Heat can cheat drivers out of the gas they've paid for

May 13, 2007|By Elizabeth Douglass | Elizabeth Douglass,Los Angeles Times

As if gasoline prices approaching $3 a gallon weren't enough, here's another way you're getting pinched at the pump: paying for, say, five gallons of fuel that isn't really a "full" five gallons.

Fuel expands when temperatures rise. And because gasoline station nozzles don't adjust for the change, motorists and truckers end up with less of the energy that keeps engines humming.

The overcharge is rampant, legal and hard for consumers to spot. But it's no secret. Oil companies acknowledge it and regulators allow it. One company developed a device to fix the disparity but shelved the product after dealers resisted. Now the issue is generating heat among consumer activists, lawmakers and beleaguered fuel pumpers.

Consumer advocates want U.S. fuel retailers to install nozzles that compensate for temperature changes.

But oil companies and dealers deny that they are pocketing money at customers' expense. Installing costly temperature-sensing equipment would push prices higher, said Lisa Mullings, president of a trade group for truck stops and travel plazas. "There's absolutely no evidence that it's needed," she said.

The fight has gained momentum, though.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat running for president, will host a congressional subcommittee hearing June 7 on gasoline concerns, including hot fuel. "This is a huge consumer issue," he said.

The science behind the controversy isn't in dispute.

The U.S. government defines a gallon of gas this way: At 60 degrees, a gallon is 231 cubic inches. But when fuel is warmer than 60 degrees, the liquid expands. When it's colder, the fuel contracts.

U.S. oil companies and distributors account for temperature when they sell to one another. Wholesale facilities are equipped with devices that adjust volumes to bring the gallon tally into line with the 60-degree standard.

"What temperature compensation does is provide equity to all parties," said Dick Suiter, weights and measures coordinator at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an arm of the Commerce Department that sets federal standards for fuel sales.

That equity, however, stops short of retail fuel pumps. Service stations dispense gas and diesel as if every drop is flowing at 60 degrees - and they charge customers as if they are getting government-standard gallons.

A sampling by federal regulators of fuel temperatures in underground tanks at service stations from 2002 to 2004 found a wide range above and below 60 degrees.

Elizabeth Douglass writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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