Gas Pump Probe

Just two months ago, consumers in both states were paying more for gas than ever before, and it's possible it could happen again.  So when fuel prices hover around $4 to $5 a gallon, are you really getting your money's worth? who's looking out for you?

News Leader 9's ConsumerWatch Team has been digging deep for the last three months to protect you and your money.

Typically, when a consumer buys a gallon, they receive a gallon, right -- at least in theory, that's suppose to happen. But the ConsumerWatch team discovered that's not the cae.

In fact, as the price of gas began to climb throughout the past year, so too did complaints from consumers.

"Our two biggest complaints are short measure and bad gas,"said Randy Fulmer Director of Alabama Weights and Measures. "Short measure means that they're not getting what they paid for, they think, and then the bad gas, whether it be water or too much ethanol or not the right octane."

These concerns are keeping inspectors in both Alabama and Georgia busy.

According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, in the first five months of 2008, it received 40% more calls from consumers about problems with gas stations and fuel, compared to the same time in 2007.

By last month, that total had reached more than 2,000. Statistics are similar in Alabama, as is the process for investigating complaints.

In Georgia, pumps are routinely inspected every 18 months, in Alabama, every 12 months.

A consumer complaint though, triggers an immediate inspection.

"We inspect like I say the dispensers to make sure that the quality's right, the quantity's right, that it's labeled correctly and nobody's trying to deceive the public," said Fulmer.

Inspectors testing for quantity ---the measure that consumers get versus the amount they actually pay for.

Technically, pumps can give too much or too little and still meet legal requirements.

According to Georgia officials, only 5% of complaints about shorting gasoline turn out to be valid.

Our own investigation though reveals it still happens.

For example, we received complaints about the Shell Food Mart on Warm Springs Road.

So we checked the inspection reports.

In a 2007 routine inspection, there were two pumps and three grades that didn't meet state standards, there were others though that weren't exact, but were still within the margin of error.

A re-inspection a week later reveals they were all corrected, but in 2008 a report showed similar problems.

The ConsumerWatch Team reviewed all complaints from both Muscogee and Harris County for 2007 and 2008.

Again, we found some were about pumps not starting at zero, but in each case, corrective action was taken.

We found less than 10 cases were pumps where shut down by the state or a violation was issued.

Inspectors test for quality, using small containers of each type of fuel, then sends it back to the lab for testing. Complaints include sludge being in the gas, the wrong octane, and water.

According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, about 1300 pumps were shut down last year because of water.

It's also one of the biggest complaints coming in to the ConsumerWatch Team.

There was a violation issued back in 2007 for that same Shell on Warm Springs Road we mentioned earlier, inspectors found one and three-fourths inches of water.

It was re-inspected and approved a week later, but still, with small traces of water.

One viewer tells us she's without her vehicle because of gas that contained water at a Spectrum on Stadium Drive in Phenix City.

Another says she's out of $2,000 from gas she pumped at Circle K on Manchester Expressway.

The ConsumerWatch team had received other complaints about the same gas station, so we requested inspection reports.

Inspectors did note a few problems with pumps, but nothing related to water.

We also spoke with officials from Spectrum/Circle K, they say they monitor daily for water, and if there's an occurrence that's above the standard, they take appropriate measures to remove it.

They also say as more stations convert to using gas with an ethanol blend, vehicles that may have already had water in their tanks, can easily get clogged up when fuel is introduced that contains ethanol.  The two simply don't mix.

Alabama Weights and Measures Director Randy Fulmer says the maximum allowable amount of water in an underground tank is a fourth of an inch if the gas contains ethanol and two inches if not.

No matter what the problem is, quality or quantity, consumers should call the one-800 number listed on these stickers.

1(800) 392-5658 -- Alabama Attorney General's Office

1 (800) 282-5852 -- GA Hotline

*An important note though--do not call these numbers for complaints about price gouging. In Alabama, complaints go to the attorney general's office and in Georgia the office of Consumer Affairs.

If inspectors find the complaint is valid, "We red tag the dispenser so it can't be used until it's placed back into compliance", said Fulmer.

In Georgia, there are 24 inspectors for 159 counties. In alabama, there are 13 inspectors for 67 counties.

And consumers should definitely watch the pumps closely in months to come.  Because with budget cuts facing each state, inspectors are will likely have more territory to cover and less manpower to do so.

If there is a problem, how long do stations have to correct it?

In Alabama, station owners have 10 days to have the problem corrected, in Georgia, it's three days.

These officials say for the most, part, they don't believe gas station owners want to cheat consumers, because having their pumps locked down takes away the ability to make money.

On the other hand, consumers these days know that every dime makes a difference.