gas prices

Are You Getting What You Pay For? Violations Discovered at San Diego County Gas Pumps

San Diego County inspectors shut down dozens of pumps after fuel meters dispensed less gas than what customers paid for

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Local drivers have seen some of the highest gas prices over the past few years, and while it’s important that they get what they pay for, that’s not always the case.

NBC 7 Investigates dug through years of gas pump inspection reports and discovered hundreds of issues at local stations. In some cases, customers paid for fuel that never got dispensed into their tank.

Drivers we spoke with didn’t like the sound of that.

“I need my money," John Wade told us. “Gas is expensive. I want to get what I paid for.”

Isidro Garcia was just as surprised.

“When you told me, I’m just like, 'For reals?' " Garcia said. “I don’t think that’s fair. That’s ripping you off, right in your face.”

Between January 2020 and November 2021, the county inspected 722 gas stations, finding violations at 272 of them. Roughly 85% of stations had clean inspections. Most often, pumps actually dispensed more gas than what customers paid for.

Others had issues that could impact drivers negatively, however, including pumps that dispensed less gas than what the meter displayed.

With so many dollars on the line for drivers, county inspectors have an important job to do. Gas stations are inspected once per year. NBC 7 Investigates got a demonstration of the inspection process from Garrett Giles, San Diego County Agricultural Standards Inspector, who works in the department’s Weights & Measures division.

“There’s a whole lot of factors that we have to look for at a gas station,” Giles said. “At each pump, we’re testing five gallons at a time.”

Giles drives a truck outfitted with special tanks, one for each grade of fuel. Using the meter, he pumps five gallons into each one, then checks to see if the correct amount ends up in each one of his tanks. The county allows each grade at the pump to be off by 6 cubic inches, plus or minus.

“To put that in perspective, that’s a 0.5% error for a five-gallon test, so that’s a pretty tight tolerance,” Giles said.

Any pump over that threshold gets shut down until an approved servicer fixes it and it passes a follow-up inspection by the county. Giles said that maintenance issues are usually to blame for pump issues and aren’t deliberate. Again, inspection data shows that most fuel meters with violations are actually dispensing more fuel than what drivers pay for. 

The Jackson’s Food Stores in Vista on Sycamore Avenue has a Shell station where that happened. In October, an inspector found eight pumps that were dispensing extra gas, a problem that was corrected within a few days.

In other cases, violations cost customers money, however. That could have happened at the Valero station on Birmingham Drive, in Cardiff. In June 2020, inspectors found a major discrepancy that wasn’t typical. One pump charged nearly 7% percent more than what customers got. Six others had issues as well. The pumps were taken out of service for two days until the station made repairs and the pumps were re-inspected. It’s worth noting that station was inspected again in 2021, and no violations were reported.

In Mission Valley, a station on Camino Del Rio South took all of its pumps out of service after an inspection last September found all of them gave customers less gas than they paid for. That was just above the violation threshold the county uses of 0.5%. County records show those meters were corrected and put back in service two weeks later.

In June of last year, a Mobil station near state Route 54 on Highland Avenue temporarily lost two pumps for 10 days after the inspector found seven grades of gas dispensing less fuel than the meter displayed. Within 10 days, they were fixed, re-inspected and returned to service.

There are other technical issues that cause meters to get shut down, including leaky or unsealed pumps, and something called “meter creep.” That’s when the price ticker counts up, but the pump is not dispensing gas, which can happen before pumping begins, after pumping stops or even when the price jumps dramatically while fuel is being dispensed. The county inspector found 53 instances of meter creep during the past two years, including at the Valero station on Euclid Avenue in Emerald Hills, where a meter was taken out of service in October. It was fixed days later.

Gas prices have a huge impact on our local economy, according to University of San Diego economics professor Dr. Alan Gin, especially at a time when gas prices are near all-time highs.

“Every time the price of gas goes up by 1 cent a gallon, that takes about a million dollars a month out of the San Diego economy,” Gin said. “The impact could be considerable if you add that up over the course of an entire year.”

While inspections take place annually, Giles said station owners should get pumps serviced twice a year to prevent maintenance-related violations. The trouble starts when those check-ups get skipped.

Some customers we talked to want gas stations checked more than once a year. 

“It’s very important that this should be accurate and that someone should be held accountable," Daniel Garberg said.

NBC 7 Investigates reached out to each gas station mentioned in this report. The owners we spoke with by phone declined to provide statements in writing. Each told us the issues with their fuel meters were unintentional and were corrected quickly. 

In some cases, gas stations are fined for violations. Over the past two years, the county handed out 43 penalties, totaling $13,100.

If you think a gas pump you’ve used isn’t working properly, you can ask the county to investigate. Each pump has a sticker with a QR code. Customers can scan that with a smart phone to lodge a complaint. Eighty-four inspections over the past two years were initiated from customer tips.

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