By John Levey, Oilheat Associates
We’ve come a long way!
In 2003 the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) embarked on a program to assure that fuel oil storage tank systems were properly installed and maintained. The program was developed in conjunction with the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS). IBHS is an organization of insurers and reinsurers that conducts research to identify and promote effective actions that strengthen homes against various causes of loss.
The NORA/IBHS “partnership” led to the formalization of NORA’s Advanced Oil Tank Program including the textbook Fuel Oil Storage Tanks, Guide for Quality Installation and Maintenance, as well as several videos and a full-day seminar.
Some in our industry questioned the need for NORA to get involved in the project, but let’s be serious: Our industry doesn’t exist without tanks. And once NORA got involved, many people felt that we did a fairly good job of minimizing insurance claims (and customer inconveniences) due to oil tanks.
The featured image on this page became the rallying point of the program. When it was shown to those attending sessions of NORA’s tank seminar, most participants said their companies would not consider delivering to a tank as precariously located as this one. Unfortunately the tank was in service when the picture was taken, so someone was delivering to it. Thankfully, it seems like the industry as a whole has updated its standards, and we haven’t found anyone who would deliver to this tank today.
Better Tanks and Installations
During its tenure, NORA has worked closely with tank manufacturers, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to improve the quality of tanks and their installation procedures.
One of the most obvious changes we’ve seen is that tank warranties have been extended from the standard one-to-three-year warranty available on most tanks in the 1990s. Today we have warranties of 10, 20 and 30 years available, and some tanks include insurance to cover oil spills.
We’ve also noticed an increase in the number of “premium” tanks that are being installed. These tanks are the double-wall polyethylene/steel tanks; coated steel tanks; double bottom steel tanks; single- and double-wall fiberglass aboveground tanks; etc. It is very encouraging to see that, as an industry, we’re explaining the advantages of these tanks and helping our customers choose upgraded equipment in many situations.
Another change we’ve noticed is that more and more companies are following NORA guidelines regarding tank inspections. These companies closely follow NORA’s recommendations regarding each of the following.
- Initial inspections: Performed before a company delivers to a new tank or to a new customer for the first time. These comprehensive inspections include the tank, oil lines, filters, fittings, etc. Before NORA recommendations were released many companies simply took a call from a customer looking for a delivery and sent a truck out to make the delivery without checking on the condition of the tank. In some cases, the customer’s previous oil supplier had refused to continue making deliveries because the tank was in bad shape. The new company making the delivery then got stuck with the liability when a spill occurred.
- Routine inspections: NORA recommends that routine inspections be performed during each tune-up, or anytime that more than 12 months has passed since the previous inspection. These inspections don’t take a long time. Basically the technician makes sure that nothing has changed since the last inspection that could compromise the safety of the system.
- Pre-delivery inspections: These inspections are limited to what the oil driver can see from the delivery point. The driver is not expected to go into the house to look at the tank, oil lines, etc. Rather, this inspection is intended for the driver to make sure he or she is at the right house and the right fill, that the outside tank is in good shape, that the fill and vent pipes and caps are satisfactory, etc. In addition, NORA’s no whistle – no fill recommendations are emphasized in the written instructions for this level of inspection.
Overall, the companies that have followed these guidelines report that they have not resulted in fewer deliveries or fewer service calls; rather, they have led to significantly fewer oil spills.
Another level of inspection that a number of companies have been offering is an ultrasonic test of aboveground residential tanks. This test measures the thickness of the tank and enables companies to replace tanks before they start to leak. Some companies offer this service on their own. Others utilize the technology and software of TankSure, which works with hundreds of oil companies and has over 500,000 tanks in their database.
What’s happening with codes?
Typically, most local authorities having jurisdiction follow NFPA 31 in regard to residential Oilheat systems. There were several changes in the 2011 version of NFPA 31 that affect oil supply systems:
- The requirement that fill and vent pipes be the same size was dropped, but vent pipes still can be no less than 1 ¼”.
- The location of the “readily accessible fusible link safety shutoff valve”, commonly referred to as a “firomatic valve” was clarified. The valve(s) must be located within 6” of the filter on the tank side of the filter and within 12” of the inlet connection to the burner.
The NFPA 31 Committee was scheduled to meet this October 29th to consider additional upgrades to the standard. Due to the severity of last year’s Superstorm Sandy, some local authorities are considering stricter guidelines for securing tanks against floatation, and the committee will discuss several options that have been put forth by manufacturers and trade associations.
There are also several proposals that task groups will be discussing:
- To bring the appendix into the body of the standard, thereby making it mandatory instead of merely recommended.
- Requiring a test to verify that there is sufficient combustion air available for proper operation of the burner(s). If there is not sufficient air available, the task group will also develop a list of suggested solutions.
The tank “situation” is much better than it was in 2004-05, when NORA first introduced its tank program. Safer tanks have been brought to market; many companies are following tank inspection protocols; and fewer people are looking at oil tanks as the “Achilles heel” of the industry.
The last few sentences of the introduction of the 2004 version of NORA tank manual reads: “If we follow manufacturers’ installation and maintenance instructions, NFPA regulations and the recommendations and instructions contained in this publication, we’ll help to ensure a bright and profitable future for our companies and our industry. If we bury our heads in the sand and ignore the ‘tank issue,’ the regulators and insurance companies will decide our future for us. The choice is ours, let’s decide wisely.”
Thankfully, it seems that the majority of our industry has decided wisely. More and more companies have decided to address the tank issue head-on by being proactive, recommending tank upgrades before there is an issue and addressing minor problems before they lead to oil spills and/or insurance claims.
Let’s keep up the good work.