Underground vs. Above Ground Fuel Storage Tanks

Justin Christensen |

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Storing fuel safely just makes smart sense. It protects you, your business, your community and the environment. It’s also the law. EPA fines and penalties for oils spills can range from $32,500 per day to $500,000 for an organization and 15 years in prison, depending on the circumstances.

One aspect of proper fuel storage applies to containers, specifically underground and aboveground tanks. If you’re uncertain as to which option will meet your needs and mandated requirements, here is some information to consider:

Underground Storage Tanks (UST)

The EPA describes a UST system as one or more tanks with attached piping containing a minimum of 10% of their total volume underground. Not all tanks have to meet federal regulations, however, there may be applicable state and local requirements.

Many of the USTs are constructed in a compartment-style design. Compared to having multiple tanks, this system requires less excavation and does not require surface space, which cuts down on installation costs. It also allows for on-site blending of fuels. Because the tanks are buried, they are protected from the elements, are less susceptible to fire hazards and may not require control of volatile organic vapor release.

With an underground system, there are some challenges too. Leaks or corrosion can sometimes go undetected and repairs and maintenance are not as easily conducted which can make them more expensive.

Aboveground Storage Tanks (AST)

As per the EPA, aboveground storage tanks refer to those that are located above ground, partially buried, bunkered, or in a subterranean vault. They can also include floating fuel systems.

ASTs are becoming more acceptable to local authorities. Tank approval is based on location, size, class of product being stored, and whether it is for retail or private use. They are also typically preferred for storing chemicals and fuels in bulk.

In terms of installation, ASTs are much more cost effective, as excavation is not required except for the pad or footing. When it comes to inspection, maintenance and repairs, they can be conducted visually and more easily simply due to their accessibility, which is less expensive. And if you ever need to relocate your tank, an AST will be much more manageable to move.

The disadvantages to ASTs are mainly due to exposure. Vandalism, fire, weather conditions and vehicular collisions are all potential hazards. They also take up more surface space and may require a vapor recovery system in place.

Questions to Help Determine Your Needs

  • Is the system permitted with your zoning requirements and regulations?
  • Can a variance be obtained with necessary safety modifications?
  • What is aesthetically suitable?
  • Do you have sufficient property to allow a safe distance from buildings, public pathways, your property line and traffic?
  • Will you be able to accommodate future expansions?
  • Is the location secure from unauthorized activity?
  • Can measures for secondary containment and spill control to impede explosions be implemented?
  • Is there adequate allowance to properly store and transfer product?
  • Is the system financially feasible?

If you’re able to answer ‘Yes’ to each of these questions, then an above ground storage tank is likely the best solution for you. Otherwise, you will need to consider an underground system.

Your fuel distributor is a great resource for storage systems design and implementation. With equipment packages available for sale or loan, they can help to determine your needs, meet compliance and provide maintenance or modifications as you grow.