Iowans who commute by car can rest relatively easy knowing they're getting what they pay for at the pump.
Almost three years after an audit revealed at least one in four gas pumps had been skipped in yearly checks, officials with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship said inspectors have checked 98 percent of the fuel pumps in the state this year, with the help of an increase in appropriations from the legislature in fiscal year 2013.
The state-law-required yearly checks are designed to test whether the gallons registering on the meters are actually the correct amounts of fuel being dispensed to customers. In other words, the checks ensure customers are getting the amount of fuel they pay for.
How inspections work
During a fuel pump check, an inspector first makes sure there is no meter jump — meaning the pump starts at zero dollars when zero gallons have been pumped. Then the inspector starts pumping fuel into a 5 gallon measuring device.
The inspector stops when the fuel pump says 5 gallons of gas have been dispensed, then checks the measuring device to ensure the pump actually has dispensed 5 gallons.
Iowa Code allows one cubic inch of error per one gallon for fuel pumps. Because inspectors test with five gallons, that means each pump is allowed 5 cubic inches — about 5 tablespoons — of leeway before it is rejected or determined miscalibrated.
A station has 30 days to repair a faulty pump, at which point the station is re-inspected.
"If it's outside of the tolerance, then we would fail the pump and require it to be re-calibrated or fixed," said Michael Harrington, an inspector with the weights and measures bureau.
Harrington said inspectors also check for other things such as labeling — to ensure a customer can see the octane is posted and the ethanol content is declared — safety of the equipment and whether it's working properly, ensuring the price is posted correctly on the street sign and is calculated correctly on receipts, and fuel quality.
Though there's no inspection fee, there is a $9 licensing fee for each pump. That money goes to the state's general fund and is not used to pay the costs of operating the program.
The gas used for tests is returned to underground tanks at each station.
Harrington said the checks benefit both consumers and gas stations, as a miscalibrated pump easily can give a customer more gas than they are paying for, which can affect the station's bottom line.
"They're only making a few cents on the gallon, especially after they pay the credit-card fees and everything else associated with selling gasoline, so they want to make sure they're not losing inventory that way," Harrington said.
"And they want to make sure the fuel they're putting out is good fuel and that everything is properly labeled, so that when an EPA inspector comes around and pulls samples and does checks on their fuels, they aren't hit with fines."
The department also began using new reporting software in July 2011, which Dustin Vande Hoef, Agriculture Department communications director, said has improved record-keeping. That process allows inspectors to keep electronic, rather than paper, records.
"If one inspector from one territory goes into another because of a retirement or something that they aren't familiar with, they can pull up and see how the station has performed in the past," Harrington said. "Before, the paper copies were all in the office and you had no history on what station you were walking into, so that is the nice part and it's proving beneficial now that we're used to operating the software."
Johnson and Linn County
A Gazette analysis based on digitized fuel pump inspection reports shows 17 gas stations — spanning across Hiawatha, Marion, Troy Mills, Mount Vernon, Central City, Cedar Rapids, North Liberty, Coralville, Iowa City and Tiffin — failed inspection reports between July 2011 (when the department began keeping digital records) and December 2013.
Of the stations rejected during that period, reasons for rejection included errors in advertising, water being found in the underground fuel tank, meter jumps or a large number of fuel pumps being miscalibrated at one particular station. Nine of the rejected stations were in Linn County, and eight of them in Johnson County.
Harrington said there is a relatively low failure rate for gas stations across the state, but that number is kept down largely due to the inspections program.
"Historically there's about a 7 percent failure rate across the state," Harrington said. "That doesn't sound a whole lot, but each year it's not the same 7 percent, so without regulation it could be 7 percent this year, and another 7 percent next year, and then you're at 14 percent and it grows exponentially."
He said some of the larger gas stations are proactive about making sure their meters are calibrated, and check and monitor their own sites routinely to avoid losing money or failing an annual test.
To get a look at how gas stations in Johnson and Linn County are faring, take a look at the interactive map below:
Increased resources, more inspections
At the time of the audit — which covered a four-year period that ended June 30, 2009 — the weights and measures bureau, which administers the fuel inspection program, did not have enough staff to meet inspection requirements due to budget challenges, Vande Hoef said.
He noted those shortages were caused by the general fund appropriation being cut from $21.2 million in fiscal year 2009 to $16.5 million in fiscal year 2012. As result of the 22 percent reduction, the department lost a total of 70 employees.
But because of a $584,000 increase in the department's general fund appropriation from the legislature in fiscal year 2013, Vande Hoef said the department has been able to backfill losses in the weights and measures bureau to begin filling some of those positions.
A portion of the money was used to hire an additional weights-and-measures inspector, which has helped them to increase the number of pumps they examine each year.
The funds also were used to meet mandatory salary and health insurance costs facing the department, Vande Hoef said.
Harrington said they are operating with 9 gas pump inspectors and about 36,000 fuel meters in the state to inspect.
Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he feels assured the department is on its way back to full compliance.
"There wasn't, I don't think, an uproar by the consumer or constituents over this, they are sort of a forgiving electorate and they know when times are tough we make the efforts, and 98 percent isn't bad compared to 100 percent," Seng said. "What's good for the goose is good for the gander, but I think the intent was there and I think the consumer safety was there, so I'm assured it's been corrected and we're over the hump on that issue."
Vande Hoef said the weights and measures bureau is in a good position, and the department is now focusing its budgetary requests on water quality."We've been really pleased, and even through the budget process the legislature worked with us and they've been really responsive to our questions and they see the value of having weights-and-measures inspectors and the other functions of the department," Vande Hoef said. "I think we're in a pretty good position."