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DEM: Prevent Home Heating Oil Spills By Properly Maintaining Oil Tanks And Furnaces

PROVIDENCE With almost two months left in the winter home heating season, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is reminding Rhode Island residents that proper care and maintenance of their fuel oil tank, lines and furnace can reduce the chance of spilling oil and being faced with costly environmental problems. Releases from residential heating oil tanks are extremely problematic, and cleanup can be expensive. Oil can soak into the concrete and ruin foundations. Oil may also flow from a yard or basement and spread through groundwater, contaminating drinking water wells, soil, surface water, septic systems, storm water drains, sewers and drainage ditches.

About forty percent of Rhode Island households use fuel oil as their primary energy source for home heating. Along with this, home heating oil spills are among the most frequent environmental accidents that occur in the state. Oil is a common fuel, and is comprised of organic compounds. It also contains caustic, flammable, and toxic components. In the past fiscal year, DEM's Office of Emergency Response responded to 579 oil spills that resulted in the removal of 5,390 gallons of oil and 723 tons of oil spill debris from the environment. Residential oil spills accounted for 173, or 30 percent, of these responses.

Whether it is due to problems during delivery or defective equipment, or occurs outside or in the home, responsibility for a spill can ultimately fall on the homeowner. Few homeowners know that insurance policies often exclude coverage for damage and cleanup. The bill for an overflow during delivery or a couple of weeks of a small leak can range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. The bottom line is that DEM and Rhode Island residents share a direct, profound interest in preventing such mishaps.

DEM offers the following steps that homeowners can take to ensure the safety of their furnace and oil tank and reduce the chance of a heating oil spill:

Check the condition of the tank and lines. The life of the tank depends on variables such as tank construction, tank installation, soil and ground water conditions, location and maintenance of the tank. Make sure the fill cap and the vent cap are in place and tightly secured. Keep all pipe connections clean and tight. Check for drips at the tank, from the fittings and the filter. Know when and how much to order from your fuel oil delivery company. Keep the fill pipe accessible and visible for the delivery company. Keep the vent line clear of any snow, ice or insect nests to prevent over-pressurization of the tank. If you take your tank out of service, remove the tank and lines completely and call your oil company to stop delivery. Many fuel oil delivery companies have delivered heating oil to homeowners' fill pipes that had no tanks attached to the other end, resulting in spills and damage that cost thousands of dollars. Check the stability of the legs and the ground beneath your above-ground tank. Properly installed cement pads work much better than cement blocks to support the tank. Many tanks have buckled or tipped due to instabilities. Buried tanks can corrode and leak without obvious signs on the surface. Be alert for unexplained fuel losses that might point to leakage. For inside tanks, be alert for signs of oil in the sump pump pit and floor drains, and for any oil smell in the basement or crawl space. Containment around the tank can control the release of oil in the event of a release. All indoor tanks should have a vent alarm that alerts the fuel deliverer before the tank is full. When you receive oil, you can ask the deliverer to verify that the whistle is operating. Look for signs of spillage near the fill and vent pipes. Stained oil and rock or Verify that the vent pipe is at least the same size at the fill pipe.

"An ounce of prevention can help prevent spills from residential heating oil tanks," notes Jim Ball, DEM's emergency response coordinator. "Conducting visual inspections, properly maintaining oil tanks and overhead lines, installing oil safety valves, and replacing aged tanks are all steps that homeowners can take to prevent oil spills. Read your homeowner insurance policy to verify if you have a pollution exclusion clause buried in the small print. Most insurance companies do not cover releases from your oil tank, and cleanup cost for oil spills can be steep."

If you discover a fuel oil spill, report it to DEM's Office of Emergency Response weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 222-1360; after hours, weekends or holidays call DEM's 24-hour hotline in the Division of Law Enforcement at 222-3070.

Additional information oil tank maintenance is available on DEM's website at Follow DEM on Twitter (@RhodeIslandDEM) or Facebook at for more information on boating in Rhode Island as well as other timely updates.

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  • Department or agency: Department of Environmental Management
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  • Release date: 02-27-2018

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