The gas pump indicated he had pumped five gallons of gas into a five-gallon gas can. Yet the can was nowhere near full. So the station was clearly shorting him on gas, right?
Weights and Measures inspectors with the Utah Department of Agriculture responded immediately to the customer's complaint, putting the pump through rigorous tests as the customer watched. The pump tested dead-on accurate.
The inspectors then tested the man's gas five-gallon can, which turned out to be a six-gallon container.
In this case, the customer isn't always right.
But there are hundreds of times every year when gas pumps are cheating customers. And there are just as many times where the pumps are cheating the store owner by giving away gas.
Just how error-free are Utah's gas stations?
A three-month Deseret News review of station inspections shows roughly 1,800 pumps failed state inspections by the Utah Department of Agriculture from 2000 to 2002.
Some 26 percent of the stations tested by the state over the past three years failed one or more inspections because pumps or storage tanks did not meet state requirements.
But that reflects only those tested.
The Deseret News found that three out of every 10 stations in the state have not had any state inspections during the past three years.
More bark than bite
The department has a program goal that all of Utah's 1,209 stations will be inspected every year, but it doesn't come close. Last year, 39 percent of all stations were inspected; in 2000, it was only 22 percent.
And only about half the time did a failed inspection result in a follow-up visit to make sure the problems were fixed. The poor follow-up record may be due, at least in part, to the station's problems being fixed while the inspector was still there but not noted in the inspection report, state officials said.
"It is a high priority, but we just don't have the manpower to get out to every station every year," said Brett Gurney, head of the department's Weights and Measures Program. "We are overwhelmed."
Indeed, they are. There are only six inspectors statewide who are qualified to check on an estimated 31,000 pumps and almost 3,000 underground fuel tanks in the state.
The state program is clearly geared toward helping stations fix problem pumps, rather than punishing stations that fail inspections, no matter how often they fail.
It is not uncommon for inspectors to revisit the same station three and four times on the same problem. In the case of one 7-Eleven in Heber City, inspectors returned six times in 2000, failing the store all six times for water in its storage tanks. The station never did pass in 2000, and inspectors did not return for 22 months (it passed its 2002 inspection).
At the Tesoro on North Temple, inspectors returned seven times from August 2002 on pump and tank problems before the station finally passed last December.
While the inspection program nominally has a "zero tolerance" for errors, Gurney admits that are slightly different tolerance levels for older pumps than those that are new. "It depends on the situation at the station," he said.
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Gas station inspections
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"It depends on the severity of the error," Gurney said. "Technically, if a pump is out of tolerance, it's a violation."
And he adds that inspectors are cracking down, issuing more notices of violation.
So-called "notice of violations" are issued to stations where the errors are egregious, but those notices carry no monetary penalties or administrative repercussions. Nor does a second violation. After that, the department charges for the inspector's time, equipment and mileage, but there is still no punitive action.
Only two times in the past three years has the problem been so serious the department actually fined a station, once in 2001 for $250 and once in 2002 for $400.
In effect, Utah taxpayers are shouldering the entire cost for the vast majority of inspections.
A penny saved
Perhaps the saving grace is that Utah's stations are doing a pretty good keeping their pumps and tanks in good working order. Last year, only 4 percent of all of the pumps tested by the state failed to pass muster; the year before it was 8 percent, and the year before that 7 percent.
When it comes to Utah's 2,962 underground fuel tanks, only 4 percent of those tested in 2001 and 2002 failed tests, almost always for water.
"We have zero tolerance for any water," said Dale Kunz, an inspector with the Weights and Measures Program. "They have to pump the water out immediately, and that can get very expensive."
Not only does water destroy car engines, but water could indicate groundwater leaking through cracks in the tanks. If that happens, the Environmental Protection Agency is called in, and correcting the problem means thousands of dollars cleaning up contaminated soils, he said.
But of the hundreds of complaints about gas stations cheating customers, Weights and Measures found fewer than a dozen complaints over the past three years where the customer was correct.
The standard for passing or failing is quite miniscule. A station can actually fail a state inspection for pumps that are off by only a few tablespoons per gallon.
Inspectors extend a minimum tolerance of six cubic inches of gas per five gallons, three cubic inches if the pump is new or has had maintenance in the 30 days prior to the inspection.
With 230 cubic inches per gallon, the station can fail for what amounts to about a penny a gallon, based on today's gas prices.
A penny a gallon may not seem like much, but it adds up. An average Utah station with 18 to 24 pumps sells roughly 100,000 gallons of gas a month. The large stations and truck stops can sell that much in a week.
If all the pumps at an average-size station are out of compliance by six cubic inches, that means customers could be paying $1,000 a month more than they should. Or just as likely, the station is watching $1,000 a month in profits slip away.
"That's why we (7-Eleven) do our own inspections every month," said Brian Terry, manager of a Salt Lake store who welcomed a state inspector with open arms last week. A lot of other chains also have their own inspectors.
Most independently owned stores also pay maintenance companies to conduct private inspections to make sure the pumps are as close to error-free as possible.
All of that effort on making pumps accurate has nothing to do with running afoul of state inspectors. Rather it's all about the bottom line.
In many cases, the errors are much, much greater than six cubic inches per five gallons, averaging 10 to 15 cubic inches but sometimes reaching 25 to 50 cubic inches. And those are the kind of errors that grab the attention of state inspectors and the store owners.
"The state inspections are really helpful to owners," said Mike Slaugh, whose family owns two stations in Salt Lake County and another in Daggett County. "Any error adds up fast. One pump out of calibration can cost the owner thousands of dollars over the course of a year."
Slaugh said most station owners pay close attention to the amount of gas pumped into their underground storage tanks and the amount pumped back out by customers an audit trail that lets the station double-check the accuracy of its pumps. Any deviation sends up red flags, and the companies are quick to call in maintenance companies to do repairs.
The profit margin on gas is sliver-thin, he points out. The standard markup is about 6 percent, but then the business loses 3 percent off the top that goes back to Chevron, Texaco or the other major oil companies as a fee for credit card sales. Then when they take out overhead for employees and maintenance, there just isn't room for any error.
"Nobody is making money on gas," Slaugh said. "We make our money on beer and Twinkies."
A penny saved
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