Are you getting as much gasoline as you pay for?
Five dollars in fuel will usually get Amanda Hilton of Grand Junction at least to Fruita and back in her 1997 Subaru Outback.
That’s why she was stymied last week when she paid for $10 worth of 87-grade unleaded fuel at a gas station west of Grand Junction. Her tank was nearly empty by the time she returned to her home near Grand Junction’s downtown, about eight miles away.
“I didn’t get my money’s worth,” Hilton said, when she called the newspaper to report the issue.
Hilton said she contacted employees at the station about the March 26 incident without resolution, and she didn’t know whom else to contact.
“Something’s not right there,” Hilton said. “I don’t believe in people taking advantage of people.”
Anyone who feels they are being cheated at a fuel pump for any reason can file a complaint with the state, and in the Grand Junction area, one of two inspectors with the Division of Oil & Public Safety will investigate immediately.
A day after getting a call from a reporter about Hilton’s claim, state inspector Bill Hickman was at the gas station, checking the pump in question for accuracy. Using an expensive, highly-calibrated 5-gallon container, the amount of 87-grade fuel dispensed on the questionable pump came back as accurate.
Was he surprised?
“Not at all,” Hickman said. “In the vast majority of cases, the pumps are actually off to the consumers’ advantage. In my 15 years, there was only one dispenser that was off by gallons in the direction against consumers. It’s rarely outside the level of tolerance.”
About 85 percent of the time, the consumers are given more gas at the pump than is displayed, Hickman estimated.
Still, the number of complaints to the state agency tends to increase alongside fuel prices as consumers become increasingly sensitive about getting every drop of fuel they pay for.
The state now receives upwards of 300 complaints a year, which has about doubled since fuel topped $2 a gallon, Hickman said.
The nature of mechanical parts in the fuel pumps is to break down, which more often than not results in consumers getting more gas than they paid for, Hickman said.
However, if any pump is off by 6 cubic inches per 5 gallons, or the equivalent of about a teaspoon per gallon, in either direction, inspectors will break the official seal and adjust pumps accordingly.
One of the most common complaints from consumers involves watered-down fuel, Hickman said. It’s usually the easiest to substantiate because officials will get more than one call with complaints, usually stemming from the same station. If water has gotten into the fuel, vehicles won’t get more than a block or two before stalling out. Conspiracy theories aside, it’s not a practice stations do intentionally, Hickman said.
“A lot of the tanks are underground, and sometimes water does get in there,” he said.
Other common complaints include motorists not getting as much fuel as purchased, for example, when a 15-gallon tank takes 15.5 gallons. Often tanks or containers allow extra room for spillage and vapors.
Motorists also report “meter creep,” which is when a few cents register on the dispenser after paying for fuel but before any fuel is dispensed.
That usually occurs on fuel grades least used, such as the highest grades, and during the coolest part of the day, Hickman said.
It’s most likely to occur if the pump hasn’t been used for some time. After it occurs once, it’s unlikely the next customer will have the same issue, Hickman said.
“People believe they are doing a service to everyone, but it probably won’t happen again,” Hickman said.
The state’s 12 inspectors in an 18-month cycle check and calibrate all pumps during surprise visits at the state’s 2,350 gas stations, which contain about 45,000 dispensers. Inspectors also immediately respond in the case of accidental fuel overflows, and they regulate storage tanks and check for fire-safety issues.
Gas stations are required to contract with private service companies for pump maintenance services, and station attendants cannot meddle with a pump’s seal. If that occurred, a state inspector would know upon inspection and could levy a fine against a station.
After inspections, officials slap a sticker on the front of fuel pumps to indicate the date of the last inspection. Stickers also display a phone number for concerned customers to call and lodge complaints with the state. Complaints can be anonymous, and officials can report back the findings of an investigation to residents.
“We depend on citizens’ complaints,” division Director Mahesh Albuquerque said. “We don’t have any way of remotely checking dispensers.”