Gasoline

Getting What You Pay For At The Pump?

34 Percent Of S. Florida Gas Stations Fail Pump Accuracy Tests In Past Three Years

October 21, 2007|By Mc Nelly Torres

When South Florida drivers buy gasoline, they trust they are getting what they pay for at the pump. But that’s not always the case.

Some gas pumps break down, shortchanging consumers. Others malfunction in ways that give costumers more than they pay for. And in some cases, experts and state regulators say gas pumps are deliberately altered.

In South Florida, 34 percent of the gas stations inspected in the past three years had at least one gas pump that failed accuracy tests used to determine if the devices are giving consumers the correct amount of gas they pay for, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel analysis found.

More often, pumps failed in ways that could benefit consumers. But almost as often, dispensers failed in ways that could cheat consumers – from a few cents per fill up to several dollars. With South Florida gas prices higher than the national average, even small sums add up. The average vehicle consumes 550 gallons of gasoline annually, U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show.

The Sun-Sentinel analyzed state inspection reports from 2004 to 2006. The analysis found 580 of more than 2,500 stations in South Florida had at least one pump dispensing more gas than customers paid to purchase, while 477 provided less fuel than they should.

“If you go to the grocery store and buy a gallon of milk, you expect a gallon of milk,” said Jason Toews, co-founder of Gasbuddy.com, a consumer advocacy site that tracks gas prices. “The same goes for gasoline.”

It’s unclear if Florida’s pump failure rate is higher or lower than in other states. In 2003, a national survey by the National Conference on Weights and Measures, found a 6 percent failure rate on gas dispensers tested in 2002. South Florida’s failure rate in recent years mirrors the nation.

Jim Smith, president of the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said most gas station owners don’t purposely shortchange consumers, but some members have reported others for cheating consumers.

“We have a bad reputation as it is right now because of the gas prices,” Smith said. “You don’t want the consumer thinking they’ve been cheated every time they buy gas.”

State inspection records indicate at least 173 South Florida gas stations failed more than 10 tests within the past three years. Those with multiple failures included well-known industry names and independently owned stations alike. Most were in Miami-Dade County, which has more gas stations than Broward and Palm Beach counties. Stations with the highest number of repeat failures had pumps that could both shortchange and benefit consumers, state inspectors found. Among them:

Old Dixie Texaco in Homestead topped the South Florida list, failing 68 maintenance tests – all but four for malfunctions that would shortchange consumers.

Blue Heron Amoco/BP at 3691 W. Blue Heron Blvd. in Riviera Beach had the most failures in Palm Beach County, failing 38 tests – most for providing more gas than consumers would purchase, but also for shortchanging customers in five cases. Gas One at 4525 W. Atlantic Ave. in Delray Beach failed 37 tests – all but three for giving away more gas than customers would purchase.

Owners and managers of Old Dixie Texaco and Blue Heron Amoco declined comment. Bob Schonger, manager of Gas One, said large, busy stations tend to have more devices malfunction because they’re used more frequently than low-volume stations.

“We give people a good price,” Schonger said. “If anything, we are giving away gas.”

In Broward, West Oakland Park Mobil at 5998 W. Oakland Park Blvd. in Sunrise failed 28 tests – all but six for providing less gas than consumers would pay for. Moe Rahman, the station’s franchise owner, said the company has zero tolerance for equipment failure and problems are corrected soon after state inspectors note deficiencies.

Tamarac Shell at 5001 N. State Road 7 in Tamarac failed 21 tests – all but four for malfunctions that would shortchange customers. Tamarac Shell representatives declined comment.

State regulations don’t require inspectors to issue fines for pump failures, even to repeat offenders. Officials say the priority is to fix problems.

“Mechanical devices break down over time and we have to take that into account,” said Matthew Curran, head of the state Bureau of Petroleum Inspection. “And that’s why we go back and check these facilities so we won’t overpenalize them.”

Devices that shortchange customers are taken out of service until they are fixed and reinspected. Pumps that err in consumers’ favor are not shut down.

“It is difficult to tell when a pump is cheating you,” said Judy Dugan, founder and research director for Oilwatchdog.org, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group based in Santa Monica, Calif. “But the key issue here is does anybody [gas station owners] ever pay a price for cheating?”

Steve Hadder, a field administrator with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Bureau of Petroleum Inspection, said inspections are unannounced and conducted on every Florida gas station at least every 12 to 18 months. Inspectors also perform undercover investigations of repeat offenders or as a result of consumer calls. A gas station found tampering with a seal to shortchange consumers could be charged with intent to defraud consumers, a misdemeanor, which state officials said is rare, Hadder said.

Only two stations have been fined for tampering with seals since 2005. Curran said Waters Texaco Food and Gas at 8145 West Waters Ave. in Tampa and J.C. Gas Station at 18700 NW Second Ave. in Miami were fined $5,000 and $10,000, respectively, after an investigation determined station personnel tampered with meter seals in 2005.

Many inspections are the result of consumer complaints. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services received 13,909 complaints about gas-stations from state residents from 2004 to 2006, a third of them from South Floridians.

Larry Grosser, 55, of West Palm Beach, filed a complaint with the state in 2005 after a pump at the Okeechobee Chevron at 6970 Okeechobee Blvd. showed it dispensed 22 gallons instead of 20 gallons – the maximum his vehicle holds. “I was waiting for the pump to stop but it kept going and going,” Grosser said.

An inspector tested the device at the West Palm Beach station the following day. The results indicated the pump had been charging for gas that consumers did not get, state records show. In Grosser’s case, the gas pump shortchanged him about 20 cents a gallon. Grosser said he got a $4 credit.

Last year, the same device failed inspection for providing more gas than consumers would pay for. Okeechobee Chevron representatives could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts by the Sun-Sentinel to seek a response.

Alexander Saas, 38, a network engineer who now lives in Indiana, said he noticed something odd when he finished filling his tank at ExxonMobil at 5600 Nob Hill Road in Tamarac. The gas pump indicated it dispensed 21 gallons to fill his Pathfinder’s tank, which he knows holds only 18 gallons.

“I always pay attention. That’s why I noticed,” said Saas, who reported the incident in Nov. 21, 2005.

A test on Dec. 1, 2005, showed the device was not accurate. Inspectors shut down the pump until it was fixed and reinspected. Consumers using the device before the inspection were shortchanged about 6 cents per gallon, state records show. The same pump passed its most recent inspection on April 10.

In 2005, an inspector failed a pump at DT Oil Station at 1910 NW Seventh St. in Miami because it was shortchanging drivers. The pump had no seal, records show. David Yanez, a Miami real estate agent, said he was outraged when he realized the pump charged him for gas he did not get.

“I got mad when I noticed the pump showed 21 gallons instead of 15 or 16 gallons,” Yanez said. “The pump cheated me about $10.”

State records show an inspector tested the device eight days later, finding the margin of error was over the state’s limits.

State officials said that if they suspect the seal was tampered with, an investigation is launched. But in DT Oil’s case no probe was ordered.

DT Oil representatives could not be reached for comment despite multiple efforts by the Sun-Sentinel to seek a response.

Although the station gave Yanez credit after the device was tested, the experience was an eye-opener.

“People have no idea,” said Yanez, 38. “They stop to fill their tanks and they keep driving.”

BY MC NELLY TORRES

Mechanical errors and wear and tear can contribute to gas pump malfunctions. State inspectors use a calibration test to measure the accuracy of a pump by filling a 5-gallon container with gasoline.

Gas dispensers are allowed a margin of error of about half a cup of gasoline — a few cents worth of gas, depending on the price — which is the standard set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Inspectors can fail a gas pump for accuracy or equipment problems, such as worn out hoses and broken display panels. They can also flunk a device if the numbers on the pump start running before the gas is dispensed or if leaks are discovered in the hose or inside the pump.

Inspectors also check a pump’s electronics to look for visible tampering with the electronic panel where credit card data is stored. A broken seal on a pump’s electrical system can indicate tampering.

“If the owner refuses to allow us to inspect a gas station, we’ll shut it down,” said state inspector Heydrick Rodriguez, during a recent check at a gas station in Boca Raton.

Michael Stephenson, a retired senior investigator for the Michigan Department of Agriculture Motor Fuels Section and a fuel-industry expert, said tampering is common in busy metro areas where motorists use multiple gas stations.

HOW TO ACT

To file a complaint against a gas station, call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bureau of Petroleum Inspection, at 800-435-7352 (HELP-FLA) or go to http://www.doacs.state.fl.us/standard/petro/index .html.  Make sure you record the type of gas, the pump number and the station’s name and address.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel published these stories on Oct. 21,2007. This story, including the Web video and searchable database, were recipients of SPJ Green Eyeshade Awards in 2008 for Online Consumer Reporting.

Hot fuel case about cold cash

Suit wants oil companies to treat consumers fairly

BY MC NELLY TORRES

Florida drivers pay among the nation’s highest gas prices because of high taxes and the state’s lack of refineries and pipelines.

Now consumer advocates are taking legal action on another issue they say has Florida and other warmer states paying more to power their vehicles: hot fuel.

When gasoline gets hot, it expands, taking up more space and providing less energy and fewer miles per gallon than fuel that is colder.

With gas prices breaking record levels, and projected to rise more by summer, advocates are taking aim at a century-old federal standard that allows the oil industry to set prices based on the nation’s annual average temperature of 60 degrees.

Because of the regulation, motorists in warmer states such as Florida — with an average annual temperature of 82.4 degrees — get fewer miles per gallon for the gas they buy than those in cooler states. Floridians pay up to 9 cents more per gallon than motorists in the Northeast, Midwest and colder regions, according to consumer watchdog groups.

Here’s why: A vehicle with a 20-gallon gas tank can travel about 490 miles between fill-ups with 90-degree fuel in Florida, according to projections by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a national trucker trade organization.

But that same vehicle would travel 495 miles if it were filled with gas at 75 degrees in Colorado and 505 miles if it were filled at 45-degree temperatures in Buffalo.

Hot fuel has prompted more than 35 class-action lawsuits nationwide, two congressional hearings and an inquiry by the General Accountability Office, Congress’ investigatory arm. Texas and California also are studying the issue.

Advocates claim U.S. oil companies are overcharging consumers in warmer states and argue the current pricing structure should change.

Industry leaders say they are following federal regulations.

Jim Smith, president of Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said the lawsuits have no merit and disputed the scientific claims advocates have made.

“There’s no scientific study backing up this issue,” he said.

Judy Dugan, founder and research director for Oilwatchdog.org, said there is strong scientific support for the advocates’ allegations and that motorists in warmer states are not getting a fair shake at the pump.

“Florida is a money-making machine for gas stations and, ultimately, refiners because of hot fuel,” said Dugan, whose consumer advocacy group is based in Santa Monica, Calif. “At Florida’s average gas temperature, motorists are losing four cents a gallon. In summer’s higher temperatures, it will often be double that.”

Dick Suiter, a retired National Institute of Standards and Technology expert who has examined the issue, said there is little debate among scientists.

“It is commonly known that temperature affects the volume and quality of gasoline,” said Suiter, an expert in this area who spent more than 11 years at NIST, the federal agency in charge of advancing measurement science, standards and technology.

He said new temperature-sensing “smart pumps” that calibrate fuel prices at the station could ensure fairness in the marketplace. He added that regulation requiring the technology might be needed if the industry doesn’t introduce it.

In an effort to calculate the costs of hot fuel, the House Subcommittee on Domestic Policy tracked nationwide average temperatures during warm months, gasoline consumption for those months and gasoline prices in 2006 and 2007.

Hot fuel cost consumers $1.5 billion more in summer 2007 for gas than they would have spent if stations used “smart pumps,” according to a report submitted by the subcommittee.

In Florida alone, hot fuel cost motorists $260 million over a 12-month period in 2006 and 2007, according to the report.

Plaintiffs in the class-action suits claim gas retailers generate extra profits by collecting fuel taxes on each retail gallon they sell, but remitting taxes to the government based on the number of wholesale gallons they sell, which are adjusted for temperature.

All the class-action lawsuits — including those filed in Florida, California, Arizona and Texas — were combined recently and are waiting to be tried in front of a federal judicial panel in Kansas City, Mo., said George Zelcs, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

The attorney said the suit alleges gasoline sold in warmer states is an average of 10 degrees warmer than the industry standard. The suit aims to require gas stations to install “smart pumps,” which are now used in Hawaii and Canada.

Nathan Butler, an Oakland Park independent truck driver and a plaintiff in the first class-action suit, said he can’t afford to drive his 18-wheeler through Florida this summer.

“I don’t have a choice,” said Butler. “If I buy fuel at high temperatures, I’d lose miles per gallon.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. introduced legislation last year requiring gas stations to install “smart pumps,” which cost between $4,400 and $7,300 per pump.

“We have the technology to change that, and there’s no good reason not to utilize it,” McCaskill said in a statement.

“The least we can do in Congress is ensure consumers are getting what they pay for.”

Groups such as Public Citizen, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Consumers Union, Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, Consumer Federation of America and U.S. Public Interest Research Groups have endorsed the proposed legislation.

Major oil companies and independent operators have opposed changes in the law, arguing that retrofitting pumps to calculate fuel sales based on temperature won’t save consumers money.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel contacted the oil companies named in the class-action suit, but most declined to comment.

“On the surface, this litigation claims to be a service to consumers,” said Margaret Chabris in a statement issued by 7-Eleven Inc. “But temperatures change throughout the day. Consumers don’t want prices to change with every rise or drop of temperature.”

John Siebert, an advocate for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said many truck drivers are struggling to make a profit, and they are angry about the money they are losing on fuel.

“You would assume that in a free market both sides would have perfect knowledge of the performance of a product before it is purchased,” Siebert said.

Lesley Duke, of Hertford, N.C., an independent truck driver and plaintiff in the first lawsuit filed in 2006, said

“People are not getting a fair shake. Billions of dollars are being taken away from the American public.”

This article was published by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on April 27,2008.

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