Life at the fuel pump has been good since last spring.
We were hopeful when the average statewide price per gallon fell below $4 in August.
Ahead of the state when prices are on the decline, San Joaquin Valley residents were some of the first to experience the joy of fuel below $3 a gallon in October.
And for a brief time in late January, some experienced the thrill of paying $1.99 to fill their tanks.
But that was the bittersweet end to the downward trend.
The national average price for regular unleaded gasoline increased 28 consecutive days from late January to late February, for a total increase of 27 cents per gallon.
When that happens, people pay closer attention to what they are charged.
And while it’s rare, people are more likely to notice the phenomenon known in the industry as “meter creep.”
It can happen before or after you start dispensing gas; nothing is coming out, yet the meter ticks upward.
Examiner.com, a national news website with local contributors, last month ran a story about a man who experienced just that at the Costco gas station in Modesto.
Luis Maya used his cellphone camera to document the evidence and posted the video on YouTube. While he holds the nozzle in the air, clearly not dispensing fuel, the meter continues to increase his total by about 1 cent every five seconds.
Warning: Video below contains explicit language
Sure, it didn’t add much to Maya’s bill. But when the price per gallon of gasoline goes up, so too will the amount erroneously charged in the event of meter creep.
Dave Young of Donlee Pump Co. in Ceres said meter creep generally is the result of a leak in the vapor recovery hose (the one inside the hose attached to the nozzle) or a bad check valve.
It can be obvious, with fuel dripping onto the ground or your vehicle, or it could be leaking inside the dispenser.
If this happens to you, notify an attendant. Ask him to reset the pump to zero if it’s prior to fueling or reimburse you for the pennies it racked up after.
“If you have an issue at the pump, most gas stations are going to deal with it,” said Wendy Hahn, deputy agricultural commissioner/sealer for the Stanislaus County Department of Agriculture and Weights & Measures. “Just like if you buy something at the store and are overcharged, they fix it. They want to keep your business.”
If the problem isn’t fixed, that’s the department to call.
Weights and measures inspectors test the accuracy of some 9,000 devices throughout the county each year, such as jewelry scales, taxicab meters, fabric wire and grocery scales.
Fuel pumps account for the majority of the county’s devices, about 60 percent.
The day after I called Hahn regarding the Costco incident, she sent inspectors to test the pumps there. All 32 passed, she said.
In the past five years, the department has investigated 13 complaints of meter creep, seven of which were founded.
More often, Hahn said, gas-related complaints are precipitated by discrepancies between the pump meter and the gauges in a vehicle.
“You can’t manufacture something to be a precision lab instrument,” Hahn said. “There’s always some degree of variance from zero.”
But if you think you’re being cheated, at the fuel pump or by any other measurement device in the county, you can call weights and measures at the number printed on the seals stuck to every device it inspects.
If a device doesn’t measure up, the inspector will mark it out of order, and the station owner has 30 days to call a registered service agent like Donlee.
The most common repairs are not the result of machine malfunction, Young said, but rather operator error.
“Drive-offs,” he said. “When they leave the pump in the car. We can have drive-offs as often as once a week.”
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