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Pump inspections: The mismeasure of gas

BY KURT CUNNINGHAM | MAY 14, 2009 7:32 AM

 
Click here for a technical requirements guide on mesauring devices. (PDF format)
 

Most people worry more about the price of gas than the pump it’s coming out of.

But if it’s a pump in Johnson County: Consumers beware.

The Iowa Weights and Measures Bureau does not complete its job of inspecting gas pumps annually. And frequently, the bureau is failing to follow its own regulations, as discovered by a four-month examination by The Daily Iowan. This leaves consumers in the dark about how much gas they actually receive for the price they pay.

In Johnson County, not a single gas pump was tested in 2007.

In the years of 2005, 2006, and 2008, approximately one-third of the county’s 65 gas stations had a pump that did not pass an inspection.

And the required follow-up inspections — for gas pumps that failed an initial test —were rare.

The bureau’s mandatory inspections are meant to ensure consumers and gas-station owners they aren’t losing money. Checking for leaky parts, pumps that over- or under-charge consumers, and the performance of the machinery helps to keep consumers safe from spending more money on gas.

But because of the sheer number of tasks, Iowa’s inspectors simply can’t keep up — in Johnson County, at least. Only seven of the department’s 11 inspectors are assigned to check the 35,000 gas pumps in Iowa.

And while the number of gasoline stations continues to grow across the state, the number of inspectors, in the last decade, has declined, leaving some gas pumps untested each year, according to the bureau records.

The DI traced the inspection process by following along on inspections and reviewing the regulations required by the state. During the examinations, the DI also interviewed gas-station employees, consumers, and staff members from the Weights and Measures Bureau and compiled the inspection reports for the last four years. Results show:

• Despite testing 59 gas stations in 2008, the department could only reinspect four of those 22 stations that failed the first test.

• Inspectors allow pumps that fail inspections to remain in service as long as a station agrees to fix the pump in a “reasonable” time. The regulation requires them to be fixed before they can be used again.

• In 2006, no pumps were retested by inspectors to ensure they had been properly fixed. In 2005 and 2007, one station failed numerous inspections.

• In one test, an inspector passed a pump with a broken screen, even though he knew state regulations require all pumps to display prices. Additionally, this was at a station that failed several tests the previous year.

Officials blame the inconsistencies on the budget and an insufficient number of staff members.

“It’s hard to meet our mandate with the way the budget is now,” said Ivan Hankins, the technical coordinator of the Weights and Measures Bureau. “We have to do more work will fewer resources.”

The state operated with five inspectors during 2005, 2006, and part of 2007 — a number not sufficient to properly get the job done.

Other states have decided to change regulations, such as testing only after consumer complaints, but Iowa tests annually because, Hankins said, it’s necessary to keep businesses honest and consumers safe. This is a sentiment echoed by other officials.

Yet, not all the inspections are getting done, as shown by records received from the bureau.

At least one Iowa City gas station had not been tested for three-years straight — it was finally tested in late 2008.

Inspecting the inspection process

The testing is tedious at times, admits Wes Sommerfledt, the inspector for Johnson County.
To determine if pumps are cheating consumers or gas stations, each nozzle is checked for leaks, cracks, and the flow of gas from a pump to a tank.

“Most of the time, it is just normal wear and tear on the pumps,” Sommerfledt said. “But that is why we need to test and inform gas stations of the problems; they don’t do it on their own.”

Maintenance problems can occur on a regular basis, but fixing the problem depends on a station’s willingness to spend money. A station has up to 30 days to fix a faulty pump, at which point an inspector should retest the station.

But according to records, this is not happening.

The bureau only reinspected four of the 22 stations in Johnson County that failed to meet the required regulations in 2008.

Time plays a major factor in what he can get done in one year, Sommerfledt said: Only 12 half-days annually are allotted for rechecks.

“So it is extremely hard to make it back — especially because we aren’t allowed overtime,” he said.
It is not just last year the bureau has been facing this problem.

In 2006, only 35 of the 65 stations in Johnson County were tested, and 18 failed to clear inspections. Not one station received a recheck. In 2007, testing didn’t occur in Johnson County.

The state has made a few amendments to the regulations that ensure consumers get what they’re paying for. In fact, it has made the regulations tougher on gas stations. The state requires gas pumps that are off by 5 cubic inches per gallon — instead of the previous mandate of 6 cubic inches per gallon — to be serviced and reinspected.

Even companies hired to fix pumps said individual stations must make the decision to routinely fix problems.

Art Wenworth, the vice president of Pipeco Inc., a service company, said, “Some stations are better than others at keeping their pumps up to date and in proper working order.”

It costs stations to fix their pumps on a routine basis, and “it’s just not feasible for them to do it all the time,” he said.

State law requires a station to fix a pump if it’s open to the public.

Inspection shortcuts

Because of the amount of work and limited staff, the Weights and Measures Bureau can’t check everything, said Sommerfledt and Hankins.

The agency doesn’t have the time to check gas tanks on delivery trucks transporting gas to privately owned storage tanks or propane tanks or, for that matter, packaged meat to ensure the weight is correct, Sommerfledt said.

“It is a shame,” he said. “We should be checking these products.”

With lack of time and manpower, the bureau is finding ways around its own laws. One way the agency has managed to cut down on the number of rejected pumps is by “operating by the rule of thumb,” Hankins said.

“I don’t shut a pump down unless it is two times the accepted tolerance,” he said. He does inform gas stations of any problem.

Iowa regulations state a pump cannot give out or short a customer more than 5 cubic inches per gallon. If the pump skewed to 7 or 8 cubic inches, it would add up to approximately one-fourth a can of soda pop in a standard 16-gallon gas tank.

Over time these small figures add up to “astronomical amounts,” said Hankins.

“For one individual, it is not a lot of money,” he said. “But how many cars go to a single station in a day, or a year — it adds up.”

According to the Energy Information Administration, the official provider of energy statistics in the United States, the average price for a gallon of gas in the Midwest is slightly more than $2, which means that if a fuel pump is off by only 2 cubic inches per gallon, the consumers and or gas station could stand to lose up to 96 cents for every 16-gallons of gas pumped.

The bureau has taken advantage of other ways around the code, too.

In one inspection the DI shadowed, Sommerfledt knowingly passed a pump, even though the LCD light that displays the price for customers wasn’t working.

“I know I shouldn’t pass this pump,” he said. “But I had a lot problems at this station last year, and I am not sure I want to get into it with them this time.”

Instead of rejecting the pump for violating a state code, he approved the pump for consumer use. Sommerfledt said he would inform the gas station of the problem, and if he had time, come back to make sure it was fixed.

The manger of that station said it had had some problems with flood-damaged pumps in the past but said Sommerfledt never informed the station about screen problems during the last test.

On May 9, the DI found that the screen was still out of service.

Though a broken screen may not cost customers, the shortcut violates Iowa code. However, hedging on gas outflow leaves consumers at risk of either losing money or gas.

Hankins and Sommerfledt said the current system in place for testing gas pumps is the fastest and most efficient way to get testing done — they cannot get to everything on their list before the end of the year, they said. On top of checking pumps, inspectors must test grain moisture meters and small retail scales, such as those used in grocery stores.

“We hope that they get the pumps fixed so that they are working right,” Hankins said. “But sometimes, we have to wait until next year in order to inspect a station or reinspect a station that failed — that’s just the way numbers work out.”


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