Archaic system tracks NC gas pump errors

May 3, 2012 3:54:08 PM PDT
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has just 18 full-time people who are assigned to inspect every gas station in the state - all 6,200 of them.

They make sure customers get what they pay for by ensuring pumps measure correctly, don't leak, and customers can read the display.

Jerry Butler is the man in charge of the program.

"We try to do them once a year, but with the 122,000 hoses that we have to check, some parts of the state, we're on about a year and a half cycle," he explained.

One quarter of a cent from every gallon of gas sold in North Carolina goes to fund the program, and the state collects millions of dollars a year.

But when ABC11 went to research the history of gas stations in the Triangle, we were surprised to learn that none of the reports from the inspectors are computerized. All the inspection records are kept in a file cabinet in downtown Raleigh.

We asked Butler if it's an archaic way of doing business.

"It's the same system we had in 1972 - the very same system," he explained.

Butler said the paper records make it hard to track trends and problems across the state.

"It is very time consuming, very time consuming, and we don't have time to do it," he said.

A study of the records by ABC11 found that every year, about 10 percent of the gas pumps looked at by the state fail inspections for various reasons.

Sometimes, the readout on a pump will "jump," meaning a customer is charged for gas that's not delivered.

About 400 fail the calibration test, meaning the pump doesn't accurately measure what's delivered.

Butler explained that 99 percent of the time, a pump fails because of a mechanical problem, and the gas station owner is not intentionally trying to short a customer. But intentional or not, the inspector orders the pump shut down until repairs are made.

The Department of Agriculture also does lab testing. It checks gas samples to make sure gas doesn't have water or sediment, and to make sure customers get the octane they pay for.

Of 25,000 samples collected every year, 97 percent pass. But some 750 samples do not.

But if a customer wants to check on the track record of their local gas station to see if there have been quality issues, they would have to go to Raleigh and sort through the paper files the way we did.

That's unlike inspections for other industries like restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, or schools, where people can peruse the information online.

Butler said to computerize the information, all he needs is more money. It would cost about $250,000 to buy the appropriate software.

But the General Assembly has actually cut money from the program, not increased it. Butler said he lost four positions in this fiscal year.

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