Merced County checks gas stations for accuracy

Derrell Smith, left, a weights and measures inspector for Merced County, explains to Smiley's Gas owner Rick Smiley the process of checking gas pumps for accuracy Thursday morning, August 4, 2011.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Derrell Smith, left, a weights and measures inspector for Merced County, explains to Smiley's Gas owner Rick Smiley the process of checking gas pumps for accuracy Thursday morning, August 4, 2011. Merced Sun-Star

Derrell Smith drove a small white pickup up to the pumps at Smiley’s Gas on 16th Street Thursday morning.

Smith picked up one of the gas pump hoses and starting filling a 5-gallon container with gas.

After about a minute, the pump shut off, and Smith looked at his container. “They’re giving a bit too much gas, but it’s in the customer’s favor, so I’m good with it.”

Smith wasn’t a regular customer at Smiley’s — he’s a weights and measures inspector for Merced County. Thursday morning he was checking Smiley’s pumps to make sure they were giving the fuel they registered, and that the price matched. His gas container wasn’t a regular one — it was a highly-calibrated affair that is extremely accurate.

Smith is one of four weights and measures inspectors who work for David Robinson, the sealer of weights and measures for the county. Robinson’s office is required by state law to check every gas station in the county once a year, and to follow up on any customer complaints about gas stations.

“Complaints from customers are always checked out,” Robinson said. “Some can be done by phone, but if we can’t resolve the issues in discussion, we follow up in person.”

Smith said when gas stations are checked for accuracy, it’s on a surprise basis. “We’re just like a customer — we just show up,” he said.

Some of the thornier issues the department has dealt with include people breaking into tanks and stealing gas and thieves putting chips in gas pumps to steal customers’ credit card information.

Almost all the gas stations checked yearly come through with flying colors, Smith said. There are two phases in verifying the accuracy of gas pumps - the device itself and the labels and price signs.

A common customer complaint is about the difference in gas price between cash and debit. Station owners must post the higher price charged if a debit card is used, but some customers just don’t see it.

“People get mad and complain, and we come out and verify the signs are there,” Smith said. “They have to be a certain size, compared to the cash price, and sometimes both prices are in small print and people don’t see them.”

Robinson explained another common complaint. “A person will call and say he knows his tank is 22 gallons, but the pump put in 22 1/2 gallons,” he said.

Some car owners don’t realize if a car’s tank is really empty, the gas pump may not shut off until part of the fill pipe to the tank also has gas in it, making it look as if more gas than the tank could hold has been pumped, Robinson said.

When a gas pump’s accuracy is verified, the station owner is given a window of plus or minus 6 cubic inches when the county’s 5-gallon tank is filled. That works out to about eight ounces, Smith said.

“If a gas pump is pumping more gas than the display shows, we’ll let the station owner keep the pump open but they have to fix it within 30 days,” Smith said. “If the pump is pumping less gas, we red-tag it and shut that pump down.”

Thursday morning, Rick Smiley, owner of Smiley’s Gas, watched as Smith checked the first pump. “It’s pumping about three cubic inches more — you’re OK,” Smith said.

Turning away from Smiley, Smith smiled and said, “He’s giving some fuel away, actually.”

The county weights and measures office verifies the accuracy of more than just gas pumps. Robinson said the inspectors also check scales in grocery stores, truck scales, jewelry scales and, in some cases, weight scales used by people.

“If a business is charging people who lose weight by the amount of pounds they lose, we’ll verify its scale is correct,” Robinson said.

Inspectors will also show up unannounced at grocery stores and verify a pound of hamburger is really a pound. “We don’t do it annually, but we try and get into stores as often as we can,” Robinson said.

Even prepackaged items such as canned beans or a bag of cookies are checked out, Robinson said. “We’ll take a package of cookies that says 40 cookies, and count those cookies,” he said.

The price scanners at stores are also verified, Robinson said. “We are the person to complain to if a scanner doesn’t ring up the right price,” he said. “We encourage people to talk to the manager first, but if it’s ongoing or they can’t resolve the problem, we want that call.”

Complaints about local gas stations or businesses can be brought to the county’s attention by calling (209) 385-7431.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com