I pulled into the Hess station on Chestnut Street near Emmaus the other day, prepared to kiss another $50 goodbye.
I watched as the dollar digits rose and wondered, how do I know if I'm really getting $50 worth of gas?
Most are off a bit, either in your favor or the gas station's. In some cases -- even after you've scoured the area for the absolute cheapest gas prices -- you're unwittingly being cheated pennies a gallon.
More than 2,700 pumps failed safety, operating or accuracy tests between January 2007 and May 2008 in Lehigh, Berks, Monroe, Carbon, Montgomery and Schuylkill counties.
I can't tell you how many of those failures were for accuracy because a state database of the information is incomplete. The Hess station where I stopped is a good example. Sixteen of 19 pumps failed a September inspection, but the data don't show why. They later passed re-inspection.
The data do show many cases of accuracy problems, though.
A certain margin of error is permitted, up to 6 cubic inches on a 5-gallon test. That's a smidgen more than 3 ounces, in favor of either the gas station or the motorist. If pumps are too far out of whack, they're shut down or labeled with a red rejection sticker until they're fixed.
State inspectors found pumps outside of the allowable range were cheating consumers at the Kuhnsville (Exxon) Mini-Mart at 5743 W. Tilghman St. in Upper Macungie in November. State inspectors also found a pump outside of the allowable range in October at the One Stop (Sunoco) Mini-Mart at 2304 MacArthur Road in Whitehall. The pumps later passed re-inspection.
Consumers also were cheated at other stations where state inspections showed pump miscalibrations fell within the allowable limits and did not have to be changed. They included the Lukoil at 1452 W. Tilghman St. in Allentown in October and the Turkey Hill on Route 209 in Gilbert, Monroe County, in June.
Northampton County, which does its own inspections, also found in July that some pumps were cheating customers but were within allowable limits. They included the Sheetz at 3201 Schoenersville Road in Bethlehem and the Valero at 2906 Nazareth Road in Palmer.
There have been no accusations that they or any other gas stations in our area have intentionally cheated consumers. Officials expect pump calibration to slip because they're heavily-used machines exposed to the weather.
Miscalibrated pumps can give away fuel, too.
That happened to drivers with better luck than I have who stopped at the Redner's Quick Shoppe, 1135 Airport Road, Allentown. A November inspection found several pumps dispensing too much fuel.
A Northampton County inspection found multiple pumps giving away fuel in July at the 7-Eleven at 101 E. Broad St. in Bethlehem.
State and local inspectors say about half of miscalibrated pumps benefit consumers and half benefit businesses.
So, in a business where price is measured in 9/10ths of a penny, what does all of this mean in dollars and cents?
If a 5-gallon test is off by 5 cubic inches -- just within the allowable range -- and gas is $4 a gallon, the loser is out about 34 cents on a 20-gallon fill-up.
Not all pumps failed inspection because they weren't dispensing the right amount of fuel. State inspectors also noted several cases of "price jumping," where charges accrued when no fuel flowed. Other failures were mechanical.
With gas near four bucks a gallon, this is information drivers want to know. Right? I challenge you to try and find out if your gas station is cheating you.
Your governments, the same ones that are supposed to inspect each station annually, don't put the reports online. And they don't make gas stations post them at the pumps.
I found what I did only by asking for a database of inspection records from the state Division of Weights and Measures, which handles most inspections.
The government is letting consumers down by not making this information easily accessible. Even if a pump passed inspection, it still might be cheating you a penny or two because it was within the allowable error range. You should know that. All you see is the "approved" sticker on the pump.
To help you, I've put state reports on 738 gas stations in Lehigh, Berks, Carbon, Monroe, Montgomery and Schuylkill counties on my Web site, www.mcall.com/watchdog.
Northampton and Bucks counties do their own inspections, so their findings are not included in the state data. I'll put a sampling of what I found by reviewing Northampton's paper records on my Web site. I hope to review Bucks County's records later.
The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays.
Contact me by e-mail at email@example.com, by phone at 610-841-2364 (ADOG), by fax at 610-820-6693, or by mail at The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, Pa., 18101.