Oil tanks pose potential problems without careful maintenance

For most of us, home heating oil keeps the winter chills away but it’s also a fuel source we can’t take for granted

  • Dec. 23, 2011 12:00 p.m.

From the 1950s through the early 1990s, oil was the energy source of choice for Greater Victoria residents to heat their homes.

But last month’s oil spill that saw an estimated 1,000 litres of home heating oil leak into Swan Creek and Colquitz River points to oil having the potential – in the worst-case scenario – to be an environmental disaster.

“You can’t even afford – and this is afford environmentally, not cost-wise – to have something like this happen and ruin the good work that people have spent years doing, re-establishing a creek to be fish-bearing,” says Coun. Vicki Sanders, who chairs Saanich’s environmental advisory committee. “Usually (oil spills are) not as catastrophic as this.”

Bradley Shuya, who owns an architectural firm in Victoria and sits on Saanich’s heritage advisory committee, says oil tanks need to be properly maintained, otherwise they become ticking time bombs.

“It’s not if the tank will fail, it’s when it will fail. Eventually it will,” Shuya says.

For years, homeowners on Vancouver Island, because of our physical distance from the mainland, had limited options to heat their homes. Natural gas, for example, only became available on the Island in the 1990s, when a large underwater pipeline was installed.

Shuya says you can almost tell how old a house is in Greater Victoria based on its heating system.

Wood stoves and coal furnaces were primarily used in the pre-1950s homes, Shuya says. Oil heating dominated the market from 1950s through the 1980s, until natural gas came to the Island. The ’90s and 2000s saw gas and electric heating become the norm in new houses. And now, green technologies – like solar and geothermal – are popping up, though those options aren’t in mainstream use just yet.

Shuya predicts that many older home heating tanks have some kind of leakage, but he doubts homeowners even realize it.

“Typically you’ll find some contamination (near an oil tank),” he says.

And while oil is one of the predominant methods for heating homes in Greater Victoria, time will tell how long that remains to be so.

Rod Lidstone can’t help but laugh when asked if home heating technology has changed much since he first became a tradesman in the early 1980s.

“You can’t keep up with the technology changes!” he says with a chuckle. “People are really thinking outside the box in the way we’re designing heating systems. Every day we’re talking about another person who’s recovered some form of energy that was otherwise being lost, and is, for the most part, free – like the sun.”

Lidstone is chair of the pipe trades department at Camosun College. The post-secondary school’s apprenticeship program covers a wide range of topics, including plumbing, air conditioning, gas fitting and home heating.

But Lidstone says the technology is such these days that all sources can run efficiently, and be environmentally and economically sound.

“The consumer should know that every one of these could be made very efficient with the technology out there, as long as they’re properly designed and installed,” he says.

Coun. Sanders says she couldn’t agree more. Proper installation and maintenance, especially of oil tanks, is crucial to protecting the environment.

“There needs to be more in place (to inform homeowners about potential tank leaks) than just an information sheet,” she says, citing possibly more stringent tank check-ups from insurance companies.

With regard to the most recent spill, Saanich’s manager of environmental services is concerned that if any rainfall comes, cleanup efforts in the McKenzie and Glanford avenues area will be hindered.

“We’re expecting that if we get heavy rain it’ll agitate the vegetation, the water level will rise, and any oil that was left high and dry stuck to the vegetation could be released,” says Adriane Pollard. “We’re expecting we might have some residual oil, which people may notice as sheen or smell.”

She says it’s too early to look at how to best prevent such an incident from occurring again, as well as what the long-term effects of the spill are on Colquitz River.

Lidstone says homeowners should thoroughly research all energy source options before choosing how to heat their home.

The environmental footprint of each source, and potential impacts if there is a failure, varies depending on where you live and the type of energy.

“There’s benefits and drawbacks for all of them,” he says.

“I think with the changing technology, we’re soon going to see oil and propane and gas and electric become more of a backup (to green heating options) than anything else.”

kslavin@saanichnews.com

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