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

    Yikes! I’m so happy that VA offered you a credit.

    I grew up with oil heat in NJ, but we wouldn’t consider any home that had oil heat when we were making our first purchase. I agree that it’s warm, but we were so worried about the cost. We have gas heat now. I wish there were other options because they are all expensive. You’re right, the programmable thermostat helps.

    You are very honest people. Our sellers sold us a house with several undisclosed problems that didn’t come up in the home inspection. It’s so nice to see that there are people who still care.

  2. says

    We just spent $1400 fixing a water leak in the pipe that runs from our house to the hook up at the street. They had to dig a nice little trench up to the house, but they did a good job at not making a huge mess. Yep, I love those little holiday suprises.

  3. says

    When we bought our house (near West End of Richmond) there was an old oil tank underground. We had it tested and I believe it just had to be re-capped. So we have oil heat, but we installed a heat pump too. The oil kicks in when the temp hits 32. It’s pretty efficient.

  4. Katrina says

    Yeah for good house karma! When we sold our house, I swear the minute after we signed the paperwork our 10 year old dishwasher began to leak. Thankfully, we got one of the “cash for appliance clunker” vouchers and replaced it for minimal beans. We just felt better knowing that we left it all in good shape.

    In response to Lorna’s post – I think where your oil tank is located depends a lot on where you live. I have never lived in an area where tanks outside of the house are the norm – here in the northeast it seems that the oil tank belongs in the basement (which may have to do with the geographical trends of actually having a basement to put it in, as well as differences in weather/freezing outside of the house).

  5. says

    Oh my! That is quite common, thank goodness tanks are no longer stored underground!

    I lived with my Grandfather in the house that he built back in 1944. He loved gardening and thought it would be a good idea to build a brick flower bed onto the front of his cape cod that matched the rest of the house…and bury the oil tank beneath it. Low and behold the tank began to leak and away went the beautiful flower bed, never to be replaced :( . He has since passed away and the new owners of the house have suprisingly sided(?) the brick and created a new flower bed that evens out the slopped front yard…

  6. says

    We had an underground oil tank when we bought our house. Since we didn’t know what state it was in, we acquired tank insurance (not sure if this is available everywhere, we’re in WA state). When we finally had it removed (we were getting a new, non-oil furnace), we found an affordable company that not only did the removal, but also donated any remaining oil to a low-income household.

    This was our beauty:

    I was surprised to see that oil tanks are still being installed, but I’m guessing it really varies depending on what region you live in. In Seattle, it’s way more expensive to heat your home with oil than with gas or electricity, but I know electricity is more expensive on the east coast and gas lines aren’t always available.

  7. Rachel says

    Yea, in-basement oil tanks are the norm here in Massachusetts. Every place I’ve lived has had one inside the basement. Maybe it’s because of the colder temperatures during the winter? The tanks are typically just located near one of the basement walls, and the oil company fills it from the pipe extending out the side of the house.

    By the end of today we’ll have finished converting from oil to gas heat, and we’re getting our oil tank removed from the basement as part of the process. It’ll be nice to reclaim some basement storage space AND have a new high-efficiency system in place for the winter. (Too bad the house is currently 53 degrees until they’re done installing everything..)

  8. says

    A shall-remain-namless company came to install some stuff in a friend’s house the day after they closed. The tech, in all infinite wisdom, stood on the oil tank relief valve and it broke. The entire oil tank emptied causing 200k worth of damage in their finished basement.

    Their foundation had to be dug up and new dirt/footings, the DEP was NOT happy. The company covered this but it’s a big reminder for everyone that even if you have an indoor oil tank or anything – be sure who you hire has good insurance!!

    We got a new oil tank before we moved in, they even included all the oil (that usually isn’t the case from what I read – what did you do?)

  9. says

    It’s always interesting hearing about the pluses and minuses of other ways to heat&cool. Shortly after we bought our house the heat pump had to be replaced because it was leaking freon, thankfully a home warranty from the seller allowed us to replace the whole shebang for $110.

  10. Erin says

    Wow – I don’t know anyone up here in NoVa with oil tanks. I thought that was just a New England thing.

    The lawyer in me is curious – what do you tell people when you’re taking pictures of the work that they do? I would think they would be wary of photographs, thinking that you are taking them to use it against them in case there is any litigation.

    • says

      Hey Erin,

      We just snap photos of things going on at our house and no one really seems to mind! I hope it’s because they’re doing things the right way so they don’t worry about photos of their process!


  11. keri says

    lorna –
    our oil tank is in the basement – the house was built in 2007. we had a filter leak recently and it was super easy to spot (a few drops of oil on the concrete? hey, something is wrong!)

    • says

      Hey Elizabeth,

      What people in this area like about oil heat 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).


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