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Cheated by the Heat

The weekly trip to your local gas station may be costing you more than you think. In fact, so-called “hot gas” is costing consumers like you and I billions of dollars every year. Is this just an oversight, or a scheme devised by gas stations to milk consumers of more money?

Hot gas: It’s something that the average citizen has never heard of. In fact, I’m not going to lie to you…I just recently learned about hot gas myself.

So what exactly is it?

Essentially, hot gas is gasoline sold to consumers at a temperature greater than the national standard of 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Who cares?

You should.

Like most other liquids, gasoline expands and contracts depending on the temperature. At 60 degrees a gallon of gasoline measures 231 cubic inches and contains a certain amount of energy.

But if a gallon of gasoline is heated to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it expands to 235 cubic inches.

What this means is that if gas stations sell you a gallon of fuel at 90 degrees, you pay the posted price for 235 cubic inches but only get the energy contained in 231 cubic inches of gasoline.

What are a few cubic inches between friends?

A lot.

Consider this. For every 10,000 gallons of fuel that a gas station sells at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, consumers are being ripped off $432.90 with gasoline prices at $2.50 a gallon.

So in short, when gas stations sell us fuel above 60 degrees, you and I get ripped off.

Typical underground storage tanks lie about twelve feet below ground. At this depth, the temperature of the gasoline can remain constant for most of the year. Moreover, contemporary storage tanks are double-lined, allowing the gas to sustain the same temperature as when it was delivered.

These storage tanks must be double-lined because of environmental regulations that were aimed at preventing leaks. But this essentially makes them underground thermoses and allows gas stations to keep the gasoline contained warmed longer.

And during the hot summer months, gasoline can be delivered up to 40 degrees more than the standard.

Nobody Can Con a Con

Just as hot gas is costing you more, colder gas costs gas companies more, because colder temperatures mean more energy out of every gallon of gas. Colder temperatures cause the gas to contract, thereby increasing the energy efficiency of a given volume. In other words, we pay more for less energy due to heat expansion while they lose money selling colder gas.

But gasoline companies have safeguarded themselves by adjusting for the temperature change when dealing with marketers.

In 1990, the oil industry effectively lobbied the Canadian government to pass laws to adjust for cold fuel in Canada. Even the U.S. military accounts for the loss of energy from hotter gas.

The average U.S. consumer, however, has nobody fighting on his side.

Just a Couple of Cents?

I have a feeling that getting cheated at the pump isn’t anything new to the average driver, and most people don’t get too upset with a few cents here and there.

But you might reconsider that when you realize that U.S. consumers buy 384.7 million gallons of gasoline per day—costing them almost $2.3 billion every year!

The most disheartening part is that it is perfectly legal for gas stations to distribute hotter gas as if it were at the 60-degree standard. There are no current regulations prohibiting them from doing just that.

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

For any change to happen, the government will have to impose new regulations on gas distributors.

The individual filling stations would need to convert their pumps to measure according to temperature. It does not seem likely they would do this on their own, however, due to the high costs of the conversion.

Each gas station would need to retrofit its pumps, at a price anywhere from $900 to $1,800 for temperature-sensitive dispensers. This does not take into account additional labor charges for installation. Other sources estimate the cost at $2,000 to $3,000 per pump.

Since privately owned gas stations are quickly giving way to large corporations, the number of pumps at each station is starting to increase. It isn’t uncommon to see a station with more than 15 pumps. The cost of converting each station is regarded (by the gas distributor, of course) as too expensive, especially since they are under no obligation to do so. Both the oil companies and the gas marketers believe that converting to the new system would be “too confusing” for consumers.

Imagine that.

But don’t hold your breath and expect the oil industry to come to the rescue, since it is secured against loss of revenue. Not even federal laws should be relied upon to give relief. Rather, help can only come from individual states like Hawaii that have realized they can save their consumers millions of dollars by imposing temperature regulations.

The Test

At first I was very skeptical of gas sustaining hotter temperatures during delivery, especially during month of January.

This had to be strictly a problem in the summer, right?

So this morning I decided to actually test the truth of this and as I was filling up the gas container with regular, I thrust a thermometer into the stream.

I actually shivered, and it wasn’t because I was standing in the snow—the gas topped off the mercury at 75 degrees! But that is pretty low compared to some other cases I found in which the gas reached an eye-opening 98 degrees.

If “hot gas” gains national attention, will drivers start moving their thermometers from medicine cabinets to glove compartments?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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