A pair of old fuel oil tanks
are disconnected from their supply piping, dragged over to the
bottom of the basement stairs, and single-handedly hoisted up
the stairs using a cable winch.
A Couple Of Hours
Bruce W. Maki,
What's the first thing to do after you discover that your fuel oil
furnace has conked out?
Answer: Start remodeling the
basement, the basement stairwell, and anything between the furnace
and the back door.
At least that was our approach when the old oil-burning monster
died. We had been contemplating switching
to propane, and this forced the decision.
The old furnace was quite large, about 3 feet wide by 6 feet
long, and over 3 feet tall. Not being sure if it could be
dismantled, we knew it would not fit up the basement stairs,
through the door at the top of the stairs, and around the corner to
go out the back door. It seems that about 10 to 12 years ago, long
after the oil furnace and tanks were installed, the previous owner
had built a dividing wall at the top of the stairs and installed a
door. This created a small entry vestibule at the back door, but
there was no way we could haul the furnace or oil tanks out with
this partition in place.
Even if we wanted to keep a partition at the top of the stairs,
the wall the previous owner built was so poorly constructed that we
decided to tear it out and build something better.
So soon after the oil furnace died, while we waited for the
heating contractor to fit us into their schedule, we demolished the
partition and tore out all the wall surfaces around the stairwell.
After opening up the stairs, we began to think about leaving the
stairwell open, and building some shelving and storage into the
area. But that is a project for another article.
It turned out that the old oil furnace was easy to dismantle. It
was basically a sheet metal box surrounding a heavy steel heat
exchanger. The heat exchanger was about one-fourth the size of the
whole furnace, and was the largest and heaviest single piece. The
two of us were able to haul it up the stairs with no problem.
But the oil tanks were another issue. These tanks were about 28
inches wide, 48 inches tall, and about 60 inches long. When the
heating guy installed the new propane furnace, I mentioned how we
would someday be hauling out the old oil tanks. He laughed and said
"Don't call me!".
I figured I was in for a battle.
|The oil tanks in the basement. Note all the
concrete splattered on the tanks. A previous owner poured a
concrete floor in the basement, but not under the tanks. The
tanks rested on cement blocks placed on the original dirt
||I used a big 36" aluminum pipe wrench to
remove the fill and vent pipes.
Disconnecting the fill and vent piping was no small deal. The
fill pipes were 2 inch diameter threaded steel pipe, and the vent
was 1¼ inch pipe. After disconnecting the union fittings (the
fitting in the picture above) I unscrewed whatever fittings and
sections of pipe that I could turn. As a last resort, I could have
simply cut all the pipe with my reciprocating saw, but unscrewing
the pipes is faster.
||Each tank had a shut-off valve at it's outlet
(note the red handles) though they were different types of
valves. The larger red object in the right-hand photo contains
a replaceable filter.
|Using an adjustable wrench I removed the flare
fittings that connected the copper tubing to the tee. I placed
a small shallow container below the tubing to catch the oil.
||I was able to remove the shut-off valves with a
wrench. There was a ½ inch pipe thread on the other end of
the valve, which later proved to be useful.
||Not having a clue how to approach this, I tried
lifting one of the tanks. To my surprise I was able to lift it
by myself. I placed some blocks of wood under the steel
Getting A Handle On Things:
|I connected some short pieces of ½ inch black
pipe to the drain line.
This will form a handle.
||Outside, I removed a section of the fill pipe,
and some elbows.
|I attached some pieces of 1¼ inch pipe to the
fill hole on the tank, to make an upper handle.
||I had to buy an adapter to connect the 1¼ inch
pipe to the 2 inch opening on the tank.
With these two handles attached to the tank, I was able to easily
drag them across the basement floor. What I could not do was
take a picture of myself doing that.
|The monster challenge:
- The basement stairs... with very low headroom.
- There's a couple of oil tanks that want to leave the
- I'm home alone, I won't have any helpers for a couple of
days and I don't want to wait.
||The view from the basement, looking up. The
arrow points to the back door.
|The monstrous solution:
Mechanical Advantage: With the tools I have, I can
lift all sorts of things. I knew I could lift the tanks with a
cable winch (a.k.a. "Come-Along"), but I needed an
anchor point that was sturdy enough.
This door jamb was chosen for the job. I pried off the door
stop trim and bolted this big automotive tow hook into the
framing, using 6 inch lag screws.
||This door jamb is just above the top of the
stairs. The red arrow points to the hook.
I chose this anchor location because I realized that I
could shoot a straight line from that door frame down to the
bottom of the stairs.
|The oil tank at the bottom of the stairs. Since
the tanks were only about 28 inches wide, and the stairs were
over 36 inches wide, I figured I would need to prevent the
tank from slipping sideways.
So I placed a long 2x10 on the side of the stairs (red
||Using only muscle power I was able to get the
tank started up the stairs, but no farther. Even with the
convenient carrying handle, there was no way I could lift this
120 pound mass uphill.
|The view from in the basement.
||At this point I realized that the
"handle" was going to hit the ceiling on the way up
|I used this short piece of 5/16 inch chain to
provide a means of grabbing the oil tank.
||To apply a uniform pulling force, I hooked the
short chain to the front feet on the tank...
|... and I hooked the cable winch to the mid
point of this short chain. I knew that I needed to pull on the
center of the tank, or else it would turn on me.
||The other end of the winch was hooked to an
extra-long section of 5/16" chain, which was looped over
the tow hook.
Of course, I began this operation with the winch's cable fully
I just cranked away on the winch and the tank moved up the
|The tank kept leaning to the side, so made a
"guardrail" by laying a 12-foot 2x10 on a short
piece of wood (hidden below the front end of the plank). This
short "outrigger" board was held in place with a
couple of cement blocks.
||It took only a few minutes to get the tank past
the narrow headroom point.
|At this point the cable winch had been
completely wound up (the two red arrows point to the fixed and
moveable parts of the winch, and they are close together).
I had to stop and reposition the chains.
||Just in case...
I placed a long heavy steel bar under the short chain loop,
to hold the tanks from sliding back down the stairs. But the
back edge of the tank just happened to get wedged into place,
so there was no weight placed on this chain.
|I again extended the winch's cable and connected
it directly to the tow hook, and hooked the other end
to the rusty old loop chain.
||I continued to crank on the winch and the oil
tank climbed higher up the stairs.
|This was about as far as I could hoist the tank.
In this picture you can get a better idea of how the tank
||This is one of the four "feet" under
the tank. These made convenient grab points for the hooks.
|This picture was taken from just outside the
With the chain and winch still connected, I swung the tank
towards the back door and slid it outside.
I didn't even need to remove the back door from it's
hinges... and it was a 32 inch door, only 4 inches wider than
the oil tank.
||These tanks were fairly easy to move around,
though I couldn't lift the entire weight. I was able to
"walk" the tank by lifting one side and then the
Here I screwed some handles back in place to help move the
The Damage Is Done:
Moving these two oil tanks from the basement caused some
damage. The stair treads got rather chewed up from the heavy
weight being dragged across them.
||The tank left some scratches on the basement
floor (top arrow) and some small puddles of oil (bottom
arrow). Oil spills won't dry up, and they may leave an odor
for many months.
I routinely use a spray can of automotive brake cleaner
(which is very volatile and may be highly flammable) to remove oil
spots from concrete. I spray the brake cleaner on the spot and
immediately wipe it up with a paper towel. Brake cleaner removes
most of the oil, but there is usually a slight stain on the
|The door jamb was not as secure as I first
thought. The jamb pulled away from the casing, leaving a
But none of these minor problems were any cause for concern,
because all of these areas either need remodeling or are utility
spaces that don't really matter. This is an important issue for many
people, however, because not everybody is willing to remodel part of
their house just to remove an oil tank.
The relevant point is: If a house has good finished surfaces
between the oil tank and the back door, it would be wise to have
several people available to help move the tank. Protective measures
such as rugs or scraps of carpet could be employed to prevent
||The oil tank area after the tanks were removed.
The corner was a mess. It had collected debris and junk for
about half a century.
|When I hauled away the tanks, I loaded them both
in my tiny 4x8 utility trailer and strapped them in place with
ratcheting tie-down straps.
I would have preferred to lay the tanks down, but they both
would not fit, and I didn't want to make two trips.
||To keep the straps from slipping out of place, I
threaded the straps through the holes in the feet.
Cleaning The Oil Tanks:
While this is probably not necessary, I attempted to clean the
oil tanks, just to see if I could. I started by hauling the tanks
far into the back yard. We live on an old farm, so there's lots of
open land here. I strapped each tank to my fridge dolly and hauled
them out back beside my bonfire pit. Then I poured a gallon of
mineral spirits into a garden sprayer (the sprayer instructions
loudly warn against spraying combustible liquids, but... I live
on the edge) and poked the sprayer nozzle into the various
openings on the tanks. I sprayed the insides from top to bottom,
then I flipped the tanks over a couple of times (end over end, to
avoid spilling liquids). I drained the tanks over some newspapers
and scraps of wood, so the liquid could be burned off. I suspect
it's better for the environment to burn such petroleum products
rather than let them evaporate.
Next I poured about a quart of denatured alcohol into the garden
sprayer and sprayed the alcohol. into the tanks to rinse away the
mineral spirits and oil. This certainly helped, but a quart of
alcohol was not enough to do the job. I drained the alcohol over the
burn pile, rolled the tanks a safe distance away, and ignited the
Later, I put some Simple Green in the garden sprayer, not diluted
at all. Simple Green seems to be a good water-soluble degreasing
agent. I sprayed the insides of the tanks and then rolled the tanks
around the hayfield, this time letting stuff come out the large
holes on top. Large chunks of black charcoal-like gunk came out. I
rinsed the tanks several times with a garden hose.
Now the tanks smelled of a combination of Simple Green AND fuel
After I hauled away the tanks, the back yard smelled faintly of
fuel oil. There were numerous spots of black oily gunk in the field.
I used a propane torch to burn off these oily spots (being careful
not to let grass fires get started), and that seemed to remove the
Was this the best thing to do? I don't know. If I was going to
cut the tanks open, I could have wiped the insides clean with rags
Disposing Of Old Oil Tanks:
I was able to dispose of the old tanks at a local metal recycling
company. Normally they require that all tanks be cut in half, but
they made an exception for me because I had given them over 100
gallons of unused fuel oil. Besides, the manager knew somebody who
might be able to use them, so they accepted the tanks intact.
I have seen people make large trailer-mounted barbecue grills
from oil tanks. They cut the tank in two, turning the top half into
a hinged lid, and install supports for metal grills. This was of no
interest to me, but I seriously considered placing an advertisement
in the local paper to give away these tanks. But... I just didn't
have the time to fool around with such things... I just wanted them
gone. Whatever happens to these old tanks, at least the steel will
be re-used or recycled.
Disposing of large items like oil tanks could be quite a problem.
I doubt the garbage haulers would take an oil tank if you left it by
the curb. It would be wise to find someone to take the oil tank before
removing it from the house.
Cutting these tanks would be time-consuming, but not
impossible. An oxy-acetylene torch immediately comes to mind, but I
would NOT recommend using a torch to cut an oil tank. A cutting
torch could easily ignite leftover fuel inside an oil tank, and any
kind of fire inside an enclosed chamber could be explosive. Besides,
there could be other liquid residues in the tank, liquids that are
much more volatile than fuel oil.
I have cut plenty of heavy-gauge steel with my Sawzall. The trick
to cutting (or drilling) heavy ferrous metals is :
- Use a sharp, fine-toothed, metal cutting blade. Bi-metal
blades are the best because the teeth are a harder metal than
the blade body.
- Use a slow cutting speed, to reduce overheating of the
blade. The higher-priced Sawzalls have a control dial that
limits the maximum speed. When cutting iron and steel, I use 3
on the scale of 1 to 5.
- Push hard on the cutting tool.
- Lubricate the HELL out of the cutter. I often use
WD-40, but any oily substance will help. Plain water will work
too, but it will rust the blade if not wiped off after use.
Sometimes I use a waxy lube stick that is meant for lubricating
doors and hinges. I keep a tube in the Sawzall case and just rub
it on the blade. In a pinch, spitting on the blade is
better than nothing. I'm not kidding!
- In a nutshell: If you want to dull your cutting blades:
cut ferrous metals at high speed, don't push very hard, and
don't lubricate the cutter. The blade manufacturers will love
One problem with cutting these oil tanks would be the weld seams
at the corners. When steel is welded the nearby metal becomes much
harder, and the weld metal itself is usually very hard. I suspect
this would destroy most reciprocating saw blades, even bi-metal
blades. My approach would be to use an abrasive cutter in the weld
area. I have an inexpensive pneumatic 3" diameter abrasive disc
cut-off tool. This tool only cost fifteen bucks, but it requires a
large air compressor (this is perhaps the most powerful tool I have;
it makes my 4 HP air compressor run nearly full time). An angle
grinder would also work, or an abrasive blade could be used on a
circular saw. In fact, the entire cut could be made with an abrasive
metal-cutting blade mounted on a circular saw, but it might be
slower than a Sawzall. Besides, these abrasive blades throw sparks,
and too many sparks might ignite traces of oil in the tanks.
Don't Be Stupid: Complete The Job!
I have heard stories in the past (there was one on the
local news just the other day) about fuel oil being delivered
to the wrong house. Free oil, no big deal, right? Unless the
house had the oil tank removed.
Imagine coming home to find a couple of hundred gallons of
smelly fuel oil in your basement. Yu-uck! What a mess. What a
hassle. It would take forever to get rid of the odor.
Of course, this could only happen if someone removed the
oil tank but didn't remove the fill tube. That is simply dumb.
If you are going to remove an oil tank, complete the job and
remove the oil fill tube and vent tube. Or at least screw a
pipe cap on the open end of the pipe down in the basement. Why
leave an open access pipe into your house?
Fuel Oil and Fire Safety:
I've seen people who were afraid that fuel oil, kerosene or
diesel fuel could explode. That is a clear sign of ignorance.
Anybody who is familiar with these fuels knows that you can't pay
these fuels to burn, and explosive combustion is basically
impossible. It is difficult to get fuel oil to burn; it has to
be spread out in a thin layer, such as in a wick, or sprayed
into a fine mist (which furnaces do). A puddle or container of
oil just won't burn readily.
I think one of the most appealing features of fuel oil is
its high degree of safety.
BUT... fuel oil, kerosene or diesel could have
other flammable liquids mixed in, so use extra caution if
you are not certain of the origin of the oil. Any waste oil
product could easily contain other more volatile liquids. For
instance, used motor oil commonly gets mixed with a bit of
gasoline because mechanics often use an oil drain pan to catch
Back To Top
- Pipe Wrenches, 24",
- 5/16" Chain
- 2-Ton Ratcheting Cable
- Automotive Tow Hook
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