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Accuracy, honesty in gasoline

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

There are rules. But even more than the rules, there's a sort of standard of decency and civilization that has to be upheld.

David T. Au says it simply: "I think, if you buy a gallon, it should be a gallon. And if you pay for 10 gallons of gas, it should actually be 10 gallons. If you pay for the premium, if should be premium."

It sounds simple, and in some ways it is, but the defense of accuracy and honesty keeps Au and the Georgia Department of Agriculture's Fuel Oil Laboratory, busy full time. There are 23 or 24 inspectors taking samples of the gasoline, diesel and kerosene sold in this state and all those samples -- more than 13,500 in the last 12 months -- are brought back to the lab on Kennedy Road in Forest Park, and tested.

The fuel lab, a window-less, 44-year-old brick building, housing three scientists and three lab techs, smells a little bit like gasoline, but not as much as you'd expect.

Glass jars of gold-colored gasoline are clustered in the center of the lab, crowding a table. Donna Barringer, a lab tech with a respiratory mask strapped over her nose and mouth and a ball cap pulled down over her face, is flicking through a read-out of numbers, from this latest batch of gas samples.

"When it comes out of the nozzle," says Au, the lab director, "it should be clear. Bright and clear. No water. Not cloudy. Clear."

The biggest problem in the quality of Georgia's gas supply is water, according to Au. About 60 percent of negative reports on gasoline involve water -- leaky underground tanks let it in, and the water messes up the gasoline. Sometimes, Au says, there will be as much as two or three inches of water in a tank, and the gas station has to be shut down, and all the water has to be pumped out.

The second biggest failure found in Georgia gasoline is low octane. According to Au, distilleries are using ethanol as an octane booster, adding 10 percent ethanol to 85 octane gas to bring it up to the minimum standard of 87 octane. Eventually, though, the ethanol separates from the oil-based fuel and the octane drops below what is advertised.

"This is the nutshell of what we do," Au says. "Our goal is to protect the consumer. We don't protect the oil companies. We protect the consumer."

The consumers in this state have been feeling the need for protection, too. With the increase in gas prices comes an increase in complaints, fielded by the lab. The quality, honesty and accuracy seems to stay about the same, regardless of price, but people are worried about the gasoline, and when they're worried, they call the fuel oil laboratory in Forest Park.

"When gas is $1, you don't really notice it. When gas is $5, people watch every penny," Au says.

Most of Georgia's more than 8,000 filling stations actually sell a better product than advertised, according to the lab's records. Octane is normally a little higher than advertised and a purchased gallon of gas normally means a little more than a gallon in the tank. Of those stations with errors detected by the lab, according to Au, the vast majority are mistakes.

"Ninety-nine percent are honest and have just made a mistake. Sometimes, like, they've just put the gas in the wrong tank. The one percent cause a problem, though," the lab director says.

In the last 12 months, though, from July 2007 to June 2008, the Department of Agriculture only had to lock down 100 pumps in the state, and recalibrate 150 "provers," which measure the fuel.

From a side room, Carlos Heard, a lab scientist, is running two test engines side-by-side. They're "single-headed, four-stroke, cylinder engines," he says. The one on the left is running at idling speed on a sample of gas, and the one on the right is running at higher speed on the same sample.

When they're done he will add the octane number from the one with the octane number of the other, divide by two, and ensure the accuracy and honesty of Georgia's gasoline, just like he's been doing for the last 22 years.

Au says the job is about maintaining standards. He says, "We're just making sure the gas stations all follow the rules."