February, 2007
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Using New Technology to Predict Life Span of Fuel Oil Storage Tanks


The list of things we take for granted in a home seems endless. Simply flip a switch and we get light or some other electrical miracle. Activate a lever and we have water, hot or cold and as much as we need. Adjust a thermostat and we are warm and comfortable.

Not only are these things taken for granted, the components responsible for the results often are forgotten altogether.

Take, for example, the fuel oil storage tank at work when a home is heated by oil. This system component can be found in basements, garages or outside. Sometimes it’s buried under stored items. Other times it’s found behind finished walls, with a mouse hole to reach a filter and eye holes to see a fill gauge. Its job is to contain usually up to 275 gallons of fuel oil, withstand the trauma of the refill process at about 60 to 80 gallons per minute (yes, that’s right) and support, when full, about 2,000 pounds of fuel.

There are about 10 million of these containment tanks in use across the northeastern United States. Most are between 25 and 40 years of age. And each tank, with walls about as thick as a nickel, is expected to provide this service forever. While that may sound naïve, it is the common perception of “out of sight, out of mind” thinking.

The standard, up until now, has been to replace a tank after it fails. The typical sign of failure is a horrendous odor, either from a slow leak in a line or fitting or a tank rupture. If an occurrence is discovered soon after taking ownership of a home, the real estate agent and home inspector may find themselves in the cross hairs of an attorney or get a potential reputation-damaging earful at minimum. While the reactive “replace after failure” standard may seem reasonable for, say, a light bulb, it is unreasonable when the result may be an expensive environmental mess. It is also no longer necessary.

Newly developed industry standard for residential tanks

There is technology that can predict when an above-ground oil tank will fail, prior to its actual failure from the leading cause: internal corrosion. This U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved technology is widely used in industrial applications throughout the world. It can now be successfully applied to the testing of above-ground home heating, fuel oil storage tanks. This predictability of failure enables the petroleum industry to offer homeowners environmentally friendly, proactive tank replacement.

Photo: Larry Willette tests a home fuel oil storage tank.

According to Chris Jordyn, the Director of Combustion Technology for the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association (ICPA), “This innovative application of EPA-approved technology is significantly important because technicians and home inspectors can now determine the internal condition of a tank and its time for replacement prior to damage occurring, thus largely preventing an environmental and financial nightmare for homeowners.”

Digital ultrasonic tank testing
Once trained, an inspector is able to perform a visual inspection and a digital ultrasound measurement. The safe and non-invasive ultrasound measurement, similar to a medical ultrasound, uses sound waves to determine the remaining wall thickness of a tank. The instrument is specifically calibrated for the material thickness of above-ground residential steel tanks. The measurement, standards and procedures are approved and recommended by the U.S. EPA (EPA 40 CFR 112.8) and The American Petroleum Institute (API / API 653 Sect. 4 4.3.3).

Once a tank is visually inspected and measured, it can be reinspected and re-measured annually during the heating system’s yearly tuneup. When the wall thickness of a tank falls below the new industry standard, specific measurement tracking software will “flag” the tank for proactive replacement.

Who benefits?
The most important benefit of ultrasound testing goes directly to the home inspection profession’s clients — homebuyers and/or homeowners. They receive the satisfaction of knowing advance warning and proactive replacement will eliminate the expense and headache of above-ground tank failure from the most common cause — internal corrosion. The increasing popularity of ultrasound testing is underscored by the fact that over 180,000 tanks have already been inspected since the technology has been applied to residential above-ground tanks.

Home Quality Inspections, of Tolland, Conn., was the first inspection company to offer the Boston Environmental patented-process of ultrasound measuring of above-ground tanks. Once the tank and benefits are brought to their attention, conscientious homebuyers are quick to recognize the significance and value of the visual inspection, test and proactive tank replacement. According to the company, a very common response, once made aware of the tank, is “we saw that thing in the basement and didn’t really think anything about it.” Homebuyers are impressed by the new technology.

Relationship marketing

Home Quality Inspections has also realized a new and unexpected stream of referrals by offering ultrasound testing. A short and simple visit to the areas participating fuel oil dealers to explain the inspection connection has resulted in several referrals from the employees of the dealerships and their extended families and friends.

These referrals alone have more than covered the low, reasonable startup cost of incorporating the test into the company’s environmental inspection services.  

Any new and technically interesting business opportunity that not only offers improved service quality and value for homebuyers and owners, but also new marketing benefits, may be of interest to professional home inspectors.