CONSUMER FORUM

Looking at oil tanks before failure could save money

Posted Oct. 16, 2011, at 2:49 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 16, 2011, at 4:28 p.m.

Maine people who rely on oil heat may want to take some time to look at their heating systems before the really cold weather sets in.

Real estate and insurance professionals know that most people consider these systems only when there are problems or when they’re moving. What’s not broken doesn’t require fixing, and there are plenty of repairs or renovations that warrant most homeowners’ attention.

Still, there are a couple things worth considering. One is that a heating system that’s working at peak efficiency will save money by avoiding the cost of wasted fuel. The other is that a well-maintained system is less likely to leak, losing fuel and possibly damaging other possessions in the process.

A heating system tune-up is an automatic process for many Maine homeowners. Usually your heating oil dealer calls to schedule a burner efficiency check and system cleaning. The technician reports the efficiency at which your boiler is operating, and when the efficiency of the boiler reaches an unacceptably low point, it’s time to consider either a new unit or a new source of home heat.

After the cleaning, many technicians also test the integrity of the fuel tank. Using ultrasonic test equipment, they can take noninvasive measurements of the thickness of the tank near the bottom. While this type of testing isn’t foolproof, it can help determine when internal corrosion is making tank walls dangerously thin.

A number of oil dealers take part in a program called TankSure. For an annual fee, homeowners can insure their above-ground tanks against failure. Oil dealers that participate in the program may offer significant discounts — $1,000 or more — on replacement tanks, and some offer double-bottom tanks, which the industry says significantly reduce the risk of leaks in the future.

Testing may yield surprising results. Some older tanks test better than their age might indicate; the use of thicker steel in some older tanks may be the reason. So, don’t assume that just because your tank is an older model, it must need replacing.

Outdoor storage tanks pose special problems. In addition to the risk of corrosion, they’re also susceptible to damage from falling objects, especially ice. Butch Bowie, environmental specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, urges owners of outdoor tanks to have filter protectors. The mini-shelters cost between $50 and $100 and can save the expense of equipment replacement and spill cleanup.

The DEP receives reports on average of one oil spill every day. The department has a section on tank safety on its website; visit www.maine.gov/dep/rwm/homeowner/homeheatingoil/index.htm for more information.

It’s estimated that 400,000 Mainers rely on oil for heat, as do many residents of the Northeast. A report out last week estimated that with some aggressive measures, the state could cut its reliance on oil for heat by several million barrels over the next 20 years. We’ll look at that report in more detail next week.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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