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Inspectors keep busy with winter fuel activity

Oregonians enter the winter heating season with reliance on accurate measurement

Oct 10, 2013

(Oregon Deparment of Agriculture)  As temperatures begin to turn a bit colder this fall, Oregonians will start heating their homes with natural gas, heating oil, propane, and even firewood. With the cost of fuel these days, it is important for consumers to get exactly what they pay for, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture is in the business of assuring accuracy in commercial transactions.

“Oregonians need to be aware, before the purchase, of how much product they are getting and what they are going to pay,” says Jason Barber, ODA Director of Internal Service and Consumer Protection Programs. Inspectors with the Weights and Measures Program enforce Oregon laws requiring accurate representations of quantity, often investigating consumer complaints regarding fuel delivery.

As in all consumer purchases, it’s a good idea for buyers to take an interest in the transaction and be aware. With fuel deliveries, there are a couple of ways that help ensure you get what you pay for.

“ODA requires that those types of fuels be metered from licensed devices,” says Josh Nelson, field supervisor for the Weights and Measures Program. “We have standards for how accurate those meters need to be.”

Meters located on delivery trucks are routinely inspected by ODA. There are security seals placed on the meter's adjustment mechanisms. Consumers can look for an ODA approval seal found on the meter to assure that the device has been tested and approved.

“Consumers can also look for information on their receipt indicating the business name, the total gallons delivered, and the price charged to ensure it matches with what is indicated on the meter,” says Nelson. Printed delivery tickets are mandatory in Oregon and are to be left with the customer at the time of delivery or as specified by the customer.

Consumers who have a long established history and trust with the seller probably won’t have any concerns or problems with the fuel delivery. However, if you are dealing with a company for the first time or have any questions, you have the right to be on-site and observe the fuel delivery.

“One of the most effective ways to prevent a problem is to be present when a transaction occurs and just being observant,” says Nelson. “The meter on the truck should be visible to the buyer. It’s a good idea to be present when that first delivery is made and to look at the meter– just like you would when filling up your motor vehicle’s tank at a gas station.”

Nelson points out that most fuel companies are honest. But there have been occasions when consumers have paid for fuel not delivered. Sometimes the mistakes are honest. Other times, they are deliberate. There have been cases of delivery trucks simply pumping some of the fuel back into their own tanks, recirculating the heating oil. The meter will show that, for example, 200 gallons were delivered but only 150 gallons actually made it into the home’s fuel storage tank. Being there to observe the delivery can discourage that kind of deceit.

Of course, being proactive when it comes to home heating can save a few dollars this winter. Homeowners can have their furnace systems serviced by a professional company, making sure those systems are properly tuned and filtering systems cleaned. Keeping the warm air indoors and the cold air outdoors also helps.

Another seasonal winter fuel issue is firewood. Although home deliveries don’t involve a meter, many of the same requirements for a measurable transaction are in place. The only legal method to sell firewood is by the cord, which is a unit of measurement that is 128 cubic feet normally determined by a stack of wood when the pieces are all laid parallel in a compact, consistent manner.

“To purchase firewood, look for a reputable source– someone with an established track record of providing firewood,” says Nelson. “There are a lot of fly-by-night operators that are just loading a trailer with a pile of wood, dumping it off, and calling it a cord.”

Any way you stack it, a cord of firewood must measure 128 cubic feet. It could be eight feet high, four feet wide, and four feet deep. It could be two feet high, eight feet wide, and eight feet deep. Just so it measures up to 128 cubic feet. Not many people know how much a cord is. Even fewer can tell how much wood is being delivered without it being stacked up and measured. That's why the delivered wood should be stacked up.

ODA does respond to complaints about fuel measured by a meter or scale, since those devices are licensed and inspected. But it no longer has the funding to respond to firewood complaints. However, those cases are referred to the Oregon Department of Justice, which can investigate allegations of consumer fraud.

In addition to routine inspection activities performed year around for motor fuel quality assurance, the Weights and Measures Program will be busy in the coming weeks with a seasonal task of sampling diesel fuel in Oregon, which is required to contain five percent biodiesel as part of the state’s renewable fuel standard.

“During the winter, we do annual sampling at the retail level to ensure that the five percent biodiesel mandate is met and that the fuel has cold weather operability,” says Nelson.

When the fuel standard was first adopted, many motorists reported problems with their vehicles because of the blending requirements. Since then, an exemption to the standard during the winter months allows for additives to diesel fuel, which has reduced, if not eliminated, problems for motorists in cold weather conditions. ODA’s inspection helps ensure diesel contains the proper additives as well as the right mix of biodiesel.

ODA inspectors embrace their role as an impartial third-party that oversees the commercial marketplace to ensure equity in transactions– a function that helps prevent fraud and deceptive practices. But much of the responsibility continues to rest with the consumer. Whether it’s buying a tank of gas for the car in June or a quantity of heating oil for the home in December, consumers should take an interest in the transaction and be aware of what is going on.

For more information, contact Josh Nelson at (503) 986-4751.

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