CINCINNATI - Let's start with the good news. Most gas pumps are accurate. But an I-Team investigation reveals that when they go wrong they can cheat consumers – or gas stations – thousands of dollars per pump until inspectors catch the problem.
Every county in the Tri-State has a Weights and Measures division in its auditor's office. Most have staffs of two people, sometimes less, very rarely more. That's two people to check every pump at every gas station in the region, in all more than 10,000 pumps just in the eight counties we checked around the region.
The inspectors' goal is to hit every gas station once a year. In Hamilton County, that used to be the reality but staff cutbacks from four inspectors to two have extended the timeline to up to two years. Recent budget increases will allow the county to hire one more inspector to try to close that gap to annual checks again.
Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes says the inspectors not only catch malfunctioning pumps, but they also keep the entire system honest.
"I think the fact that people know we're coming around and checking is making sure that if anybody does have a little bit of larceny in their heart or wants to put their finger on the scale, they hesitate, and they won't do it," Rhodes said.
All auditors and inspectors stressed the vast majority of the time the problem doesn't lie in stations trying to cheat, but rather in equipment that fails roughly 2 percent of the time.
We tagged along with Butler County Weights and Measures chief inspector Tom Kamphaus as he spent a day pumping five gallons at a time from each pump, measuring the liquid in a calibrated tank, and checking to see if the equipment functioned properly. At our second stop, at a Marathon in Fairfield, we found two pumps that malfunctioned due to bad nozzles, starting customers with a 4-cent charge before they started pumping. Kamphaus condemned both pumps, pulling a red plastic bag over them that explained they were out of service. The station had 10 days to correct the problem before Kamphaus returns to re-inspect the pumps.
Other stations around the region where pumps failed, costing customers more than they should, included an Ameristop in Liberty Township (Butler County), a BP on Queen City Avenue in Cincinnati (Hamilton County), a Meijer's in Deerfield Township (Warren County), a Thornton's in Milford (Clermont County) and a Marathon in Fort Wright (Kenton County).
While inspectors say that's rare, they get several complaints a week from customers.
"Whenever gas price goes up we definitely get more complaints as far as they think they're getting cheated at the pump," said Kamphaus.
Inspectors say they check every complaint in addition to regular inspections because a discrepancy of even pennies adds up to thousands of dollars per pump every year.
Both customers and gas stations can benefit from malfunctions. This is not only because the majority of the time they're the ones getting cheated as pumps tend to malfunction in favor of the customers, but also because even the perception of a problem can turn off customers who will drive to the next station down the block.
That's what Mike Hancock says he's doing after several trips to a station in Clermont County he believes has defective pumps.
"It was ridiculous. It says it used 26 gallons and I've never been able to get more than 22 gallons in it, and that's when I've coasted into the pump when I was truly empty," he said.
Hancock called the county auditor, but an inspection found no problem. Still, he's keeping his private and company vehicles away from that station.
If you suspect a problem at your pump, county auditors urge you to contact their Weights and Measures division to file a complaint.
To view the public records from several Tri-State counties, click on the corresponding links below.