Gas pumps get jaundiced stares

May 13, 2008|By DAN THANH DANG

THE Q:

With gasoline prices soaring toward $4 a gallon, more eagle-eyed drivers are paying closer attention to the accuracy of gas pumps as they fill up. Last week, two unrelated but similar queries came in.

http://www.mda.state.md.us/weights_measures to print out a complaint form and fax it to 410-841-2765.

Once the Weights and Measures division is notified, program manager Kenneth Ramsburg says, "We try to get an inspector in the field to go out that same day the complaint came in, and if not the same day, then the very next day. We do take these complaints very seriously."

The division has 16 field inspectors and supervisors who are responsible for inspecting 2,183 gas stations in the state, which have a total of 41,217 meters. Some pumps have two meters in them; some newer pumps have four meters in them for the different grades of gas.

Back when there were more employees in the division, gas pumps were tested annually. The state of Maryland doesn't require annual inspections, so "with our limited staff, we usually can get to two stations a day or 48 meters a day," Ramsburg says.

That works out to a routine inspection on pumps occurring once every 18 months to two years.

Ramsburg says that inspectors take the dispenser apart and check the meter chamber inside to ensure that the mechanical adjustment has a state seal on it and that it hasn't been tampered with.

Inspectors then turn the dispenser on and pick up the nozzle to make sure the gauge says zero.

"Sometimes, it jumps 30 cents or 40 cents," Ramsburg says. "It has to hold the zero."

Gas is then dispensed into two 5-gallon volumetric test measures - fancy wording for two milk can-type contraptions that measure volume - at a fast rate and then a slower rate to make sure the reading on the gas pump matches the reading on the test measures, Ramsburg says.

If the gas pump reading is off by more than 1 percent, the station is given two weeks to repair the pump. State officials then come back for a reinspection. If the pump fails again and no proof of repair service is provided, the state can condemn the pump. Pumps can be condemned on the spot if the reading is off by three times the tolerance level.

"Customers are really paying attention to the purchase now," Ramsburg said. "We just received eight complaints in one day. Usually, we get maybe five a week. Last fiscal year, we had 612 complaints. From July '07 to current, we've had 514. Our average used to be about 250. We're seeing more and more complaints about pumps every year the price goes up."

As for Trostle's complaint, Ramsburg said a field inspector visited the Abingdon station one day after his call on May 1.

"We did a physical inspection of the station, and they were well within tolerance," Ramsburg said. Trostle "was trying to judge how much gas his tank needed by his gas gauge and the problem is that the gauge is not really an accurate measurement."

Motorists should know that fuel tank capacity is often an approximation of how much gas the tank can hold, which can often lead motorists to believe they filled their vehicle's tank with more gasoline than the tank is specified to hold, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal agency that develops and promotes measurement, standards and technology.

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