Motorists might be familiar with the following scenario: you pull into a petrol station with half a tank of fuel but the bowser dispenses enough fuel to suggest it was near-empty.
You may have assumed that your reserve fuel tank was larger than expected and, most of the time, this would be correct.
But according to Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews, an audit of national petrol bowsers in 2017–19 found 4.8 per cent had inaccuracy issues that disadvantaged a consumer — double the 2.4 per cent proportion uncovered in 2015–16.
Ms Andrews said a bowser so inaccurate it prompts questions about tank-size could be a significant issue for consumers.
“But there can also be minor discrepancies, which could result in a consumer losing between 30 and 90 cents for every $100 spent,” she said.
“For the business, that adds up considerably each day — each week if that discrepancy continues.
“There’s a lot of money that can go to a business from a small amount lost by each consumer that comes in.”
Inspectors on the prowl
Enter the National Measurement Institute (NMI), a national authority tasked with ensuring retailers maintain the accuracy of measurement devices.
It employs about 60 trade measurement inspectors who work nationwide to audit about 9500 businesses each year, inspecting about 15,000 devices, such as food scales, weigh-bridges and beverage dispensers.
They also inspect, unannounced, up to 3000 petrol dispensers annually, ensuring litreage dispensed by a bowser matches what a customer pays for.
“It is the responsibility of the retailer to make sure their equipment is calibrated, and they have annual obligations,” Ms Andrews said.
“There’s always an issue that it could be deliberate, but a lot of it is just calibration with the equipment that needs to be adjusted.”
Inaccurate bowser percentage rises
Of 2925 petrol and diesel dispensers measured in 2015–16, 117 were found to be inaccurate to a consumer’s advantage, while 70 were inaccurate to a consumer’s disadvantage.
Of 1779 bowsers tested in 2016-17, 51 proved inaccurate to a consumer’s advantage, while 54 were inaccurate to their disadvantage.
But of 1933 tested in 2017-18, some 98 inaccurate fuel dispensers disadvantaged consumers, while another 30 were to the consumer’s advantage.
“At this stage there’s no explanation for that [the inaccuracy increase], so I’ll be looking to see, when the new set of figures come out, if it is still showing around 5 per cent or if it has dropped back,” Ms Andrews said.
She said inspectors had a range of options and, if it was a minor calibration issue, it could often be rectified on the spot.
“But I would expect that would be quite difficult in the case of dispensing petrol,” Ms Andrews said.
“There’s also the potential that there could be fines.”
Ms Andrews said the NMI issued 58 fines costing on average about $1000 each to businesses in 2017–18, while at least one business was referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
She urged people who suspected a fuel dispenser, or another trade measuring device, to be inaccurate, to report it to both the business involved and the NMI.
It is worth noting, however, that of 511 complaints about liquid and gas measurements made to the NMI in 2017–18, just 16 were found to be justified in that they disadvantaged consumers.
In the previous financial year, that figure was 18 of 411 complaints and, in 2015–16, it was 10 of 459 complaints.
It seems people’s reserve tanks really do have a larger capacity than generally assumed, but it is worth paying attention regardless.
“Every cent does matter,” Ms Andrews said.