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oil storage tanks

If your home heating system uses oil for fuel, you also have to choose from different styles of oil storage tanks for holding your home's oil supply. Here's a brief introduction to using fuel oil for heating and the types of oil storage tanks available for your residential needs.

Oil Storage Tanks: Why Use Fuel Oil?

Fuel oil is a relatively common source of fuel for furnaces and home heating systems. It's probably the second most commonly used fuel after natural gas. It's also a safer type of fuel because it won't explode like natural gas or propane.

Fuel oil must be heated before it's used. In its liquid state, fuel oil used for home heating won't burn. It becomes combustible when it's mixed with air by being sprayed through a high-pressure valve into the combustion chamber of the furnace. The combination of air and fine oil droplets creates a flammable mixture that burns to generate heat.

Fuel oil is generally a clean-burning fuel and contains a significant amount of energy that can be converted to heat. Since its uses are generally limited to heating applications, it's often less expensive than other types of heating fuels.

Many older furnaces are oil-burning models. Today, fuel oil furnaces are considered viable options in situations where other types of fuel, such as natural gas, aren't available from a local utility company. Fuel oil also can be an option if a homeowner doesn't want to install an electric furnace or a propane-burning system.

Keep in mind two important factors about the fuel oil: it must be purchased in bulk and kept in one or more oil storage tanks installed inside or near your home. Unlike natural gas, which is provided via an ongoing supply from a local gas utility company, oil furnaces require regular refills to maintain adequate fuel levels. If the oil is allowed to run out, the furnace won't produce any heat. For this reason, fuel levels in the tank must be carefully monitored, especially during times of colder weather and heavier usage. New supplies of oil must be ordered from a local supplier in time to prevent supplies from being depleted.

If your home or storage tank is in a location that could be affected by winter weather — such as at the top or bottom of a hill accessed by a steep road, for example — the tank must be refilled in time to ensure uninterrupted heating in case snow or ice makes it impossible for your supplier to get to the tank. This often adds the extra responsibility of watching the weather and ordering fuel in advance in cases where snowfall or ice accumulation is expected.

Before installing an oil-burning heating system, keep these safety and maintenance considerations in mind: 

  • Fuel oil can be contaminated by substances that reduce the efficiency of the furnace and the effectiveness of the fuel. These substances can be introduced when the tank is being filled or through rust and corrosion of the inside of the tank itself.
  • Nozzles and other components involved in the oil mixing and spraying process must be kept in good repair and free of clogs or other obstructions that could interfere with the burning of the oil.
  • Oil spills or tank leaks can create unpleasant messes and significant environmental hazards. Spilled oil can require expensive clean-up procedures to resolve the problem and prevent additional environmental contamination. These can be especially serious problems for oil storage tank kept in basements or in very close proximity to your home.

Oil Storage Tanks: Tank Types

Fuel oil continues to be a frequent choice for homeowners. If you choose residential oil heating, you have the option of several types and shapes of oil storage tanks.

  • Above-ground indoor tanks: Above-ground indoor storage tanks are large oil storage containers typically kept in a basement, utility room, or an attached building such as a garage. The most common of these standalone tanks can usually hold 275 gallons of fuel oil. There are also smaller models available that can store about 160 gallons of oil, and larger tanks that can hold up to 400 gallons of fuel. The size of tank you choose in this case will depend on factors such as your indoor comfort requirements, frequency of furnace usage, and the climate in your geographical area.

    Larger tanks need to be refilled less often but will require a larger purchase of fuel whenever they are filled. Smaller tanks run out of fuel more quickly, but they may be adequate if your heating needs are low and your furnace usage minimal.

  • Above-ground outdoor tanks: Above-ground outdoor tanks are usually installed near the home, often at the side or rear of the structure. These large tanks are commonly seen in rural areas and locations where municipal utility lines don't reach. They're sturdy and strong and can withstand extreme weather, including hard storms, snowfall and ice, as well as very hot or cold temperatures. The most widely used outdoor tanks hold 275 gallons, but like indoor tanks, there are also smaller and larger models available for those who prefer them.
  • Underground tanks: These fuel oil storage tanks are buried underground where they're out of sight. Supply pipes can also be buried underground. The fill pipe, where the tank is refilled, must be placed above ground at a point where it can be easily reached by drivers who deliver new supplies of fuel oil. These tanks are usually larger than above-ground models and can typically hold 550 to 1000 gallons of fuel.

    If installing an underground tank, take particular care to identify where the tank has been buried. If tanks are lost or their locations forgotten, they can be difficult to locate by new  property owners. An unexpected buried fuel tank could be a considerable problem to construction crews or new homeowners during a construction or renovation project.

Most oil storage tanks are either cylindrical or oval in shape. Oval tanks can be installed either vertically or horizontally, while cylindrical tanks are usually installed horizontally. These tanks are designed to fit in spaces of various sizes, especially if being used for indoor storage. Contact your local supplier for advice on the size and shape of tank needed for your particular situation.

Oil Storage Tanks: Materials

Oil storage tanks are usually made of one of three types of materials:

  1. Steel: Steel tanks are generally the most inexpensive types of tanks available and are in wide use at homes in all areas of the country. They can be used for both underground and aboveground storage. Steel tanks must conform to strict manufacturing and construction standards.
  2. Fiberglass: Fiberglass tanks are tough and long-lasting. They eliminate the problems associated with rust, leakage and sediment. Fiberglass oil storage tanks were once found only in underground applications, but recently fiberglass tanks have been used in above-ground storage.
  3. Combination: Combination storage tanks use a double-wall construction to provide the most sturdy and reliable storage option. The inner tank is made of a thick polyethylene composite, while the outer tank is made of galvanized steel. The steel outer tank is strong and damage resistant, while the inner tank is tough, durable and non-rusting. Both tanks must comply with pressure tests and construction standards. These types of tanks are the most expensive option, but they're the safest, most reliable tanks currently available.

In general, leaks in either aboveground or underground fuel oil storage tanks are rare. Problems are more likely to occur in steel tanks if the inside of the tank rusts or corrodes, creating contaminants that could clog fuel lines, filters or burner nozzles. A steel frame or stand holding the tank could also rust. If the rust damage is significant enough, the stand could give way under the weight of a full tank and cause the tank to collapse and possibly spill its contents. Take all possible precautions to prevent these  problems with your oil storage tanks.

Oil Storage Tanks: Installation

Oil storage tanks should be installed by qualified professionals to ensure safe operation, reliable storage, and proper delivery of oil to the furnace. Some oil tanks will have legs the tank stands on, while others may require a stand or other framework to hold the tank.

Consider pouring a concrete slab to serve as the base for aboveground outdoor storage tanks. For indoor tanks, make sure there's enough room for the tank and that the floor where the tank is installed is level and able to hold the weight of a full tank.

For more than a century, Griffith Energy Services, Inc. has served the Mid-Atlantic communities of Baltimore, Hagerstown, Edgewater, and Frederick, Maryland; Manassas and Berryville, Virginia; and Martinsburg and Charles Town, West Virginia. Contact us today for more information on oil storage tanks and how to ensure your storage tank is safely and securely installed.

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