Don’t trust your gas pump? Meet Idaho’s inspectors

From the deli counter to the gas pump to the livestock auction, Idahoans rely on scales and other measuring devices to make sure they receive the full amount of sliced turkey, fuel, livestock or whatever else they paid for. Nine inspectors are deployed around the state to make sure customers get their money’s worth.

The Idaho Bureau of Weights and Measures oversees the devices that weigh and measure what people buy. In Idaho’s early days of statehood, livestock accounted for most of the commerce being measured, so the bureau started as and remains an office within the state Department of Agriculture. Its inspectors, including three in the Treasure Valley, performed about 24,400 inspections in 2014, including more than 19,000 gasoline pumps. Gasoline stations and other device owners pay inspection fees that support the 12-employee bureau.

Most measuring devices are inspected once a year. When a device is found to be faulty, or if its accuracy falls outside a narrow margin for error, the owner is given 30 days to replace or correct the device.

The vast majority of businesses correct their devices within the grace period, bureau manager and metrologist Kevin Merritt says. (Metrology is the science of measurement.) The bureau lacks authority to levy fines, but it can sue businesses repeatedly out of compliance. Merritt said the last time the bureau sued was in 1982, when it took on a propane company in northern Idaho.

Small grocery scales have the lowest rejection rate at 4 percent. Vehicle scales, which weigh trucks or livestock, depending on the location, have the highest rejection rate at 16 percent.

Inspectors say they investigate every consumer complaint. Merritt says most complaints are about gas-pump accuracy or fuel quality, which the bureau also checks. Most gas-pump investigations don’t result in rejections, and those that do may not necessarily validate the complaint, he says. Their rejection rate is 6 percent.

“When a gas pump is rejected because product delivery exceeds the tolerance limits, half of the pumps are giving fuel away,” Merritt says.

Stinker Stores owner Charley Jones, who has worked with inspectors for 13 years, says customers are emotional about fuel prices. Conspiracy theories abound about fuel prices and fuel pump accuracy. People think pumps are rigged to deliver less fuel than they’re paying for. Jones says the inspection stickers placed on inspected pumps bolster credibility at Stinker’s 65 stores.

“They give us legitimacy and give the industry legitimacy,” Jones says. “It’s hard for a customer to know they got 20 gallons when they can’t see it. They need to trust that the meter is accurate. The Weights and Measures folks help ensure the accuracy of those meters.”