A new report shows that some gas pumps around the state may be sucking money unfairly -- and illegally -- out of your wallet.
The Department of Weights and Measures says it found at least one problem at 17.1 percent -- nearly out out every six -- of the nearly 28,000 pumps the agency checked in the last 12 months. That's more than a fivefold increase from the prior year when the rate of noncompliance was in the 3 percent range.
Nearly $353,000 in fines were imposed.
Some of the problems the agency found were technical, like the price on the sign at the street not matching what's being charged at the pump. But Shawn Marquez, the agency's compliance director, said his inspectors came across lots of instances where customers were not getting all that they paid for.
There's the basic question of volume. That's designed to make sure that the number of gallons the pump says it delivered actually wind up in the tank.
Marquez said his agency does not give station owners a lot of wiggle room.
"You're looking at about a shot glass,'' he said.
"That's how much they can vary, giving away, or not giving away enough, in 5 gallons,'' Marquez continued. "Anything out of that, they're getting tagged.''
More to the point, stations that short motorists also are getting fined, to the tune of $300.
Marquez said it actually turns out that most of the inaccurate pumps actually were being overly generous to motorists. While there are no fines for that, they are tagged and taken out of service.
"It's an indication the meter's shot,'' he said.
"Just as they were giving away, it can also the other way, too,'' Marquez said. "It's an indication something is wrong.''
Little errors can add up: The department says Arizona motorists pump 6.8 million gallons a day into their vehicles.
Inaccurate volumes are only one way customers get cheated. Marquez said inspectors found 252 instances of "meter jump.'' In essence, the pump immediately registers a few cents the moment it's turned on.
"That's been happening for years and years,'' he said. Marquez compared it to inaccurate scales at grocery stores.
"Imagine going to the deli, going, 'I need $12.99 a pound shrimp,' and there's already a weight statement on there,'' Marquez explained, with the customer paying for shrimp that just isn't there.
The other side of that same problem is "meter creep,'' which Marquez called "extra nasty.''
"You're washing your windows, you got the auto thing on, it's pumping for you, it clicks off,'' he said. Meanwhile, you're still cleaning your windows, not paying attention.
"What you don't know is that the meter is slowly creeping,'' he said. "It's saying, OK, $20.01, $20.02, $20.03. It's registering gallons. It's registering a dollar amount.''
But it's not like the pump is leaking and gasoline actually is dripping into the tank.
"In fact, I can hold the nozzle up in the air, nothing coming out, and it's slowly charging you,'' he said.
There were 340 instances of that in the last 12 months.
A more frequent problem, Marquez said, involves pump information being unreadable, whether the price per gallon or the total sale. Some of that, he said, relates to the digital displays.
"Individual segments in those numbers, whether in the price per gallon or the total sale, will burn out,'' Marquez said.
"It turns a 7 into a 1 or an 8 into a 3,'' he said. And that leaves the customer unsure of exactly what he or she is paying.
But station owners also can be cited when the plastic covering becomes cloudy due to the Arizona sunshine, or the whole thing gets obscured by graffiti.