Is Hot Fuel Cheating You At The Pump? - KCBD NewsChannel 11 Lubbock

7/16/07

Is Hot Fuel Cheating You At The Pump?

Some consumer groups say hot weather is costing you at the pump, and now Congress is looking into the issue.  It's a phenomenon called thermal expansion, and lawmakers say the oil industry has known about it for nearly a century.  NewsChannel 11 alerts you to the possibility you're getting cheated at the pump.

It's not what people want to hear when gas prices are around $3.00 a gallon, but during the summer months drivers aren't getting exactly what they pay for.  According to some consumer groups, thermal expansion causes drivers to lose up to nine cents per gallon, though it's a process many of us have never heard of.

"No, I didn't know that.  All I pay attention to are the needles and the gas prices," Adriana Palomo said. 

If you're like Palomo, you're not alone, but thermal expansion, or in an easier term, hot gas could gouge a bundle out of your summer budget.

"It is a little known industry secret that the amount of gasoline, when you fill up in the summer is less than the amount in the winter in terms of weight and energy," U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich said. 

The phenomenon has fueled hearings on Capitol Hill and has pumped several lawsuits into Federal Court.

Like most liquids, gas expands with heat.  That causes the weight of a gallon of gas to go down.  The industry standard is set at 60-degrees, and right now, pumps don't compensate for fuel dispensed at higher temperatures.

"A gallon of gasoline at 60-degrees is going to be a gallon of gasoline. As you get to 70-degrees, then that gasoline will expand. You don't pay for quite as much as you would at 60-degrees," Charles Bolton from Bolton Oil Company said. 

That means you're not getting a full gallon.

It's a hard concept to visualize. Here's the easiest explanation we found from Land and Line Magazine. Imagine two jars of marbles filled with marbles.  The marbles represent the energy molecules in gasoline. 

When gas is hot, the molecules spread apart, taking up more room.  In our jar scenario, one jar would be filled, while in the other jar, some of the marbles would be forced out of the top because they're heated, and take up more room. 

So, while the two jars have the same volume, they wouldn't have the same weight or the same amount of energy, so drivers wouldn't get the same bang for their buck from the jar heated to 70-degrees.

The opposite is also true, meaning drivers get a little more for their dollar in the winter.

"During the year, everything will average out. If you're a buyer strongly in one particular season of the year, you'll be at a disadvantage, possibly," Bolton said. 

That's why those in the business buy bulk gas at a temperature-adjusted levels. Some consumer groups say every day drivers should receive the same consideration.

Canada has adjusted rates for their drivers.

"In Canada the oil industry moved quickly to adopt automated temperature compensation at the retail pump," Congressman Kucinich said. 

Bolton says doing the same in the U.S. could end up costing consumers more.

"I feel like it would definitely raise the cost of fuel to the buying public, because it would be a lot of dollars to convert one unit, much less everyone in the United States," Bolton said.

Drivers like Palomo are just hoping for some relief.

"Because these gas price are going crazy," Palomo said. 

We did ask if filling up in the morning would help folks get what they pay for.  It could help, but it may not help all that much.

Bolton tells us once the fuel is delivered, the ground insulates it, so the temperature won't change dramatically from the ground temperature. 

It's important to point out that adjustments would also have to be made for gas below 60-degrees if sales in the U.S. change, so it seems it could be a toss-up, depending on the climate, how much folks could save or lose.

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