The cold night air that swept into Maine late last week was a reminder that another heating season is bearing down, and for a few unlucky homeowners, filling up the oil tank this fall will have disastrous results: a costly and damaging leak or spill.

Every year, between 450 and 500 home heating oil spills are recorded in Maine, a number that has not declined since 1998, when the state launched a program to replace leaking or unsafe tanks.

More than 7,000 tanks have been replaced under the program, which is expected to cost $800,000 this year, with the funds coming from a surcharge on oil deliveries.

Over the years, more than a quarter-million gallons of heating oil and kerosene have leaked or been spilled, according to state data compiled for the Maine Sunday Telegram, despite the fact that heating system installation rules have become stricter and tank technology has improved.

New tanks and new technologies offer a way to reduce spills and leaks, but state officials have been reluctant to impose new requirements because of concerns about the costs. That has left improvements in the hands of the private sector, particularly oil dealers — some of whom are taking steps to educate customers about how to avoid the problem.

Recent high-profile railroad and pipeline accidents have left many Mainers worried about the threat of oil spills on the overall environment. There’s less public awareness, however, of the prevalence of oil spills in basements or backyards, and of the potential effects in a state where half of all homes use wells for drinking water.

“When you have a home heating oil spill, it’s at your home,” said Peter Blanchard, who heads the Department of Environmental Protection’s division of response services. “So if you have a well, it’s more likely to be at risk.”

Also likely to be affected, Blanchard said, is indoor air quality, when petroleum seeps into soil or concrete and gives off sickening vapors.

The DEP says it’s unable to calculate how much groundwater pollution in Maine is caused by home heating oil spills, compared to other sources, such as transportation mishaps. But based on a five-year accounting summary compiled for the newspaper, the DEP has spent $318,172 over the past five years to replace wells fouled by above-ground oil tanks.

“We have a steady stream of these above-ground spills,” Blanchard said, “and time and time again, we have to pump out oil from wells.”

Why so little progress?  Experts point to several related reasons:

• Maine has 415,000 homes that heat with fuel oil. High oil prices are driving a conversion to alternate fuels, but Maine still has the highest share of oil-heated homes in the country.

• Maine’s housing stock is among the oldest in the nation, and many tanks have seen better days. Age isn’t always a determining factor, but older tanks tend to leak at some point, chiefly from internal corrosion.

• Some tanks weren’t installed to the specifications of Maine Fuels Board rules. They may be especially prone to failure, especially from physical damage.

• Some tanks are filled when they probably shouldn’t be. Oil dealers acknowledge there are times when competitive pressures and a desire to make sure customers have heat may cloud better judgment. The combination of these factors frustrates state environmental officials. They say many leaks could be avoided, if more Mainers would — or could — spend the money to maintain their heating systems better.

“People ask me, ‘Why haven’t you whipped this problem?’” said David McCaskill, who has been running the state’s oil spill prevention unit since 1998. “The numbers stay the same. The causes stay the same. So we’re going to have a spill every half-day on average, and it drives you mad.”

Leaking home heating oil tanks aren’t just a Maine problem. Anywhere in North America where it’s cold and homes lack easy access to natural gas — places ranging from the Canadian Maritimes to Alaska — tanks of heating oil and kerosene are leaking and spilling.

“All the time, we get calls from people who say, ‘I’ve lost all my oil,’” said Eric Arvendon, section chief at the Massachusetts Division of Response and Remediation.

In Maine, a small fee on heating oil sales sustains the groundwater cleanup fund. By contrast, Massachusetts doesn’t have a dedicated fund for home heating oil spills. If homeowners can’t afford the work, the state steps in, and sometimes places a lien on the property to recover the cost.
“Maine is so far ahead of us,” Arvendon said.

Now Maine also is trying to become a leader in prevention. McCaskill said a few steps could begin to slow the leak rate.

Most cleanup-fund replacements take place at homes where residents qualify for low-income heating assistance, with the work being done through eight Community Action Programs. This year, the DEP-administered replacement program has stopped using single-wall steel tanks and has moved to new-technology, double-wall tanks that feature a polyethylene inside and a galvanized steel outer shell. For outdoor tanks, the department specifies fiberglass-reinforced plastic.

Single-wall steel tanks remain the industry standard, however, and there’s no move now to upgrade tank requirements in Maine.

“The single-wall steel tank has always met national code standards and is the predominant model used throughout the country,” said Doug Dunbar, a spokesman for the Maine Fuels Board. “Many last 30 years or longer.”

Dunbar added that the new tanks being promoted by the DEP “are considerably more expensive” than single-wall steel, anywhere from 50 percent more to three times as much. Both the DEP and a Portland oil dealer who routinely installs the double-wall tanks disagree with the estimate, however. They say the difference is only a few hundred dollars.

The DEP also is endorsing a program in which oil dealers perform an annual ultrasonic test on a customer’s tank. Called TankSure, the program is aimed at spotting internal corrosion, the leading cause of leaks. Participation is growing, but it’s still reaching only a small share of customers who use full-service dealers.

High-tech tanks and testing are no substitute for the most basic form of prevention, which is homeowner awareness. Oil tanks often are hidden in a dark basement, where they are easy to ignore.

The DEP says checking items on a simple checklist every year could spot many problems before they become leaks, if only homeowners would do it. Right now, before the heating season ramps up, is a good time.

Ongoing reliance on oil

News reports give the impression that oil heat is fading in Maine, being replaced by natural gas, propane, electric heat pumps and wood. The amount of oil burned in homes has fallen by half over the past decade. But a widespread, absolute conversion will take time. Seven out of 10 homes still rely on oil for at least some heat, according to census figures, meaning they have an oil tank on the property.

No one tracks the age of heating oil tanks in Maine. But in a state with the sixth-oldest housing in the nation, chances are that tank has been around for a while. And while age isn’t always an indicator of trouble, older tanks that have accumulated water and sludge in their bottoms are more likely to fail from internal corrosion, the DEP says. Many tanks are fine after 25 years, but those installed outdoors or in a damp cellar don’t last as long.

“I think there still are a lot of tanks out there that are really old,” said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association.

It’s a matter of money, Py said. Purchase and installation of a basic 275-gallon tank costs $800 to $1,500, he said. Better tanks cost closer to $2,000.

“People are reluctant to spend money,” he said. “It’s one of those things: You don’t do anything until there’s a problem.”

The move to alternative fuels also is a factor, as people put off the cost of upgrading their heating systems while they contemplate a change.

“They say, ‘Can I get another year or two out of this?’” Py said.

Regulations and industry practices

Maine has made progress over the past 15 years in reducing the risk of heating oil spills by tightening up the rules that govern tank installation.

Long gone are the days when it was sufficient to use a 55-gallon metal drum as a storage tank. In 2000, underground fuel lines had to be sleeved to protect from leaks. In 2003, outdoor tanks needed to be secured and brought up to code.

Code also requires that oil equipment work be done by licensed technicians, and that the entire fuel system must be upgraded when a new appliance is installed. But that’s where the regulations generally end. Maine has no state permit for tank installation and no requirement that home heating oil tanks be inspected or monitored.

So it’s not unusual, when the DEP responds to a spill, to find tanks that were either illegally installed or not upgraded to code.

A typical example is a tank installed outside under the eaves of a house. Ice or snow cascades off the roof and strikes the fuel filter, spilling the entire contents of the tanks onto the ground. That fuel filter is supposed to be covered by a metal, tent-like protector, a simple add-on costing $60 or so. This sort of physical damage is the second-leading cause of oil spills.

As a matter of good practice, oil dealers instruct their delivery people to look for problems. They typically are told to call the office to report issues, and inform homeowners when something needs to be fixed.

Oil dealers say they tell their delivery people not to fill tanks that appear dangerous or out of compliance. But there’s broad discretion in this area, and the decision often rests on the judgment of a driver.

“We can’t hold every driver’s hand for the thousands of deliveries they do every year,” said John Wheeler, retail sales manager at C.N. Brown in South Paris. “But we have driver training meetings, and we tell them: ‘If a tank isn’t on solid legs, if it’s weeping, if there’s no vent alarm (to warn of an overfill), you’re not allowed to fill the tank.’”

Wheeler acknowledges that oil dealers are under financial pressure these days. Some may be reluctant to tell a customer they won’t deliver until a problem is fixed.

Wheeler added: “People say, ‘I’ll just call another dealer.’ We say, ‘That’s fine.’”

The TankSure Porgram

Home heating oil spills remain a persistent problem across cold-weather states and Canadian provinces.

In Alaska, where homeowners bear the full responsibility for installation and maintenance, 121 tanks leaked in 2012, a 10-year high. In Atlantic Canada, an insurance industry report found half of all spills were traced to tank corrosion. It also found outdoor tanks accounted for 500 of the 663 claims filed between 2008 and 2011.

Some states are trying to prod homeowners to make their tanks safer. In New Hampshire, which sees more than 150 spills a year, tank owners have until July 2015 to bring their installations into compliance with the state code. Otherwise, they will receive less money from the state’s groundwater cleanup fund if a leak occurs.

In Massachusetts, a recent law required tank owners to upgrade their installations with either an oil safety valve or a protective sleeve for the supply line. It also required insurance companies to offer optional coverage for leaks.

There’s also a growing push among oil dealers who provide full service to offer their customers the optional TankSure program. The test uses sound waves to measure the thickness of the tank in key places and is done at tune-up time.

The program works like an insurance policy. Homeowners typically pay $55 a year, and if their tank needs replacement, they get roughly $1,000.

“We highly recommend it to our customers and roll it into their service plan,” said Deanna Sherman, vice president at Dead River Co.

Dead River is among 25 Maine dealers, including Downeast Energy and Daigle Oil Co., that promote TankSure. Over the past 10 years, ultrasonic testing has spotted 2,890 tanks in Maine at risk of leaking, according to Mike Hatch, president of the Boston company that runs TankSure.

The program operates in 11 Northeast states. It tested 40,000 last year and is on target for 52,000 this year.

But TankSure’s growth potential may be limited. Only 15 percent of all dealers offer TankSure, Hatch said, in an industry where the trend is to sell only oil.

“It’s price-driven,” he said. “There are fewer companies with full-service capabilities.”

New generation of tanks

While testing single-wall steel tanks will be necessary for many years, the DEP sees an ultimate solution in a new generation of tank designs.

At the DEP, McCaskill said that he has seen single-wall tanks that the department authorized 15 years ago leak, even though they were installed with best practices. Those tanks also tend to have filters and pipe fittings at the bottom, so when something breaks, the entire contents are lost.

The DEP now is promoting a German-designed tank made by Roth Industries. The unit looks more like a small refrigerator than an oil tank, with a polyethylene inner shell and galvanized sheet metal outer jacket. The outer jacket is meant to contain any oil that might leak from the inner shell, and the tank features a red float that pops up to warn of a shell leak. These tanks also have fittings on the top, limiting releases from broken filters or supply lines.

Giroux Energy Solutions in Portland has been installing the Roth tanks for six years and now considers them the standard. They cost roughly $1,800 to install, and most customers choose them over basic models, the company said.

The value of tank inspections and new-tech tanks was highlighted in early September at a home in Portland.

Kevin Powell, a Giroux service technician, was preparing to give a 50-year-old tank an ultrasonic checkup when he noticed a rust spot on the bottom. The spot began to weep oil when Powell touched it with his finger. He installed a temporary magnetic patch.

“The owner probably wouldn’t have caught that until the tank was filled next, and there was oil on the floor,” Powell said.

A few days later, Powell and service manager Chris Sprague removed the old tank and installed a Roth model. He said he couldn’t recall the last time he put in a single-wall tank. Asked why all dealers haven’t moved to double-wall storage, Powell suggested it’s just a matter of veterans in the industry being resistant to a new technology.

“Afraid of the unknown, I guess,” he said.