Dispensing too much - or too little: 8% of suburban gas pump lines failed inspection last year

Motorists filling up at the Thorntons in Third Lake last year had a one in three shot of getting a pump that wasn't dispensing the right amount of fuel.

Annual records from the Illinois Department of Agriculture's bureau of weights and measures showed 37 of the station's 102 fuel lines failed inspection and eventually were taken out of service to be recalibrated.

Those lines were among 4,465 "motor fuel dispensers" in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties rejected by inspectors in 2022 - the equivalent of 8% of all suburban fuel lines inspected last year, state inspection records show.

Inspection failures can be caused by giving out too much or too little fuel, usually the result of mechanical issues. Motor fuel pumps typically contain separate lines for regular, mid-grade and premium octane gasoline, and oftentimes diesel and flex fuels as well.

While the suburban failure rate was higher than the statewide failure rate of 6.9% last year, it was still lower than that of the previous four years in the suburbs, including 2020 when it was nearly 9%.

Statewide, 7,873 of the 113,644 gas station fuel lines inspected last year failed. In 2011, barely 5% of the state's 86,636 fuel lines failed inspection.

"I don't think there's really anything of concern with those levels," said Josh Sharp, chief executive officer of the Illinois Fuel and Retail Association, a statewide gas station lobbying organization. "Those levels are well within industry tolerances."

State inspection records also show 41.1% of Illinois gas stations had at least one pump line that failed inspection in 2022.

Sharp said aging equipment that has become harder to replace because of supply chain issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic likely is responsible for what ends up being an uptick in inspection failures over the past decade.

"It's been incredibly difficult, especially for underground storage tanks," he said. "The industry has had tremendous supply chain disruptions with that equipment."

The state's weights and measures division has 26 inspectors who cover 5,500 to 6,500 devices each year, state officials said.

Most commonly, a fuel pump fails inspection because of mechanical defects that cause the meter to "creep" or "jump," even when it's not being used. That can cause consumers to pay for fuel that wasn't dispensed.

It is extremely rare for the meters to be intentionally tampered with. So rare that multiple weights and measures division workers couldn't recall coming across such a case.

"Dispensers are sealed using a lead and wire seal to prevent malfeasance," said Doug Rathbun, the weights and measures bureau chief. "These seals are used by our inspectors as well as the service companies."

Each fuel line is inspected individually. Most pumps have three to five lines. Inspectors pump fuel into a container until the meter on the dispenser reads five gallons. The inspector checks the container to make sure the amount is correct.

To pass inspection, the amount in the container can't be off by more than six cubic inches in either direction - roughly the equivalent of a third of a can of soda.

It's actually more common, state records show, for pumps to dispense more fuel than less. But this presents another set of financial issues for towns, counties and the state, all of which rely on motor fuel sales tax revenues.

"If a pump fails inspection, it will be taken out of service until the maintenance is performed to recalibrate the device," said Chuck Cawley, the state's division manager for agricultural industry regulation. "The service provider is responsible for returning the dispenser to action and notifying us that it's been repaired."

The state certifies those responsible for recalibrating defective pumps. It can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days to inspect a gas station, depending on the number of pumps, officials said.

Also, it costs gas station operators $23 per line for the annual inspections, a price that hasn't increased in more than a decade.

The average gas station in Illinois has 30 lines, which would run the owner $690 in inspection fees.

Last year, the inspection program generated more than $2.6 million for the state's general fund. Salaries for the inspectors cost the state roughly $1.8 million, according to the state's employee salary database.

Pumps that pass inspection receive stickers annually that indicate they've been checked and approved.

"Gas stations keep getting larger," Cawley said. "If we can't get to one during the year, it goes right to the front of the line for inspection the next year."

Inspectors also will respond to consumer complaints, which officials said haven't increased despite skyrocketing gas prices.

"It's not something I've noticed," Cawley said. "I would attribute that to better technology of the dispensers."

  Jeff Tubacki, an inspector with the Illinois Department of Agriculture's bureau of weights and measures, tests the accuracy of fuel lines at a Shell station Thursday in Westmont as part of an annual certification process. Paul Valade/
  All 24 of the fuel lines at a Westmont Shell gas station passed inspection Thursday and received certification stickers from the state's bureau of weights and measures. Paul Valade/
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