With gas prices soaring, motorists want to get every drop for the dollar.
So to help out, the Roundup asked for two years worth of state inspection records for filling stations in Payson to find out which miscalibrated pumps have ripped off customers.
The results: pumps at four stations have given customers less than they bought — but then another five pumps gave customers more gas than they paid for. In addition, inspectors dinged most stations in town for maintenance issues.
An official with the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures said station owners fix most issues soon after an inspection to avoid fines and possible shut down.
Still, if drivers think a pump is shorting them, they can contact Weights and Measures anonymously to file a report, said Shawn Marquez, director of compliance programs with the agency.
The stations with pumps that gave out too little gas include the Circle K on North Beeline Highway, the Giant off Highway 260, Jakes Corner Store on Highway 188 and the commercial station Pacific Pride off Longhorn Road.
The Giant on Highway 260 had the most violations in any one inspection, a total of 45 deficiencies in September 2011. The Circle K in Star Valley followed with 30 deficiencies.
The Roundup found while inspectors always check a pump after a customer complains, it can be years between routine inspections. In fact, most field officers examine service stations approximately once every three years.
“While we conduct random inspections of fueling stations, we rely on consumers to serve as our eyes and ears,” according to the Weights and Measures Measures Web site.
Marquez said the state’s 20 inspectors try to visit stations more often, but admits the time between inspections in rural areas varies.
Roughly, 75 percent of inspections in Payson occurred in 2010 with inspectors not returning since.
The gap between inspections means problems like a cracking hose or faulty nozzle could go years before being addressed.
Maintenance issues top the list of problems inspectors find — not pumps that rip off consumers, Marquez said.
However, the majority of consumer complaints Weights and Measures receives center on the belief that a pump did not put out enough gas.
“Ninety-nine percent are calibration complaints,” he said.
Inspectors find most of those complaints are not supported.
“What throws people off these days is the price of fuel is going up and people are trying to wrap their mind around having it cost so much more to fill up their tank when before it only cost half that,” he said. “People are not used to paying that much more and only barely seeing their needle move.”
When the cost of a fill-up jumps from $40 to $60, it is normal to wonder if there is something wrong with the pump, he said.
The vast majority of pumps inspected pass and inspectors are seeing an increase in compliance almost every year.
“People are surprised to hear that because most think they are getting ripped off,” Marquez said. “But it behooves (a station) owner to have good reports and have their pumps maintained and customers happy because it is a really competitive business.”
Stations must fix calibration and maintenance issues or face civil penalties. Stations have 30 days to have a pump recalibrated.
Most stations avoid litigation by making the needed fixes, he said.
Each pump is allowed a small margin of error that amounts to about a shotglass worth of gas in an average fill-up.
Inspectors always arrive unannounced and check each pump for proper calibration and functioning equipment.
Years ago, inspectors showed up the same time each year and did not catch as many deficiencies, Marquez said.
“In the old way, they knew when we were coming,” he said. With the new, unannounced practices, compliance rates have risen.
Some of the most common issues deal with maintenance.
Marquez said pumps wear down with constant use and can become inaccurate if they are not maintained. In a tough economy, however, the first thing cut is maintenance programs.
An inspector found dozens of maintenance issues at the Giant off Highway 260. They ranged from three pumps missing a wire seal, 13 general maintenance concerns, three pumps performing abnormally, six labeling issues, two nozzle and nine pump hose issues.
The station was also dinged three times for meter jumps, caused when the meter suddenly jumped several cents when pumping for no reason.
The Circle K at 3729 E. Highway 260 also had a number of deficiencies including 16 maintenance issues and two label concerns.
The Maverik led with the most customer-driven inspections, but inspectors rarely found anything wrong.
In March 2011, a customer complained he wasn’t getting enough gas, but the inspection revealed the pump was actually giving away extra gas.
While not a problem for consumers, giving extra gas can hurt a station’s bottom line.
Do it yourself
To check the pump yourself try the following “Times 10 Rule.”
When filling your gas tank:
Stop the flow of gasoline at exactly 10 gallons.
Move the decimal point of the total price (total price you pay shown on the meter display) one place to the left, move the decimal point of the price per gallon one place to the right or multiply by 10.
The total price should be the same as the per gallon price. Example: 10 gallons at $2 per gallon should equal $20.