Local gas stations could be ripping off motorists across the country, and the motorist probably doesn’t even know it. A large number of gas stations keep “condemned,” or mis-calibrated, pumps in service, which might be shortchanging people at the pump.
Measure for measure
A key function of the various state departments of Weights and Measures is monitoring gas pumps. Weights and Measures personnel go around to various gas stations in every state, checking the internal calibration of gas pumps and testing to see if the pumps are delivering as much fuel as the meter reads. Aside from internal equipment, testing also includes pumping gas into containers with internal scales to measure weight.
If the pump isn’t delivering the correct amount of fuel within certain tolerances, according to Car and Driver, the pump is “condemned for use” or “condemned for repair.” Pumps condemned for repair have to be re-calibrated, but gas stations can still use them until they are re-inspected. However, gas stations have to remove pumps that are condemned for use until they meet acceptable standards.
More sour pumps than one might think
It isn’t known how many gas pumps aren’t correctly pumping nationwide. The number varies by state. For instance, a recent investigative report by ABC2, a Baltimore, Md., ABC affiliate, found more than 4,000 pumps flagged as condemned or rejected by state authorities since 2009, yet still in use. Of those, the state flagged 1,045 condemned pumps for issues affecting what customers spend. The statewide estimate is that between 5 and 6 percent of all gas pumps don’t pump the correct amount.
NBC4, an NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., found in an investigation last month of gas pump documentation from weights and measures inspectors in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, that 57 percent of gas stations in Maryland’s Prince George and Montgomery counties pumps that were flagged for some violation, though only 12 percent for costing customers money.
In 2006, according to Car and Driver, the state of Michigan inspected 6,985 pumps and found 1,299, roughly 20 percent, were pumping an inaccurate amount of gas. Of those, 755 were condemned for use and 544 were condemned for repair. Additionally, 217 of 2,816 samples of gasoline failed inspection, mostly for having a lower octane rating than advertised.
Error usually in favor of motorist
The amount of overcharging varies, as almost all instances are due to equipment failure rather than malfeasance. Most of the time its only a few cents per gallon.
However, more gas pumps were actually pumping additional gas than the meter read, leading to consumers getting more gas than they were paying for, rather than the opposite. In Maryland, the pumps were three times more likely to give gas away rather than overcharge, according to ABC2. An inspector quoted by Car and Driver in 2006 revealed 8 percent of pumps she had flagged were giving away too much gas, compared with 6 percent that were pumping too little.