Inside gas station inspections, 28 inspectors to cover all of Virginia

(WDBJ7)- When problems happen at the gas pump, investigators at a state agency are looking out for you.

The Office of Weights and Measures with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is in charge of inspecting gas stations across Virginia.

They aim to inspect each station every one and a half years. Last year, the average interval was every two years, brought down from 36 months in 2015.

The office is still working to bring the interval down even more, but when 13 cars broke down after filling up at the Ironto Truck Stop in December we found the interval was much longer.

Leighann Klingensmith was just one person who found that out the hard way. She has a folder filled with receipts from December 23rd sitting on her kitchen table. That’s when Klingensmith, her wife and two dogs embarked on their Christmas trek from Northern Virginia to Oklahoma in their brand new 2017 Rav 4.

Along the way, they made a pit stop in Southwest Virginia at the Ironto Truck Stop, but instead of fueling their drive forward they hit a bump in the road.

“Not 200 feet off the exit we immediately broke down,” said Klingensmith.

The side of Interstate 81 is where you would find not only the Klingensmiths, but the Christians, Patricks, and at least ten others who broke down after getting gas.

“It was surreal, like out of a Stephen King novel,” said Klingensmith. “Someone knocked at my window… but I recognized him. He was at that gas station too. And he said I think we got bad gas.”

When mechanics tested the fuel, they detected water. Mechanics at First Team in Roanoke detected 95 percent water in one customers car.

WDBJ7 filed a public records request to see the last time the Ironto Truck Stop was checked out. 2014 was the most recent inspection date.

“We obviously want to get out to these devices as quickly or in as short of an interval as possible...it's not always possible,” Joel Maddux. Maddux heads up the Office of Weights and Measures at VDACS.

He says being an inspector is a complicated job with a training period of six to eight months. When an inspector leaves and a new one has to get trained, it affects work flow.

They calibrate pumps to make sure customers are getting the amount of gas that they pay for. Inspectors also look for more minor details like lights working on pump displays and proper stickers in place.

Aside from the pumps, inspectors test the actual tanks for water. They put a long stick with a paste on the end of it into the tank. If the paste turns from white to purple, they know the tank has water in it.

After they conduct all of the ground work at the actual gas station, the inspectors have to send the information to a lab to get checked out even further.

The problem: pumps across Virginia outnumber the inspectors.

There are 28 inspectors to cover over 132,000 devices. Simple division shows each of the 28 inspectors would be responsible for checking more than 4,000 devices each year. To cover every one they would have to inspect 13 devices every day, assuming they all work 365 days in a year.

And the office doesn’t just handle gas stations. They are in charge of inspecting all weighting devices from the gas station pump to the scale at the grocery store.

“We can’t be everywhere at once,” said Maddux.

In their absence they rely on consumers to alert them when they encounter a problem. Every pump in Virginia has a sticker on it. It shows the last inspection date and a phone number to call if there are any problems: 804-786-2476.

“Anything that they think from a weights and measures perspective is a problem, we welcome and we want them to call us because that actually gets us out to the location to test the pumps,” said Maddux.

In fiscal year 2017, the office inspected 73,861 of the 132,000 devices. That’s five percent more than they inspected in 2016. The office prioritizes complaints. Last year, they responded to 427 complaints. Their policy is to respond to a complaint within three days.

But still, there are some stations that might get missed. The sticker on the pumps in Ironto shows the last pump inspection was in September of 2011, even though the tanks were tested after a complaint in 2014.

Klingensmith says she didn’t notice the sticker when she was gassing up, but now it’s a sticker that she will look out for.

“I don't expect much, I expect to get gas in my vehicle and be able to move on and carry on,” said Klingensmith.

The cause is still under investigation at the truck stop. As soon as VDACS was alerted they stopped sale on the tanks, but these problems are rare.

Of the 427 complaints last year, only 66 pertained to motor fuel quality. The office also tested 4,839 motor fuel samples. Of the samples collected, 121 were in violation. Inspectors say it's usually maintenance issues and it’s extremely rare to find someone tampering with the tank.

Complaints usually pertain to the actual pump. 315 of the complaints last year were about the weighting and measuring devices and 46 pertained to price advertising. When problems occur with the calibration of the pump, the office says it’s actually rarely in the customer’s detriment. In most cases, the gas station is giving too much gas.

The owner of the Ironto Truck Stop has compensated the Klingensmiths for damages, which included a rental car and hotel stay. But Klingensmith says the experience has made her more aware of problems at the pump and who’s in charge of monitoring them.

“Disappointing and had we have not received compensation, I can tell you there would be a lot more follow through on our end,” said Klingensmith.

According to Maddux, the office did receive extra funding from a General Assembly bill. They were able to hire two new people in the last two years and are hoping those new hires will allow more devices to get inspected, more often.