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Watered Down Gas Is Way More Common Than You May Think

Faulty gas pumps mean you could be buying watered down gas, gas with sediment in it, or getting less gas than you pay for.

A recent report by CheapCarInsurance.net found that gas stations across the country are failing inspections. The study looked primarily at violations that occurred in 2016 in North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.

A motorist pumps fuel into his vehicle at JJ's Express Gas Plus station in Phoenix gas station in Phoenix
A motorist pumps fuel into his vehicle at a gas station. REUTERS/Joshua Lott REUTERS

Water leaking into gas accounted for the most violations in Georgia, at 20.7 percent, while more than 1 in 10 violations involved faulty discharge, and nearly one-third of all pump leaks occurred with regular-grade gasoline.

In Florida, nearly one-third of pumps pumped too slowly, and more than 1 in 10 stations failed inspections.

In North Carolina, nearly 24 percent of all gas station violations involved the discovery of sediment in the fuel, and more than 20 percent of the state’s gas station violations related to water contaminating the fuel.

These Aren't the Worst States — They Just Have the Best Data

The fact that these three states are the only ones highlighted in the report does not mean that gas station violations are exclusive to them, nor does it indicate these states have the highest amount of violations; in fact, these states were selected because they had the best data available on the matter.

"We reached out to about a dozen of the largest states to get the most data possible," said Eric Snapper, project manager at CheapCarInsurance. "The states used in the project were chosen based on their department’s ability to provide us clean and appropriate data."

Snapper added that due to the differences in reporting and inspection protocols, "each state’s data is non-comparable to other states."

How Inspections Work

While each state has its own data sets, along with its own laws and regulations, every state must abide by the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), and typically stations are inspected at minimum on an annual basis. In North Carolina, inspections may be done as often as there are customer complaints.

“We follow up on every complaint,” Marcus Helfrich, motor fuels inspection manager at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Customer Services, told NBC News. “Often the oil company will ask us to send an inspector, too.”

Helfrich points out that his department is solely concerned with the quality of gasoline, testing it to be sure it is not contaminated, as well as to verify its levels of octane, which is what makes the difference between regular and premium grade gasoline.

"Say you're buying a premium that says 93 octane and it comes up having 92 percent when we test it, then it fails octane inspection," Helfrich told NBC News.

Charging premium prices for regular grade petrol sounds like intentionally shady business, but usually the gas station manager is just as clueless as the consumer is about the mislabeling.

It's Usually Not the Gas Station’s Fault

“Remember when gas prices spiked in 2008 or 2009? People stopped buying premium,” said Helfrich, adding that when gasoline is sitting around in underground storage tanks, its composition may change. “You’ll see, as a function of time, a drop in the octane level.”

This may not be the gas station’s fault, but it is the gas station’s problem. Helfrich said that when a station fails a fuel test, the product is shut down until the station has resolved it. That in itself acts like a fine, given that the gas station is stuck with a spoiled product it can’t move, and will likely lose customers as a result.

Just as a gas station doesn’t purposely tamper with octane levels, it usually doesn’t intentionally put water or sediment in its fuel. This kind of contamination is typically caused by external factors.

“The number one way water gets into gasoline is people from the terminal that deliver gas forgetting to put the cover back on the 8,000 gallon tanks we have in the ground,” Avery Smith, the manager at Little Bros. Shell, a gas station in Brentwood, Tennessee, told NBC News. “If they forget to latch that cover, the next time it rains, water could run in it.”

Smith added that most gas stations have their gas storage tanks equipped with an electronic alarm that will sound when it senses water. The station may also physically test the gas for water with a tool that turns from white to burgundy when it detects water.

“More than one time we’ve found water in the gas,” Smith said. “When we find it, we have to call the terminal to send a pump truck to suck it out of the ground and then refill it with good gas.”

It’s an expensive and laborious process, and if it’s bad enough, Smith says it could ruin 8,000 gallons of gasoline.

4-Foot Snake Surprises Customers At Gas Pump 0:58

If You See Something, Say Something

Smith has found that one way to avoid committing gas station violations is by offering full service.

"We have attendants at the gas pumps out there all the time," said Smith. "So if there's a leak or a pump isn't clicking off like it's supposed to, they'll catch it right away."

But full service is rare in many states, so often it’s up to the customer to know if something is amiss. If you’ve got a lot of water in your tank (a little will likely burn off), you’ll know because the car will show signs of labored operation.

“Hesitation in driving, hesitation during acceleration, stumbling and jerking are all signs of water in gas,” said Smith.

If you suspect a violation, you should not only report it to the gas station manager, but call the number on the sticker on the pumps. People like Helfrich in North Carolina are actually hoping to hear from you.

"That you can complain to us is something we're currently trying to make more public," said Helfrich. "We don't have a very good web presence. We're just not really out there. I think if people knew about us more, they'd call more.”