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Don't Blame Pump When Filling the Tank Hurts

July 26, 2008 — With gas prices through the roof and drivers shocked when they put $20 worth in the tank only to see the gas gauge barely move, some are casting a suspicious eye at gas retailers.
Archie Corbitt, the man who oversees the inspection of the pumps for the V.I. government, said the pumps are usually fair. But prices are a more complicated question.
Corbitt is the chief inspector for the Division of Weights and Measurements in the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs.
"I have been chief inspector on St. Croix since 1989 and during that time I have seen a lot of errors," Corbitt said. "But I have not seen errors in all this time I could say with confidence was fraud. … I've seen negligence, errors due to lackadaisical maintenance but not fraud. Our inspections are very detailed."
In fact, your car's gauge is more likely to be inaccurate, he said.
"What they can depend on is the odometer. It is far more precise and by law must be accurate."
One way you can lose a small amount of gas when you fill up is if the person before you managed to drain the hose completely. Pumps today keep the hoses full and have an anti-draining devise for when the pump shuts off.
"But they don't always work perfectly," Corbitt said. If the person before you drained the hose dry, you might spend a few cents or a nickel to fill the hose again before filling your tank.
"If you are concerned, turn the pump off and turn it back on again," Corbitt said.
How accurate are the pumps and how much can they be off? Standards are set nationally, he said. His division checks pump prices. (See: "Gas Hits $5-Plus on St. John, Bit Better Elsewhere.")
"When a technician is available on sight, we accept no error," he said. "But the pumps being mechanical devices, that is not always possible."
So some variance is factored in. The testing equipment — essentially a five-gallon metal measuring beaker — measures in cubic inches. There are 231 cubic inches in a gallon.
"A cubic inch would be about enough to carry a vehicle about a hundred yards," he said. "When we pump five gallons, the largest error we allow is six cubic inches — one cubic inch plus one inch for each gallon." But that's for one pump; the pumps cannot all be set to pump slightly less than the correct amount.
"A business is not allowed to take advantage of a tolerance," he said. "They cannot set all of their devices to five cubic inches. The average error of all their pumps has to be within one inch of zero."
Testing can help out business owners as well as drivers.
"When the big white truck with 'Weights and Measures' on the side pulled up to one station whose owner we have a rapport with, the owner harassed us a little, asking why we don't go inspect some grocery store," he said. "When we checked his pumps and told him he was giving more than his gauges said and was giving away all his profit, his attitude became entirely different."
Fraud does happen, though.
"There was a case in California," he said, "What he was doing, he put an electronic solenoid switch into his pump. When he'd see a little old lady buy gas, he hit solenoid, half the gas would go into the car and half right back into his storage tank. When weights and measures would inspect, he'd turn it off. Now today, we have to follow plumbing from the ground all the way to the pump, looking for any deviation."
Are prices fair? Corbitt said a study of Virgin Islands prices done during the previous administration found mixed results.
"St. Croix markup was actually below that in many jurisdictions," he said. He did not say that about St. Thomas. "There is a huge difference. I believe that is because there are only one or two independent stations and the rest are franchise operations, which means there is an additional middle man."
Can the government demand lower rates?
"V.I. code does not give our department the right to set prices," he said. "We don't regulate prices unless the governor declares a state of emergency. … However, the public already has the power to say what price is acceptable. Buy from the station with most reasonable prices and the community comes out ahead."
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