Winter Brings Familiar Dangers

by Paul J. Bruder, Jr.

It's that time of year again. As the weather turns colder and air conditioners give way to furnaces, homeowners call their heating oil providers and say "fill'er up." Well over 100,000 homeowners in Pennsylvania, approximately 15,000-17,000 in Dauphin County alone, heat their homes with oil, meaning that their basements are home to large (usually 150 gallons or more) heating oil tanks.

Despite sometimes high costs, oil heat remains an efficient, clean and safe way to heat your home. Dangers lurk, however, though not so much with regard to the safety of a properly functioning system. Rather, the dangers and hazards associated with home heating oil often result from problems during the filling of those tanks.

One source of potential danger is the absence or failure of a "whistle." Typically, during filling of a tank from outside the home through a fill pipe, a second vent pipe will make a whistling sound while air in the tank is displaced by oil and escapes through the vent pipe. As the tank nears capacity, the whistling slows, then stops as the last of the tank's capacity is filled with oil. At this point, the delivery person knows to stop pumping oil. Problems occur where there is another opening in the tank that is not properly plugged. (Such openings are usually necessary to allow flexibility in installation of the tank). Where such openings exist and are not plugged, displaced air rushes out through that larger opening, without making any noise audible to the tank-filler outside. This can, and often does, lead to an overfill of the tank.

Other sources of danger are existing fill pipes that are no longer in use because the present, or even past, homeowner converted to another source of heat and had the oil tank removed. Should a neighbor with the same numerical address on a different street call for oil, and that address be misread or otherwise misunderstood, a significant amount of heating oil could be pumped directly into a home's basement.

The above scenarios can, and do, happen more than you would think - dozens of times in the Commonwealth each year. When it does, the next step is crucial. Often, the oil company will simply offer to clean up the spilled oil, apologize and go away. The homeowner is then left with a home inundated with petroleum fumes that soak into the curtains, the carpet, the furniture and the family's clothes. These fumes can cause headaches and nausea, affect your ability to sleep, and potentially cause greater illness.

In addition, the spilled oil does not take long to soak into the soil, even if the basement has a wooden or concrete floor. Once in the soil, contaminants can leach into the groundwater, which could then affect the quality of well water or flow into nearby streams. Under Pennsylvania law, any pollution of a water of the Commonwealth is illegal, and if the source of the contamination is your property, you are responsible for cleaning it up.

What can you do to make sure this doesn't happen to you? First and foremost, if your home does not have a home heating oil tank, make sure your home does not have an oil intake or fill pipe. If it does, have it removed immediately by a qualified contractor, or take steps to ensure that it is otherwise disabled. Tape it up tight, put a lock on the cap, hang a sign on it that says "Do not put oil in here!" Anything to alert an oil delivery company that the pipe is not to be used.
If you do use heating oil, have the tank inspected by a qualified professional at the start of each winter season. At the very least, look the tank over yourself to make sure your tank has no openings from which oil can escape. Try to schedule oil deliveries when you will be home so that if there is an overfill, it can be stopped immediately.

If you have an overfill event like the one's described above, don't panic. Call the oil delivery company immediately and explain what happened. Next, contact your homeowner's insurance carrier and consult your homeowner's policy. Have an insurance representative come to the house immediately to observe conditions as soon as possible, preferably before the oil company begins clean-up. If you wish, you can contact a lawyer to help guide you through the maze of Department of Environmental Protection regulatory requirements, the often confusing provisions of your homeowner's policy, and the complex system of potential liability for clean-up of the spill. An attorney can also help you select an environmental consultant capable of overseeing the clean-up to make sure your home and the environment are safe. Remember, the Department of Environmental Protection is concerned only with keeping the environment clean, not who foots the bill. Trying to deal with the oil company or your insurance company yourself could wind up costing you, the homeowner, a significant portion of the clean-up costs. A capable representative can protect your rights to get your life back to normal.

You can visit the Department of Environmental Protection's website at www.dep.state.pa.us for additional information regarding clean-up requirements, or feel free to contact Mr. Bruder directly for more information about our firm and its available services.


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