NEWSplash!: What About Leaky Fuel Tanks?

What About Leaky FUEL Tanks?
Leaky Fuel Tanks Leave Fingerprints

“Out of sight, out of mind.” “What you can’t see can’t hurt you.” This was the thinking in the 1950s and ’60s when it was common to bury home heating fuel tanks. Are you the broker for a home with an underground heating fuel tank? What you can’t see can hurt you. Although home fuel systems are typically not government regulated, this does not exempt them from problems. Most tanks from the ’50s and ’60s were made of steel, so they eventually rust and leak–usually without anyone noticing. As a result, the usual cause of liquid fuels in drinking water is underground storage tanks. How much must a fuel tank leak to cause a problem? The degree of contamination depends on various factors: how fast the fuel moves through the soil, how much the soil absorbs the fuel, and how high the water table is where it contacts the fuel. In short, liquid fuels have great potential for contaminating vast amounts of water. One gallon of fuel mixed with one million gallons of fresh water gives the fresh water a very strong fuel oil smell. Imagine the possible repercussions of a leaky 550-gallon tank! How do you test for fuels? Testing for hydrocarbon fuels is a unique challenge. Hydrocarbon fuels are made up of literally hundreds of different compounds in varying amounts. Each compound has slightly different characteristics, and each moves through the soil and evaporates at a slightly different rate. Therefore, the laboratory analyst cannot look for specific, discrete chemicals as with other contaminants, but rather must look for groups of compounds. Identifying a certain petroleum product is similar to identifying a fingerprint, except that with exposure to the environment, the petroleum product’s fingerprint smears. To help understand how this happens, consider opening a several- year-old can of gasoline stored in your garage. You’ll find the gasoline has turned into what’s commonly called stale gasoline. It’s darker in color and smells like an old paint can. Put this gasoline in your lawn mower and it will run poorly, if at all. This same process of change occurs even faster to fuels in the environment, making identification of the source fuel difficult.

How do you solve the problem of an underground fuel tank? Well, for underground home fuel tanks, the best thing to do is replace the tank with an approved aboveground tank. Commercial establishments have installed double-lined tanks with inspection areas, so that if the inside tank leaks, it’s visible in the outer tank before it ever reaches the ground. In this case, prevention is usually the best policy.

If you have an underground heating fuel tank, we recommend contacting an environmental engineer who can inform you of the appropriate removal procedures and testing protocols recommended.