Cagey Consumer

Free Air, Water at California Gas Stations

Several cities in California made news when they mandated "no-surcharge" ATM's, laws which were later challenged by Federal banking authorities. The outcome of those challenges is still up in the air.

The California state legislature enacted a similar Free Air & Water Law mandating air and water at no charge for service station customers. This time, there's no legal challenge, but the law contains an annoying loophole. It might be expected that service station trade groups would object to California's plan to cut off the income they've been earning by selling air and water, justifying their position by the high cost of maintaining the coin-operated devices that would now have to be paid for by higher gasoline prices. Without a coin box to be vandalized, these costs might drop way down.

But few station operators are thinking along those lines. Instead, they're taking advantage of the hole in the law that allows them to charge people who aren't buying gas. (Yes, you are entitled to free air if you buy 5¢ of gas.) Additionally, many stations are increasing the fee for those who do pay from 25¢ to 50¢.

Those who object to this law on the grounds that it's telling people how to run their business are overlooking (or at least not bothering to mention their objections to) the numerous regulations that any business needs to comply with: zoning, environmental, and signage regulations would apply most everywhere. Localities may also limit the number of pumps in a gas station, based on the lot size and other considerations. Mandating free air is certainly no more onerous than many of these other rules.

Without this new law, stations that might want to provide free air and water would likely be burdened with numerous motorists buying gas at other stations, while crowding those stations offering free air. But with every station having free air and water, there would be no reason for this to occur.

Meanwhile, you never know whether you'll need gas when it's time to pump up your tires. So remember to ask for your "free air" tokens every time you gas up.

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February 3, 2000