AUGUSTA – Consumers are not alone in trying to keep up with the soaring cost of fuel. Older-model gasoline and diesel fuel pumps can’t keep up, either, and the state has issued emergency rules to keep the fuel flowing.
“We have a number of stations, particularly with the diesel fuel, that have the old mechanical pumps so they can’t compute over $3.99 a gallon,” said Hal Prince, director of Weights and Measures in the Maine Department of Agriculture. “So we have given them permission, on a temporary basis and under a set of conditions, to sell by the half-gallon.”
He said a similar problem came up two years ago when fuel prices went over $2.99 a gallon for the first time and a number of gas stations were forced to buy conversion kits for their mechanical pumps. The modern digital pumps at most stations are not affected by the problem.
“The reason we are allowing this is because we don’t want anyone to have to stop selling fuel,” Prince said. “We have to make sure people can buy fuel for their logging trucks or farm vehicles. Many of these are small stores out in the country and they have been caught by this fast increases in prices.”
Under the temporary exemption, stores with mechanical pumps can sell by the half-gallon if they clearly disclose to consumers what they are doing. There must be signs on the pump, and both the price per gallon and the total sales price have to be obscured. One of the signs must direct the consumer to see the clerk in the store to get the total sales price.
The rule also requires that any roadside signs indicate the per-gallon price, not the half-gallon price. The signs on the top of the pump, required by state law, also must display the per-gallon price.
“We had some problems reported to us,” Prince said.
He said one person bought what he thought was $20 worth of fuel based on the pump settings displayed at a store, but it was $40 worth. He had only a $20 bill with him and the store owner called the police on the customer.
“We can’t have that sort of thing going on,” Prince said.
He said the department has been working closely with the Maine Oil Dealers Association, which has many gas stations and convenience stores as members, to ease problems and make sure consumers are protected and that businesses can continue to operate.
“The department worked very quickly with us after we requested this temporary change in the rules,” said Chris Jackson, vice president of the Maine Oil Dealers Association. “It is a short-term fix.”
He said stores and stations with the mechanical pumps would have to buy and have installed an upgrade kit that can cost $800 to $1,000 a pump. He said most of the pumps affected so far have been used for diesel fuel, but with the rapid increase in gasoline prices, many more pumps will have to be upgraded.
“It would be far more expensive to go to a digital pump – anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 a pump,” Jackson said. “Most of these locations we are talking about could never recover that sort of investment.”
He said most small stores and stations make “a few cents a gallon” on gasoline and diesel fuel, even though the retail price of diesel is more than $4 in many areas of the state. He added that the extra cost of upgrading pumps could lead some mom-and-pop stores to discontinue the sale of fuels.
“I went into a small convenience store – one of the small independents that is a member of our association – and he was going through his receipts from the previous month, and I asked him what he was doing,” Jackson said. “He told me he was trying to figure out how long he can stay in business.”