Legally mandated free air for tires is not always clearly advertised

Over the past few years, gas stations nationwide have added coin-operated air compressors for the public to inflate their tires. Only one problem: During business hours, it's illegal to require motorists to pay for air in Connecticut.

Paul Sanderson of Salem started noticing the paucity of stations offering free air when he started hunting for a gas station where he could keep his tires properly inflated. Some stations near his home displayed mangled air hoses that never were repaired, while others had converted to coin operation.

"That just seems wrong," said Sanderson. "How much could air cost?"

Sanderson said he believes the environmental and safety benefits of keeping tires properly inflated should require stations to provide free air.

So he started hunting around the Internet and was surprised to find, as confirmed by Claudette Carveth, spokeswoman for the state Department of Consumer Protection, that free air is required by law in Connecticut.

In addition, retailers that sell at least 10,000 gallons of fuel a month - virtually all stations in the state - are required to post a sign in a "conspicuous location" stating that free air is available, Carveth said.

Stations are allowed to seek payment from coin-operated air compressors after hours, she said, but otherwise must offer free air.

Sanderson said properly inflated tires keep cars running efficiently, saving on gas.

"It's a safety issue, too," he added. "An underinflated tire can overheat and blow out or it can lose traction or cause a car to pull or swerve."

Many longtime service-station owners support the law.

"It's just a little something you can give back to the customer," said Michael Olsen, owner of the Hess station in Waterford.

"People buy their gasoline, and they should be allowed free air," added Dick Gada, owner of Guy's Oil in Niantic.

However, a check of about a dozen gas stations in the area shows that about half of the businesses fail to post adequate signage advertising free air. For instance, two gas stations on Route 161 in East Lyme recently added coin-operated air compressors without the required signage.

Others post confusing signs, Sanderson said, that leave consumers scratching their heads - and, presumably, feeding quarters into the machines when they might not have to.

Frank Greene, director of the Consumer Protection Department's division of food and standards, said his agency actively checks gas stations for compliance with the free-air law, but also depends on consumer complaints. The state receives only about 10 complaints a year about stations not offering free air, he added.

That's testimony to the fact the state needs to do a better job advertising the free-air law - to consumers and to businesses - said Carveth, the department spokeswoman.

Bill Seymour, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said police can cite violators with a ticket that carries a $50 fine, while repeat violators face possible loss of their licenses to dispense gasoline. Greene said his agency generally gives stations 10 days to resolve an issue.

"Connecticut and California are the only two states that currently have this requirement for the provision of free air," Greene said in an e-mail response to questions. "There have been numerous attempts by industry to repeal the free air law."

Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said coin-operated machines became popular nationwide about five years ago, after Hurricane Katrina lifted gas prices to new records approaching $5 a gallon. Consumers took out their frustration over high prices on gas stations' equipment, he said.

"They were throttling (air) hoses," Lenard said. "People who got a $50 fillup figured they'd whack this thing a couple times."

But Lenard acknowledged that, while coin-operated machines may offset costs for convenience-store owners, free air has its own adherents, and the issue is an emotional one.

"Free air - it's almost like a rallying cry," he said.

Gas station attendants usually allow customers to use their coin-operated machines for free if motorists go inside the store and request it, said industry insiders.

Which brings up a question: Why allow coin-operated machines in a state that requires free air?

Greene said the interpretation to allow coin-operated machines has been in place for more than 20 years.

"I am told that to 'un-do' that interpretation, given that it has been in place that length of time, might require a change in the statute," he said.

Olsen, the Hess service station owner, said the switch to coin-operated machines has been led by convenience-store gas stations that work off small margins and try to make money any way they can.

"It's a sign of the times," he said. "It's not like your grandfather's service station anymore."

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