Disposing of Fuel and Water Tanks
A fuel tank must be disconnected, drained, and stabilized by a professional before it can be removed.

When water heaters, furnaces, and other large items in a home fail, they can’t just go into the trash. Municipal and landfill regulations dictate how old storage tanks must be handled to prevent pollution and the spread of noxious chemicals.

Many tanks are made of steel, which is in demand and can be recycled, making them easier to dispose of than other household appliances. Water heaters and other large appliances are encased in bodies composed of up to 75 percent steel by weight, according to the Steel Recycling Institute (SRI). In contrast, other items, such as plastics, have few markets and typically end up in landfills.

Controlling Contamination from Abandoned Tanks
But dismantling and disposing of tanks can pose potential problems since they may have held or may contain harmful chemicals that are not suited to landfills.

Mercury, for example, is found in many appliances and is one of the more difficult components to manage. There is no comprehensive list of appliances that contain it and mechanical skills are required to remove it. Mercury capsules pose no threat while they are intact, but shredding or crushing appliances for recycling can release the substance. Refrigerants are widespread among abandoned appliances. The chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in coolants and refrigerants is commonly banned from landfills because it is harmful to the ozone layer.

Use Professional Services for Disposal
A homeowner typically confronts tank disposal for one of two reasons, says Gregory Crawford, SRI vice president of recycling operations. One is that the item has failed and the homeowner is purchasing a new one. In that case, the retailer selling the new item may be able to remove and dispose of the old one. Some retailers charge a fee, but it’s worthwhile if environmental issues are involved. Improper disposal of harmful chemicals can result in a hefty fine.

The second scenario involves getting rid of an old item that will not be replaced or was abandoned in place years ago. This can be more difficult since many communities have strict regulations regarding disposal of hard goods. Homeowners with aging or abandoned tanks should contact appropriate local agencies for a list of licensed or qualified contractors.

Breaking Down Tanks for Disposal
Homeowners may be able to handle certain aspects of a disposal, depending on their comfort level with specific tasks. For example, an electric water heater typically has an outer enamel casing, an inner metal tank, a bonded glass lining, and a metal rod called an anode that helps prevent tank corrosion. Thermostats control a heating element that is sheathed in copper. There are drain and pressure valves.


Recycling Works

According to the Steel Recycling Institute, every ton of steel recycled saves:

  • 2,500 pounds of iron ore
  • 1,400 pounds of coal
  • 120 pounds of limestone

Each year, steel recycling saves enough energy to power one-fifth of the households in the United States (or about 18 million homes) with electricity for one year.


For a do-it-yourself removal, a homeowner should be knowledgeable about and comfortable working with electricity. First, turn off the power to the water heater and then double check to make sure it is off. Disconnect the wiring and attach labels to the wires to identify them for the new water heater installation.

Turn off the water to the water heater. Let the tank cool. Open the home’s hot water faucets. Connect one end of a hose to the tank’s drain valve and place the other end in an area that won’t be ruined by the draining water. Open the drain valve and empty the tank.

Disconnect the cold and hot water pipes by unscrewing connector hoses or cutting the lines. Remove the old water heater—with a helper—to an area where it can be safely picked up by a recycling contractor.

Disposal Problems
An old oil fuel tank is another story. If it is leaking and has contaminated an area, the EPA regulates the cleanup, which may get expensive. Contact municipal or county agencies to find out how to proceed.

If it is just an old tank left behind in the basement when the furnace was switched to gas, contact a residential heating-oil company. Many provide fill-ups, removal, and disposal services.

Homeowners should not attempt to dispose of an old fuel tank themselves. A professional is trained to remove and dispose of unused oil and sludge and eliminate the potential for explosive vapors. Expect some costs, however, because testing and handling needs to include the possibility that hazardous substances are involved. A contractor will also remove and cap lines, remove the tank, and properly dispose of it.

If the home has an underground tank, it can be dug up or, if not removable, “closed in place.” Closing it involves removing any oil, cleaning out sludge, capping lines, and filling the tank with sand or other inert material, capping openings, and backfilling the hole. Experts recommended hiring an experienced contractor because working on an underground tank runs the risk of explosions.

Disposal Restrictions
Nearly 20 states now ban appliances from being disposed of in landfills. Some states, such as Minnesota and California, require various hazardous materials to be removed from appliances before the metals are recycled.

The best solution is safe recycling. Check with local recycling coordinators. The Steel Recycling Institute’s online steel recycling locator also provides a searchable database to help consumers find a recycling location.

Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac