Welcome to the latest installment of our Healthy Home series, where we explore the relationship between your home and your health (mentally, physically and financially). In the past, we’ve talked about the dangers that can lurk in your home in the form of asbestos or mold or the risk of Radon exposure. We've also talked about the problems and expense that Kitec plumbing can cause for Torontonians. But there health issues that affect homeonwners beyond the walls of their residences, like the real life emotional and physical toll that commuting can take on you! Conversely, in this series, we've also we've also discussed ways to improve your quality of life, like the benefits of cycling or of living a more sustainable lifestyle!
Adding to our Healthy Home collection, today we are going to talk about the dangers of one environmental hazard in particular: a buried oil tank. This is a very real problem given the age of most of the housing stock in the City of Toronto, and sometimes home buyers don't always know that their new home has one!
While there is no denying the insouciant charm many older homes have because of their character features, architectural details, and - often - desirable locations, there are certain building practices and materials that were used in decades gone by that are no longer considered safe or energy efficient.
Years ago, the heating fuel of choice for Toronto homes was oil. Homeowners frequently had these oil tanks on reserve buried under their properties. With the evolution of home heating technologies, energy efficiency and growing environmental awareness, most homeowners have switched over to natural gas. However, not all homeowners would have had their oil storage tanks removed when they converted to natural gas. In fact, many homeowners may simply have forgotten that they are there. Or it is possible that homes have switched hands over the years, and homeowners may not even be aware of the hazard.
The problem is that, as these tanks age, they also corrode and decay, which means that oil in the tank will seep out, causing an oil spill right there in your own backyard. Needless to say, having a buried oil tank poses a huge threat for soil and water contamination, among other things. In addition to the threat to your physical health (hydro carbons in your soil and water are dangerous for you and for your pets), a buried oil tank represents a significant expense - to repair or remove - along with any cleanup from environmental damage.
Additionally, a property owner faces financial risk because having a buried oil tank can negatively impact property value as well as make them vulnerable for liability for environmental damage caused to neighbours’ property, or neighbouring city property.
Like other home maintenance and improvements, this important task can go a long way to preserving the value of your home, so it’s worthwhile to be proactive. By the same token, Buyers should include the possibility of the existence of this environmental hazard on their due diligence list when house hunting.
Do I Have An Oil Tank On My Property?
Some homeowners are not even aware of the presence of an oil tank until they go to sell their homes, or if they require certification for insurance purposes.
How can you tell if you have an oil tank? The most obvious and reliable way to determine if you’ve got an oil tank is to order an inspection from a qualified company. If your home is older than 1970, there is a good chance that there is an oil tank present (or at least there was); don’t rely simply on the date alone though.
Do a visual scan of your property. If you see a fill pipe, that could indicate an oil tank. A fill pipe is usually about \ 2 ¾ inches in diameter and can vary in style. Sometimes the head of the pipe is buried slightly in the ground. The fill pipe would have been the access point to fill the tank with oil.
Another sign that you’ve got an oil tank is the emergency oil burner shut off switch. This switch will say “emergency” switch on its face and have a toggle feature. This would have been used when the tank was being refilled, as well to shut it off in the event of a fire, flood, earthquake, etc.
If you’ve got vent pipes (heading from the side of the house down into the ground, presumably into the oil tank) or copper feeder lines coming from your foundation, those are flags. If you notice sunken patches on your lawn, or notice areas where the grass is dead that could signal the presence of an oil tank as well as indicate potential soil contamination from an oil leak.
In your basement, do you see any cracked or repaired areas of concrete, going from your furnace area towards the foundation? How about any oil? Both of these could indicate that you have (or have had) an oil tank buried beneath your property.
You can also call the City of Toronto, the non-emergency fire line and your natural gas company to cross-check their records to see if you’ve got an oil tank.
What Happens If You Realize That You Have An Oil Tank?
Bottom line, it is smart for homeowners to proactive in managing the presence of a buried oil tank, regardless if they intend to sell in the near future or years down the road.
As a property owner, you are responsible for maintaining, repairing, upgrading, removing the oil tank, as well as paying for any contamination cleanup. You are also required to use the use the services of company who is registered with Technical Standards And Safety Authority (TSSA). Removing an underground oil tank is risky, highly technical work, which requires specific training and equipment. This is no DIY job!
If you discover that you have an oil tank buried in your yard:
- You call for inspection and/or removal.
- If the tank is determined to be damaged and unsafe during the inspection, the supply of oil will be halted and the tank removed.
- The homeowner needs to notify the TSSA when this job has been completed.
- To determine any potential environmental or other damage, the homeowner is responsible to order an environmental assessment done by a professional engineer, chartered chemist, professional geoscientist or a chartered chemist.
- If that assessment determines that there has indeed been an oil leak, the homeowner must notify the Spills Action Center at the Ministry of the Environment.
Another issue that the homeowner must be prepared for if an oil leak is found is the ceasing of insurance coverage, if it is also determined that the tank is past a certain age. Prepare for the additional costs of filling that hole back up after a tank has been removed.
Also, if you have an oil tank that hasn’t been used for two years and don’t intend to use it in the future (i.e. if you’ve switched to another fuel source) the province requires you to remove it, no matter how old it is.
If it is determined that there has been soil contamination, the homeowner will have to proceed with soil and groundwater remediation. Once this task is completed, the property owner must supply a report that lays out the tank removal process, how much (if any) oil was removed from the tank and proof that the tank has been removed and disposed of at an appropriate facility and the details of the remediation process.
The Right Way To Deal With Environmental Contaminations
As a Buyer, you should always have your realtor help you to determine if there are environmental contamination concerns of any kind on a prospective property. This isn’t just limited to the existence of a buried oil tank, but could be contamination from a wide variety of sources (i.e. pesticides, other toxins, environmental influences etc.). If the Seller is aware of contamination or the presence of an oil tank etc. they are obligated to provide you with that information. If there is an oil tank, as part of your due diligence, acquire documentation showing that the tank has been removed and that the soil and property isn’t contaminated.
Buying a contaminated property is a bit of a riskier proposition, but having access to all the necessary information can help you consider all the options and make a well-researched decision.
It’s worthwhile to get an inspection done to assess the condition of an oil tank and also to determine if there has been any likely oil damage to the property over the years, especially if the home in question is older and the presence of an oil tank at some point is a real possibility. The trained eye of an inspector can alert you to that.
It’s a good idea to get a real estate lawyer involved too in order to advise you on the potential price tag you could face when you purchase the property, before you actually sign the purchase and sale agreement. The good news is that in Ontario (not this way in all provinces) is that in many circumstances previous owners can be held responsible for all or some of the cost of dealing with an oil tank. If the costs are going to be substantial, this is even a potential point for renegotiation on the house price.
If you determine that a property that you are interested in has an oil tank and nothing has been done to remove it, realize that getting your mortgage and/or home insurance may be contingent on getting the tank removed (whether by you or by the current owners), appropriate testing done and necessary remediation, even if you are willing to roll the dice with the potential costs.
Here are a few articles that go further in-depth about various liability issues and other concerns for both owners and prospective buyers of properties with potential (or current) environmental contamination:
“Thinking About Buying A Contaminated Property? Make Sure You Know What You’re Buying”, “Managing Contamination In A Sale”, “Underground Oil Tanks -- What You Need to Know” and “Honey, There Is An Oil Tank In Our Backyard”.
This once again underscores how homeownership is about living in a home that makes you feel good, inside and out. It also demonstrates how the hard work of homeownership isn’t just limited to seasonal maintenance and necessary upgrades and repairs. To maintain and grow your home’s asset value, as well as protect you and your family from potential hazards, a state of vigilance and knowledge is essential.
Interested in learning more about potential dangers in your home, how to protect yourself, or simply how to live a healthier home life? Check out the posts below, as well as the ones we mentioned at the start of this blog!
With over two decades of experience hands-on in Toronto’s real estate trenches and a commitment to assisting our clients through rigorous due diligence, we’re here to help!
~ The Urbaneer Team
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage - (416) 322-8000
- we're here to earn your trust, then your business -
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