Too Costly To Count

Fuel prices flirting with the $4 mark are causing problems for thousands of rural fuel dealers whose pumps can’t count that high, the Associated Press reported.

Fuel equipment suppliers are reporting a surge in demand for fuel equipment that allows older fuel pumps, which use mechanical reels instead of digital readouts, to display prices up to $9.99 a gallon, the newspaper service reported.

The result is a waiting list that can last two months or more. In some states, regulators are attempting to work around rules that require service station and convenience store fuel pumps to display per-gallon prices. Older, unmodified fuel pumps often cannot show prices higher than $4 a gallon.

“It’s a significant problem,” said Mike Rud, director of the North Dakota Petroleum Marketers Association. “In some of the outlying rural areas, this might be the only pump in town that people can access.”

In one North Dakota town, the fuel pump can’t handle a price higher than $4. North Dakota’s Public Service Commission recently notified stations that their mechanical pumps could display fuel prices by the half-gallon if a sign was posted alerting customers that they would owe twice the amount shown. Pump operators will have to install a permanent solution by April 2009, said Kevin Hanson, the commission’s assistant director of testing and safety.

In Minnesota, rural service station owners whose pumps cannot display the right price are being told to cover up the incorrect numbers.

“The consumer can only see the gallons turning,” said Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Commerce. “Then they just have to settle up with a calculator, basically.”

Mechanical pumps that use internal wheels to show prices are still fairly common in rural areas that sell smaller amounts of fuel, said Robert Renkes, director of the Petroleum Equipment Institute, a national trade organization based in Tulsa, Okla. He estimates about 8,500 stations have mechanical pumps.

“We keep thinking they’ll disappear, but they’re still around,” Renkes said.

Most mechanical pumps cannot display prices above $4 a gallon without the installation of a new computer unit that can go up to $9.99, said Pete Turner, chief operating officer for APS Petroleum Equipment Inc. of Anniston, Ala. The equipment costs about $350.

Installing digital pumps would solve the price-display problem, but many rural fuel dealers don’t make enough money to justify the expense, said Jeff Engel, the sales manager for Hobbs Inc., an equipment dealer in Mandan, N.D.

“They can’t afford to put in $13,000 to $14,000 for a new gas pump,” Engel said.

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