The Darker Side of Heating Oil

In the last few posts, I’ve talked about the pros and cons of using oil for home heating in Boston. In addition to the rising cost of heating oil, and the issues that arise as a chimney deteriorates, there are some environmental issues that are unique to heating oil that homeowners should think about when considering a switch.
In terms of carbon emissions, heating oil is about as environmentally friendly as natural gas but that’s about where oil’s environmental friendliness ends. When you look at the larger picture, heating oil has some significant drawbacks that you need to consider. It’s these larger environmental concerns that make home heating oil a growing challenge for homeowners and heating professionals alike.

Home heating oil is stored on the premises in a tank. Whether the tank is stored inside or outside, above ground or below ground, the possibility of deterioration and leaking is real. When the storage tank leaks, it can leave a big, expensive mess behind. Spills can also occur during refilling operations, flooding that knocks over the tank, or as a result of accidental damage to the tank or oil lines.

Heating oil spills involving outdoor tanks can cause significant environmental damage to the ground around the spill. Spilled heating oil can contaminate groundwater and underwater reservoirs, storm drains, sewer systems, surface water and drainage systems like drywells and drainage ditches.

When the contamination is severe or widespread, the clean-up costs can be overwhelming. A study done about ten years ago showed that most home heating oil spills in Massachusetts took about four months and $20,000 to clean up. Typically, spill recovery costs ranged between $20,000-$50,000, but when the spill involved soil and groundwater, the cleanup costs zoomed to about $90,000. Remediation costs for some spills exceeded $300,000. (Keep in mind that was 10 years ago!)

Further, exposure to heating oil (whether indoors or outside) can cause significant health problems in humans and house pets. Oil is a highly toxic substance and short-term exposure can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritations, nausea, headaches, dizziness, rashes and other problems. Long-term exposure to heating oil vapors can cause liver and kidney problems, problems with blood pressure and other more serious health conditions.

What should you do if you experience a spill? Homeowners who have indoor storage tanks can successfully clean up only very small oil spills. A small oil spill is one that involves less than one gallon of heating oil. If you experience a small oil spill in your home, call your local fire department immediately and inform them of the accident. You’ll also need to inform the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) at (888) 304-1133. Don’t skip this step; Massachusetts law requires it.
To clean up a small oil spill, put on protective clothing, including gloves, eye protection, respiratory protection and shoes with oil-resistant soles. Use cat litter or sawdust on the spill. You can also use Oil-Dri, a very absorbent material designed especially for absorbing oil. (If you use heating oil, it’s a good idea to have some of this on hand for emergencies.)

You should also immediately vent the spill area with fresh outside air. Close doors and vents that lead from the spill area to the rest of the home. Eliminate any ignition sources while the spill cleanup is in progress.

When the absorbent material is saturated, sweep or shovel it into heavy-duty plastic bags. Continue to vent the area and spread absorbent material on the spill until no more oil is absorbed. Do not store the absorbed oil in your home or garage. Move the bags outside until you can dispose of them properly. Consult your sanitation department for proper disposal procedures.

If you experience an oil spill of more than one gallon of heating oil from either an indoor or outdoor tank, you cannot clean this up yourself. Immediately, call:
• Your local fire department
• The DEP’s 24-hour oil release reporting line
• Your heating oil service company
• Your homeowners insurance company
Do what you can to capture leaking oil, but do not try to work in the spill area until the fire department has assessed the explosion/fire risk. This is only the first step in a long clean-up process, but the cleanup costs alone far outpace the cost of converting from heating oil to natural gas.

If you’re interested in converting from heating oil to gas, please contact Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 for a consultation. There are some very attractive programs available through MassSave to help reduce the cost of conversion, and 0% financing is also available for qualified conversions.