In 2011, the California Department of Agriculture reported that 95 percent of the fuel pumps it had inspected that year were accurate. Standards of measuring th e accuracy of fuel pumps include (1) are they charging consumers the posted price and (2) are they giving consumers the grade of fuel they pay for. In the fiscal year beginning in 2010, Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services inspected 277,762 fuel pumps and reported that 97 percent of them were accurate. In 2013, Minnesota reported that 90 percent of its fuel pumps were accurate. Most other states report similar percentages.
The high level of accuracy at fuel pumps is because state and local governments periodically inspect the measuring and dispensing of products for sale to consumers and the devices used to perform these tasks. Inspectors check not only fuel pumps but also weighing scales in supermarkets, luggage scales at airports, jeweler’s scales, checkout scanners and more. A division commonly called weights and measures performs these inspections. Many of these divisions are within a state’s department of agriculture.
One way an inspector may test a fuel pump is to pump five gallons of fuel into a five-gallon testing device called a prover. One gallon of fuel contains 231 cubic inches (256 tablespoons). The acceptable margin of error for a fuel pump is plus of minus six cubic inches for each five gallons, according to “Getting What You Pay For,” a brochure published by Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Ride & Measurement Standards. By that standard, for each five gallons pumped, the fuel dispensed can be off by up to five tablespoons and still merit a passing grade from the inspector.
Despite the generally high level of accuracy of fuel pumps, consumers still want to know if the pump they drive up to will give them what they pay for. Here are tips to help consumers act as watchdogs for safe fuel pumps and to spot potentially inaccurate ones.
1. Before pumping, look for the inspection sticker. After testing, the inspector puts a sticker on the pump. The sticker indicates whether the pump was approved (passed) or rejected (failed). Most pumps with problems will pass after repairs. The sticker also notes the year and month of the inspection. The frequency of inspections varies by state, and inspections may occur annually or once every two, three or four years.
Some fuel pumps fail inspection because they dispense too much fuel. States do not like consumers to get what they did not pay for because the states lose out on fuel taxes. Fuel pumps that dispense too little or too much fuel need recalibration. Calibration is necessary because fuel pumps are pieces of mechanical equipment and, as such, continuous, heavy use causes the loss of accuracy.
2. Do not pump gasoline if the price, number of gallons and grade of fuel cannot be read on the pump because of poor lighting, missing letters or numbers or for another reason.
3. Do not pump fuel if the price per gallon is not on the display or a sign says that the total fuel price is doubled. Consumers deserve to see the price clearly. They also deserve to see the amount of fuel being dispensed in real time.
4. Do not pump gasoline if the hose is leaking. It is a safety issue. One reason the hose may leak is because the trigger mechanism in the dispensing handle needs to be cleaned. The inspector would cite poor maintenance as the reason for rejecting this pump.
5. Before dispensing the fuel, the meter on the fuel pump should register zero. After dispensing, the meter should go back to zero. If it does not, the meter has a problem called meter jumping.
6. The receipt should show the price paid per gallon, the number of gallons dispensed and the total price accurately. The amount charged to a credit card should match the amount showing on the pump.
7. If after pumping gas and driving away, the consumer notices that the engine starts to knock, then perhaps impure fuel is the problem. Only an auto mechanic can confirm that fuel quality is the cause of mechanical problems.
8. Consumers who think there is something fishy at a fuel pump should contact the inspecting agency, which will send an inspector out to investigate. They can submit complaints by phone, or, in some places, online. Consumers should note the name and address of the gas station, the pump number and the date of the occurrence.
Before assuming that a pump is defective, consumers should keep in mind two factors about filling the fuel tank. First, some auto manufacturers note that the stated capacity of a fuel tank may vary by up to three percent. Second, the fuel gauges of vehicles are not 100 percent reliable. Readings may vary depending on certain conditions, including whether the vehicle is on level ground or on an incline. This passing change in position may cause the fuel gauge to indicate that the tank contains more or less fuel than it actually does.
With budget cuts in some states hampering inspections, consumers can help state and local governments and themselves by submitting complaints about questionable fuel pumps.