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Are Utah's fuel pumps on the level?

Posted at 9:40 PM, Sep 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-21 23:40:43-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The inspectors pumped five gallons of gasoline into the tank sitting in the back of their truck.

Once the fuel hit that 5-gallon mark, they looked at what the pump displayed. In this test, the numbers on the pump showed a fraction less than five gallons – meaning the customer was receiving a little extra gasoline.

Miland Kofford, who leads the Weights and Measures Program at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, looked at his gauges further and determined the benefit to the customer as 6 cubic inches – a cubic inch is roughly equal to a shot glass – for every 5 gallons.

“We were figuring it’s a percentage of a penny,” Kofford said at a Maverik station in Salt Lake City. It was a bright August morning when passenger cars, work trucks and delivery vans were pulling in and out of pump stalls that weren’t yet closed for inspection.

Six cubic inches is within the allowable variance, meaning that pump passed inspection.

Kofford’s team of seven inspectors work to check all of Utah’s retail gas pumps annually. That can be more than 30,000 nozzles. They’ll return to a gas station early if they receive a complaint.

They even inspect retail pumps that aren’t for cars. Kofford said last year he had a complaint about a fuel pump at Dangling Rope Marina on Lake Powell. He had to hitch a boat ride with the Utah Department of Natural Resources to conduct the inspection.

The Weights and Measures Program also inspects retail aviation fuel pumps.

“First thing we're going to do is we're going to look at the pump, we're going to make sure that everything on the signage on the pump is correct,” Kofford explained. “We're going to compare the price on each grade to the street sign to make sure that the advertisement is correct.”

Inspectors are also looking for leaks in piping and valves. They’ll also watch for something that’s not actually required of them – devices installed by thieves to steal credit card data from customers paying at the pump.

Kofford said when inspectors find card skimmers, they’ll notify the station manager and the FBI.

The inspectors will also test the octane or purity of the fuel to ensure it matches what’s displayed on the pump label. The fuel inspectors pour into their testing devices gets pumped back into the stations’ storage tanks.

Kofford says about 1.7% of devices – each nozzle in a pump is a device – fail inspection. Through July of this year, according to data supplied by Kofford, 31% of gas stations inspected in 2022 had a device fail.

“Those devices that fail, 20% of those will fail because of calibration,” Kofford said. “And we usually give the establishment 10 working days to get that corrected.”

Depending on the issue, the station may have to take the nozzle or whole pump out of service until the problem is fixed. If the 10 days pass with no fix, Kofford’s division can send a warning.

If the problem lingers, Utah Weights and Measures Program can issue a citation and fine. But Kofford says his program hasn’t had to do that in years.

“The fuel stations,” Kofford said, “since we've been going to them regularly, for the last five, seven years, they have wanted to be in compliance.”

The lack of citations concerns David Carter, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Utah. He hasn’t studied gas pump inspections, but researches effective regulation.

“If It makes more sense from a financial perspective to wait and correct the issue if the state catches it,” Carter said, “then to correct it ahead of time, there’s no reason presumably why they wouldn’t’ just wait to get caught.”

He says issuing occasional fines would encourage more gas stations to follow the rules.

“When was the last time you checked Google reviews on where you’re going to buy your gas?” Carter asked. “So, the same market incentive isn’t there, which arguably makes it that much more important to have an effective regulatory structure.”

Kofford invited anyone wanting tougher enforcement to come on an inspection.

“If there was a need to give a citation,” Kofford said, “I think it needs to be given. But if people are compliant you don’t want to go out there just to be a gotcha state.”

Kofford said he and his inspectors welcome complaints from fuel customers who think they are getting impure gas or the pump is shortchanging them. The number to call is 801-982-2250.

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