The last thing you want in the middle of a Portland winter is to be caught without heat in your home. But not all home heating systems are created equal, which is why it’s important to factor in the type of heating system that’s in place when buying a home.
While most of the U.S. relies on natural gas or electricity to keep its heating systems humming, a small percentage of homes (roughly 4%) have heating oil systems. These systems, which store oil in a heating oil tank (also known by the abbreviation HOT) somewhere on the property, pump oil to a burner or furnace, where it is converted into a fine mist that mixes with the air. This mixture then enters a combustion chamber, where it heats up your home by heating either the air in your furnace or the water in your boiler, depending on the type of system you have.
Many people are hesitant to buy a home with a heating oil system due to misconceptions, such as the belief that it’s more expensive, less safe or bad for the environment. But heating oil systems actually have many benefits. These systems are:
- Extremely safe: Oil is not combustible like natural gas, doesn’t emit toxic gasses and poses little risk that the furnace will become hot enough to catch fire.
- Efficient: New heating oil systems now boast efficiency ratings of up to 95%.
- Longer lasting: Heating oil systems have an average life expectancy of 15-20 years (assuming proper maintenance). In comparison, natural gas furnaces only last about 11-14 years.
- Environmentally friendly: One of the best heating systems for the environment, heating oil systems produce nearly zero emissions, and new technology even allows fuel to be reused.
Of course, all systems also have their downsides. Depending on current oil prices, it can be costlier to have a heating oil system. This winter, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that costs for heating oil systems will increase by 43% due to surging worldwide prices for oil. Oil is often more expensive during cold winters, which is when you’ll need heat the most.
Heating oil systems also require tank refilling, as opposed to natural gas lines or electricity that constantly and reliably deliver the fuel you need. Since you can’t buy heating oil at just any store, most people with heating oil systems rely on deliveries, which can be delayed due to winter weather or other reasons.
Questions to Ask About The Heating Oil Tank
With so many pros and cons, you might be asking yourself, “How can I know if a heating oil system is right for me?” The answer may depend on the state of the oil tank in the home you’re buying.
Heating oil systems require routine maintenance to perform at optimal efficiency. You’ll want to ask about the current status and history of the system in question. Below are a few specific questions you should consider before making a decision.
Is the Heating Oil System Currently In Use?
Some properties may have heating oil tanks that are 65 years or older. Due to age or neglect, they may be in poor condition. If this is the case, the system will likely require a professional decommission to avoid contaminating the surrounding area.
Most heating oil systems of this age were made of bare steel, which corrodes over time and can cause leaks. The last thing you want is oil seeping into your soil or groundwater.
Heating oil tank decommission involves permanently closing the tank by capping it, filling it with a material like foam or slurry and removing it from the property. The system can then be replaced with a new heating oil tank, or you may choose to install a different type of heating system.
Is the Tank Above Ground or Underground?
Another important factor to consider is the location of the heating oil tank. HOTs can be stored either above or below ground. Above ground tanks are more modern for those still using heating oil systems, and they are easier to maintain due to easy access. Heating oil tanks can be stored in:
- A utility closet or other unused area inside your home
- A basement
- A garage (make sure it’s in a position where it could never be hit by your car)
- Outside your home
When possible, indoor storage is recommended. Your HOT will likely have a longer lifespan if it isn’t exposed to the elements.
If the tank is underground, it will need to be located via a scanner. Underground storage is advised against because the tank could unknowingly start leaking and become hazardous. It also makes maintenance more complicated.
When Was the Last Time the Tank Was Cleaned?
As mentioned above, heating oil systems need to be properly and consistently maintenanced to remain functioning and efficient. Routinely cleaning the inside of the heating oil tank prevents evaporation buildup, which will rust the tank from the inside out. Cleaning your tank is also vital to mitigate the risk of contamination and to prevent blockages in its filters or valves.
HOT cleanings should occur at least once a year. Even if your tank is easily accessible, cleanings should always be done by an experienced professional who can also inspect the system to ensure it’s working as designed.
How Old Is the Tank?
If the current homeowners aren’t sure how old their heating oil tank is, you can get an idea by checking the tank for a stamped date of manufacture. These stamps weren’t implemented until 1998, so if the tank doesn’t have a stamp, it means the tank is at least 24 years old. In this case, it will likely need to be replaced – an extra expense you’ll want to factor in when purchasing the home.
Some tell-tale signs that a heating oil tank may need to be replaced include:
- Rust or corrosion
- Dents in the tank
- The presence of stray oil on or around the tank, signaling a potential leak
- Legs that are unstable or uneven, which could mean it wasn’t installed properly
- A fuel gauge that is broken or stuck
Even if the HOT is stamped and indicates that the tank is only a few years old, you should still have it inspected. There isn’t always a way to tell from the outside how well the previous owners cared for it.
Heating Oil Tank Decommissioning & Replacement in Portland
Although they’re less popular, heating oil systems are a safe and viable way to heat your home. When buying a home with a heating oil system, use these questions as a guide to gather all the information you need to make an informed decision.
If you believe your heating oil tank may need a decommission or replacing, the professionals at Alpha Environmental are here to help. Our team is experienced in the handling of heating oil tanks that are both above and below ground. Contact us online or at 503-292-5346 to schedule a free estimate.