. We lived near a stream. There were possible groundwater issues. I heard stories about garages & sections of houses having to be dug up.We had another house we had committed to buy, so I was petrified our buyers would back out & we’d have to give it up. (Fortunately, they stuck with us.) I was heavily pregnant….Yup, I was stressed out.

    Thankfully we had purchased oil-tank insurance, b/c ours was tens & tens of thousands of dollars to address. (I don’t remember the actual, staggering amount.) Our state offers assistance, I believe, but without the insurance I think we would have been in serious trouble, even though our homeowners’ insurance got involved too.

    What a stupid practice it was to bury these tanks. Inevitably, they will leak. When ours was lifted out, they found numerous tiny holes all over. But the good news was that the very day the tank came out, I went into labor & had my son–I guess I could finally move on to my next major task! :-)

  9. Kayakgirl73 says

    I’ve seen several in basement oil tanks in older homes in Fairfax, COunty VA. Most of these homes date back to the 50’s.

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