Update on the homeowner heating oil safety bill

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Courtesy of Penney Engineering, Inc

All homeowners in Massachusetts should be aware that on December 29, 2008, the State Senate enacted the long-awaited Homeowner Heating Oil Safety Bill as Chapter 453 of the Acts of 2008. It required homeowners to upgrade their existing oil heat supply line and insurance companies to offer coverage for a spill by July 1, 2010. On January 5, 2009, it was signed by the Governor. On June 30, 2010, a day before it was to become effective, Governor Patrick signed an amendment to the law as Section 114 of Chapter 131 of the Acts and Resolves of 2010, which extended the requirement for homeowners to upgrade their oil heat supply lines until September 30, 2011. According to Mr. Michael Ferrante, President of the Massachusetts Oilheat Council, more time was needed to complete the upgrade on a number of the 950,000 homes in Massachusetts that heat with oil.

Heating oil companies have been sending out notices of the deadline to upgrade to their customers for a while now, but not getting many responses. Many heating systems still need to have the oil line upgraded. The oil burner code, 527 CMR 4.00, also had to be revised and a form to be used to certify an upgrade had to be prepared. The original July 1, 2010 deadline for insurance companies to offer coverage was not extended. However, in order to receive the coverage, a homeowner must have completed the upgrade. Many of us in the environmental field have been pushing for insurance coverage for a long time. We have seen how financially devastating a heating oil spill can be to a family. Regardless of the extension of the deadline to upgrade, a homeowner should immediately have the upgrade completed and contact their insurance carrier for spill coverage.

No. 2 heating oil must be stored in a tank. There are plastic and double-walled tanks available and underground storage tanks are still installed, but the most common tank of choice by far is a steel, single-walled, 275-gallon aboveground storage tank located either in a basement or outside. The tanks are inexpensive and prone to mechanical and physical problems. Condensate forms inside the top of a tank, above the oil, and drips down to the bottom of the tank where it forms a layer of water beneath the heating oil. The water corrodes the bare, 10-gauge (0.108') mild steel inside the bottom of the tank 24/7. Rust never sleeps. The steel at the bottom of a 275-gallon tank is normally less than 1/8' or between the first and second line on your 1/16th graduated ruler! A penny is 1/16' thick. The corrosion causes pits to form in the steel. The pits grow and cause 'weeping' through the steel at the bottom of the tank. Then a subsequent fillup increases the hydrostatic pressure at the bottom of the liquids in the tank causing a pit to become a hole. Tanks typically only last 15 to 25 years, depending upon the surrounding environment. Most homeowners do not realize that the tanks are only coated on the outside. They may look great on the outside right up to the time they leak. If the tank is more than 15 years old or badly corroded, it should be replaced. A double-walled tank with leak detection or a single-walled tank with secondary containment should be considered.

Cable installers and kids can also step on the small pipe nipples at the bottom outlet on a 275-gallon tank located in a basement or outside. The nipple breaks at the threads which causes a release of the entire contents of heating oil or frantic screams for help while the culprit holds his or her finger in the broken outlet until help arrives. It is analogues to the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike. Others just run and let the basement fill up with oil which flows across the cement floor looking for the first crack. If multiple tanks have been piped together, a broken nipple results in an even bigger mess! I have also seen the pipe legs holding a tank upright, rust to a point where one fails and the tank rolls over breaking the supply line and spilling its contents. The legs also fall off cement blocks. These two types of failures commonly occur on tanks that are outside, exposed to the weather.

Heating oil is normally conveyed from a tank to the burner through 1/4' soft copper tubing. Far too often the copper tubing is run through a concrete floor where it is subjected to corrosion by the cement in the concrete and the sulfates in the soil under the floor. Pinhole leaks form in the line, usually under the floor where the leak goes undetected for years. Typical cleanup costs range from $2,000 to $150,000 or more. Surveys have determined that the average cost of a cleanup in Massachusetts to be approximately $50,000.

The first objective of the Heating Oil Safety Bill was to help prevent spills by requiring relatively inexpensive upgrades to the existing lines from an aboveground heating oil tank by a licensed heating oil technician. (The oil burner code has required a sleeve and an oil safety valve on new installations since January 1, 1990.) If an oil burner is located below a tank, one option to meet the upgrade requirement is to install a diaphragm-type check or regulator valve, being called an 'oil safety valve' (OSV), at the outlet on the bottom of a tank to prevent gravity leaks. The cost for an OSV is around $35. If the supply line or lines, on a two-line circulating system, are in contact with concrete, soil or a floor, the lines must be encased in a plastic sleeve to prevent corrosion. Using a new style supply line made of copper tubing with plastic cladding on the outside is an even better solution for preventing corrosion. Other approved leak prevention methods can also be used. The Bill only requires one of the three optional upgrades. I usually recommend installing both the safety valve and coated line. Whenever possible, the supply line should be run from the top of a tank with a safety valve. The lines should also be protected from physical damage. A Form 1A - Certificate of Compliance must be prepared by a technician to certify an upgrade and a copy sent to the local fire department. Some local fire departments want more involvement while others want less involvement with tanks. The cost to upgrade a line ranges from $250 to $1,000 depending upon conditions which may include cutting a concrete floor and excavating.

The second objective of the Bill and the one most important to a property owner, the entity holding the mortgage on the property, a cleanup contractor, and a Licensed Site Professional (LSP) is the requirement for insurance companies to offer coverage for a home heating oil spill. This requirement applies to insurance companies licensed to write homeowners' insurance in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As of July 1, 2010, insurance companies must offer the coverage to their Massachusetts residential customers. The coverage is limited to one to four-unit residential properties. The minimum limits of coverage must range from $50,000 per occurrence for first-party property liability to $200,000 per occurrence for third-party liability with a maximum deductible of $1,000 per claim. The first-party coverage applies to costs associated with personal property loses and cleanup. The third-party liability affords coverage from third-party claims and response actions conducted off the covered property. Again, the line or lines must be certified as being upgraded before a property can be insured. Section 4 of the Bill only requires insurers to make the coverage 'available' to residential owners. It does not require them to promote it or notify their customers of its availability. Initially, I was only aware of AMICA including the new coverage in their homeowners' policies back in July 2010. However, the coverage did not meet the requirements of the Bill. Currently all the carriers are offering coverage. The annual premiums are approximately $40 to $75. A very small price to pay when compared to the cost for a cleanup!

I am assuming that if a bank holds the mortgage on a property, it will eventually require that the homeowner maintain Limited Escaped Liquid Fuel Liability Coverage, the same as it requires fire insurance. Will landlords and mobile park owners require their tenants to purchase the coverage? Will coverage be available to everyone someday? Will there be spills that are specifically exempt from coverage? Should the specifications for 275-gallon tanks and piping be improved?

Once the heating season is over, every homeowner in Massachusetts with oil heat should evaluate the condition of their tank and lines, meet the upgrade requirements, and seek insurance coverage. We are currently cleaning up a 350-gallon spill of kerosene from a 275-gallon tank installed outside in 1995 at 157 Mansfield Avenue in Norton. The kerosene flowed into the Norton Reservoir.

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