What to do when a gas pump's readings don't match your car's gas gauge.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jul 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Albuquerque, N.M., on vacation. I stopped to fill my '99 Honda Civic with gas at a local station. The tank holds 11.9 gallons, and, according to the pump, I took 11.7 gallons. But that can't be, because I was still a quarter full when I pulled into the gas station. I don't believe my gas gauge is broken, because I've run the tank much lower than that and not run out of fuel. I think the pump was rigged. My question is, how often are gas pumps checked for accuracy? Who checks them? And what can a consumer do if she suspects that a pump is rigged? -- Nancy

RAY: Good questions, Nancy. Each state has its own bureau of weights and measures (or something with a similar name) that's responsible for checking the accuracy of gasoline pumps and other scales and meters used to sell things to consumers.

TOM: In New Mexico, it's called the Standards and Consumer Services Division, and it falls under the state Department of Agriculture. Hey, what do you want from us? We don't organize state bureaucracies, we just answer car questions.

RAY: In New Mexico, we're told that every gasoline pump is inspected within 30 days of being installed or repaired by an authorized service person. Additionally, every pump in the state is subject to a surprise inspection at least once a year. And if it's found to be off by a meaningful amount, it can be shut down immediately by the inspector. And if there's reason to believe that it was tampered with intentionally, civil penalties can be imposed.

TOM: Of course, there are always sleazeballs who find ways around the laws. So the department also sends out inspectors to respond to consumer complaints about specific gas stations or pumps. And, according to Joe Gomez of the division, it puts those inspections at the top of the priority list.

RAY: So if a pump's readings seem fishy, in New Mexico you can call
(505) 646-1616. In other states, look for a listing in the phone book for the equivalent of the state department of weights and measures. Or, if your attorney general's office has a consumer-protection division, it should be able to refer you to the right place.

TOM: Just keep in mind, these bureaus only handle complaints about the accuracy of the pumps. Complaints about other gas-station issues, like the cleanliness of restrooms or the personal hygiene of the attendants, should go directly to my brother at his home number.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One