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Sun, Sep 11, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Old pumps run out of numbers

Thousands of stations in the US have been in a quandary because they cannot charge more than what is on the dials

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Donald Neece, owner of a Mobil station in Goochland, Virginia, alters the mechanism of his gas pump so that it will register prices measured at half-gallon increments on Thursday. At left is employee Mike Cross. Neece's old pumps use mechanical dials and are unable to register prices above US$2.99 a gallon (US$0.63 a liter). Last week a few states gave station owners permission to price gas by the half-gallon on the condition they quickly move to retrofit their pumps to register US$3 and up.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

From the unforeseen-glitch files and the department of "who knew?" comes a tale of gas station owners with a Y2K-style predicament: What if the price set on the mechanical dials of old pumps can go only as high as US$2.99 a gallon (US$0.63 a liter) and the actual price has jumped above US$3?

Donald Neece, the owner of a Mobil station in Goochland, Virginia, had to keep his pumps off for six days -- first because, given spot shortages around the country, he ran out of gasoline, and then because he had no way to charge more than US$2.99, and at that price he would have lost money on every sale.

Neece, like thousands of other station owners using older pumps, mostly in rural areas, could not legally charge the full amount until his state granted him a waiver that allowed the pricing of gas by the half-gallon.

He finally began selling gas again on Thursday, at US$3.08 a gallon.

His pumps were set at US$1.54, with a sign: "Important notice: Gas pump prices are priced for 1/2 gallon. Your price will be doubled the amount shown on pump."

With regular gasoline topping US$3 -- the US average on Friday was US$3.02 -- owners of older pumps have been stuck because most states do not let them charge more than what is on the dials. So they, and trade groups representing them, have been scrambling to upgrade the pumps and, in the meantime, obtain permission to sell by the half-gallon.

According to industry experts, as many as 25,000 gas stations, about 15 percent of the nation's total, are using pre-1990s pumps whose designers did not envision the era of US$3 gas.

"This is definitely a new wrinkle," said Denny Kelly, a spokeswoman for Gilbarco Veeder-Root, which makes the newer pumps with electronic displays that most stations use.

Gilbarco, a subsidiary of the Danaher Corp, also sells upgrade kits. One costing US$20 to US$25 can retrofit older pumps so that they charge up to US$3.99 a gallon. A US$300 kit can get a pump all the way to US$9.99. Sales of the kits have increased sixfold over the last few days, Kelly said.

Pumps with older dials also can't charge more than US$99.99 for the entire purchase; they turn over to US$00.00.

"Whoever thought we'd have to get the dial to go above US$99.99?" Kelly said, contemplating what it might now cost to fill the tank of a large vehicle like an RV.

In the last few weeks, most state governments have approved temporary measures permitting pricing by the half-gallon until stations can upgrade their pumps, said Bob Renkes, executive vice president of the Petroleum Equip-ment Institute, a national trade association.

"It's a big relief," Neece said on Thursday, after Virginia granted a waiver. "It's taken a whole lot of stress off me."

As many as 1,000 stations in rural areas of Illinois may be operating the older pumps, and without the emergency measures taken in that state, they would have lost fistfuls of money or been forced to shut down, said Bill Fleischli, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association.

"It wasn't even on the radar," Fleischli said of the pricing problem. "One of my members called me, and I thought it wasn't a big deal. But he had 400 pumps."

Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops, estimated that 300 to 400 stations, including several in New York City, had been facing problems until state officials began issuing waivers over the last several days.

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