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Gas pump problem cheats everyone

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Associated Press / April 25, 2008

ALBANY, N.Y. - Angry about the price of gas? Just imagine paying for gas you don't get.

Some alert consumers have noticed it over the years: A pump that hesitates a second when the lever is squeezed. Anywhere from 2 to 6 cents tick off before the rush of gasoline starts. That's what happens with a common, hard to diagnose, and mostly ignored problem with the "check valve," which is supposed to make sure gas flows at the same time the price meter starts.

But even if your gas pump works, it can still be off as much as $5 for a fill up. Tests by local regulators allow a pump to charge as much as 6 cents more than the gas delivered in a five-gallon test.

Don't blame the gas guys. Even consumer advocates say retailers may be losing as often as consumers and no one appears able to rig the meters. But the small "check valve" just wears out, and often goes unnoticed for months.

Regulators' records show short staffing, particularly for financially struggling counties that try to inspect pumps every six months, but too often don't even meet the one-year requirement in states like New York.

Federal standards require pumps to pump gas as soon as the price meter starts, said Ken Butcher of the National Institute of Standards of Technology.

Bob Wolfram knew something was wrong when the pump he used in Davenport, Iowa, showed he put two more gallons of gas into his tank than the tank holds.

He reported it to a consumer website then took it to the government regulators, who acted promptly.

Correcting the problem depends on alert consumers like Wolfram. It also depends on honest retailers who choose to pass along reports to regulators who must confirm the problem before an authorized company is called to fix it.

A bad valve can also work against retailers, freezing the price gauge for an instant after gas starts. No one's sure who gets gored more, or how deeply.

The problem compounds the aggravation of record gas prices. Yesterday, the average national price of a gallon of regular gas was $3.56 a gallon, according to a survey of stations by AAA.

Jason Toews, cofounder of the independent website GasBuddy.com, discounts the theories that blame the problem on retailers or the oil industry. Most retailers, he said, wouldn't know how to alter the pumps to their benefit.

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