Making sure the amount of gas you paid for actually ends up in the tank of your vehicle could depend on whether the service station is in Missouri or Kansas.
KCTV5 began to investigate problems with pumps after receiving a telephone call from Kansas Sen. David Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City, KS.
"We have the people's pockets being picked when they're not watching," Haley said.
Haley is fired up about something called "pump jump." That is when the digits on a gas pump's price line jump above zero before a customer begins pumping any fuel.
It is a problem Haley's constituents have complained about at more than one gas station in the northeast corner of KCK.
"Some stopped me recently to say where this has happened to them," Haley said. 'Those residents asked, 'Can I do anything about it?' It seems to be so common place."
Haley himself repeatedly fell victim to the "pump jump" at the Quindaro Food Shop at 1818 Quindaro Blvd. He said he once watched the price leap up by 80 cents.
"I went and complained and said, ‘Look, I've been watching this. You jumped the pump on me,'" Haley said. "And he says, ‘No, that's just what that always does.'"
While Haley got his money back from the gas station, he remained unhappy by the clerk's response to his complaint and asked KCTV5 to investigate.
As director of the weights and measures program for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, Tim Tyson oversees Kansas fuel pump inspections. He says pump jump can be caused by a hose not holding a charge. He says that is one of many consumer complaints his office receives.
"Anytime gas prices go up, our calls and complaints go up," Tyson said. "Typically, we get around 300 complaints a year that we investigate. When it gets to that $4 mark, they start picking up."
There are no national standards for inspections, but most states require that pumps be checked annually. Missouri leads the nation for inspection frequency with a six-month requirement. Kansas sits near the bottom of the list.
"Our law states it has to be within 18 months," Tyson said. "However, we're probably on a 14-month cycle."
KCTV5 obtained tens of thousands of Kansas inspections reports from January 2009 through March of 2012.
Those records revealed that more than a third of every Johnson County gas station had pumps rejected for accuracy. In Wyandotte County, about 30 percent of the gas stations didn't make the cut. According to state records, problems were found in nearly 37 percent of stations in Douglas County.
Don Onwiler is executive director for the National Conference on Weights and Measures in Lincoln, NE. He told KCTV5 that from July 2010 through June 2011, Kansas inspectors found a number of miscalibrated pumps.
If those corrections had not been made, Onwiler said based on $3.80 per gallon, consumers would have spent nearly $2.3 million on gas they never received. In addition, gas stations would have given away almost 945,000 gallons of fuel.
"A few cubic inches per 5-gallon delivery of fuel can give their competitor a big advantage in the marketplace over a year," Onwiler said.
All told, those inspections prevented about $6 million worth of errors. After fuel industry upgrades a decade ago, Onwiler says it's more important than ever to keep up inspections.
"Here we are 10 years later and that equipment isn't so new anymore," Onwiler said. "You start to have more of those mechanical failures. You can't really relax."
So what about the gas station that got Haley so worked up?
KCTV5 made at least four undercover visits to the Quindaro location earlier this year, and twice witnessed the pump jump.
During a January stop, the price jumped six cents on its own. The next month, it was three cents. Both incidents happened with pump number six.
When KCTV5 went back, the owner said state inspectors had been to his station between those two visits.
"Here's the documentation for that," the owner said, while showing his paperwork. "They came in – ‘pump jump, pump jump.'"
The state of Kansas confirmed inspectors did visit that station to check out two pump jump complaints, but the inspector never saw it happen.
"Just because we go the first time and don't see it, it doesn't mean it's not happening," Tyson said. "It's one of those factors that's tricky. You see it. We have to see it in order to verify it."
"That's a real crap shoot when you are trying to buy gas," Haley said.
To make filling up in his state feel less like a gamble, Haley wants to re-evaluate how often Kansas pumps are inspected.
Determining when a pump was last inspected is simple. A sticker right on the pump shows the month and year of the most recent inspection. On that same sticker is a complaint number to call to report a pump problem. The state of Kansas will interrupt its regular inspection route in order to investigate a complaint as quickly as possible.
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