It doesn’t sound like much: A deli scale that’s off by 1/100th of a pound. In real money, it’s what – a penny?
A gas pump that’s off a few cubic inches. That’s roughly the equivalent of pouring a shot glass into a 5-gallon gas can.
But if a gas pump or a grocery scale is out of whack even that much, it can cost consumers plenty, says Rich Tretter, a Weights and Measures inspector for the state Department of Commerce.
Look at it this way, says Tretter, of Local 2829. How often do you fill up at a certain gas station because its posted price is a couple of cents lower? If that station’s pumps are inaccurate, you actually could be paying more, not less.
Or what if you’re buying a nice cut of meat? At $10 a pound, a scale that’s off by 1/100th means you’re paying 10 cents more per pound than you think you are.
Day after day, week after week, “it can come to quite a bit of money,” Tretter says.
Getting what you pay for
Every year, inspectors like Tretter make the rounds of gas stations, supermarkets, butcher shops, hardware stores, mailing stores, and similar businesses where consumers and other businesses pay by weight or volume. It’s the inspectors’ job to certify scales, check pumps, weigh packages, and make sure consumers are getting a fair shake.
Of course, it’s just as likely that equipment errors will be in the consumer’s favor, Tretter says. At gas stations, for example, “usually if pumps go bad, they give too much product away.” So unless a business is deliberately ripping people off, owners typically don’t mind when the inspector shows up, he says.
A fraction of the state’s fuel tax pays for gas pump inspections; business owners pay for scale inspections – typically $25 per scale.
Inspectors work off a computer database of all businesses in their geographic territory, but they choose when and in what sequence to make their inspections. All visits are unannounced. They also follow up on specific consumer complaints about a business.
Aiming for precision
In a grocery store or butcher shop, Tretter checks every scale the store uses to weigh and sell goods to consumers or other businesses. That means visiting the deli, the meat department, the produce section and every checkout lane. A large store can take a couple of days to inspect.
Tretter carries in several cases of polished weights, ranging from 25 pounds each to 1/100th of a pound. He checks every scale’s accuracy at various weights, its sensitivity and its maximum limit. He makes sure it gives the same reading regardless of where on the tray he places the weights. That’s the easy part.
Most stores also sell meats, salads, cheeses or other food they package themselves. Tretter weighs those goods, too, to make sure they weigh what the package says they do.
Using his own scale, he tests at least a dozen packages in each category. He hooks the scale up to a laptop computer. After he takes a rough inventory, the computer generates a random lot, a list that tells him which packages to weigh.
Packaging adds weight, too
To get an accurate reading, he first has to determine the “tare” weight – how much all the packaging itself weighs. That means weighing containers and lids, different sizes of foam trays, different types of plastic wrap, and any material used in the packaging to soak up juices. He even weighs the paper stickers that the price and ingredients are printed on.
Stores are supposed to subtract the tare weight, so that consumers pay only for the chicken, for instance, not for the packaging, too.
This is an easy place for unscrupulous or careless businesses to rip off consumers. Packaging can easily add 10 or 15 cents per pound to the price of an item.
Once, Tretter inspected a supermarket during the holiday season. He found an entire display of candy that had the wrong tare weight.
“Apparently, staff ran out of small trays, so started using larger trays, but didn’t adjust the tare on the scale to account for the heavier weight of the larger tray,” he says. “As a result, consumers were being charged more than they should have.”
Tretter ordered the store to pull and repackage the entire display before the candy could go back on sale.
Good to the last drop
At gas stations, inspectors check every pump, pumping 5-gallon draws into calibrated “provers” on the back of their trucks. Whether pumping at high speed or low speed, they make sure 5 gallons equals 5 gallons (give or take a small tolerance).
Inspectors also check pumps for leaks and wear, make sure automatic fire shutoffs are working, check storage tanks, and check delivery records to make sure the station is selling the octane levels is says it is.
A station that fails must get its pumps recalibrated within 30 days. It is re-inspected before pumps can be certified.
Adapted from the March/April 2010 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine