SACRAMENTO, CA - What are the truths and fictions surrounding gasoline at the pump, in your tank and in the global world of giant oil companies?
Gas prices across the country are on the rise again and understanding gasoline fact and fiction can save you money, time and "energy."
Do you get what you pay for?
One of the most commonly asked questions has to do with the quality of the gas you buy: is it really the octane you've picked and is there such a thing as bad gasoline?
Sacramento County Sealer of Weights and Measures Juli Jensen said that of the county's roughly 10,000 gas pumps, 58 percent are checked every year, with a compliance rate of 95 percent.
"And when they're out, they could be out either in favor of the customer or in favor of the business," Jensen said.
Weights and Measure compliance tester Jason Sanguinetti said he's never seen a serious case of fraud and that pump issues are mostly a problem with calibration.
"It's usually maintenance of the meter, the meter's not functioning correctly," Sanguinetti said.
Bad gas is extremely rare, Sanguinetti said, and is usually caused by water contaminating underground tanks that have become corroded.
Is all California gas really the same?
"When you go to the local store, it's gasoline that's got some kind of additive to it and it's California good gas," said Dr. Thom Kelly, who has studied gas for years and is an expert on California gasoline.
Kelly said a relative handful of refineries make virtually identical gas and that it's some of the cleanest in the nation, but it is more expensive.
"It's maybe no more than a nickel or 10 cents added to the pump and in return for much, much cleaner air," Kelly said. "It seems to be a small price to pay."
Do additives really make a difference?
Every brand of gas in California has some kind of detergent added to help keep auto engines clean, according to Kelly.
"Each one has their own, but every one of them wants to sell gas and good gas, because they know if they put bad gas out there, we consumers will stop going in a heartbeat," Kelly said.
Could highly-touted additives like Chevron's Techron protect your engine better than another retailers brand?
"Beauty is in the consumer's eyes," Kelly said.
Where do you find the best deals?
Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years since the days when many California gas stations didn't even have clearly advertised prices.
"You would have to pull in to the pump, stop, get out and see what the price is," Kelly said.
Kelly was one of those responsible for making gas stations do a better job of advertising prices.
"What you want to do is avoid the major arteries if you can, like a freeway or something like that because it's a convenience fee; you get off [the freeway], you get your gas, you get back on and they charge you for that fee," Kelly explains. "You're willing to pay it and they're willing to charge it."
He also suggests buying gas where there are several stations close together, competing on prices.
"If you're gonna buy gas, you don't want go to the Beverly Hills station, you want to go to the suburb station," Kelly advises.
Other tips: shop where major retailers like a COSTCO sell gas, helping to drive down prices. Also buy in higher-traffic areas and at stations on corners instead of the middle of the block.
Do you pay too much where you live?
While researching this story, News10 consistently found that gas prices were lower in suburban areas and higher in inner city neighborhoods; and others have noticed it, too.
Trish Chapanian, of Carmichael said she's seen it in her commute from work to home.
"What I've noticed with gas prices is that the more affluent neighborhoods are less money than they are down here on Broadway," she said.
Experts differ on why that may be true, with some suggesting there are more gas stations in suburban areas, but regardless of the cause, many drivers resent it.
"It's not fair. I think it's really outrageous, actually," Sacramento driver Debbie Parmley said.
Keith Hayes of Sacramento agrees.
"I don't see how they can do it and get away with it, actually," said Hayes.
What's up with ARCO?
Kelly said it's a question he hears often from his students.
"They avoid going to ARCO because it is so much cheaper, from 5 to 25 cents less per gallon at times," students often tell Kelly. "'It's so cheap, it has to be somehow tainted gas or low quality gas.'"
All California gas is essentially similar, Kelly reminds his students, even though the myth of poorer quality gas persists.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Kelly explains. "In California, if it's California gas, it's California gas, it's good gas."
How does ARCO do it?
ARCO really does want to sell you cheaper gas, according to Kelly, thanks to a clever business model they came up with about 25 years ago.
"One was to cut out credit cards. They save three to five percent by not having to charge that credit card fee back to us as consumers," Kelly said.
ARCO also decided it could make more money by keeping gas prices low to draw customers into its convenience stores.
"By the continued success of their business model, I'd say they more than made up for it," Kelly concludes.
Gaming the system?
So what about the powerful oil companies that make billions in profits?
Kelly points out the big players in the oil business are pretty cutthroat and experts say spikes in prices are usually the result of global demand, international political crises, wars, disasters like major refinery fires or hurricanes that threaten refineries or offshore drilling rigs.
"That's not collusive," Kelly said. "So it's really difficult to pin-point times when we can say yes, there's a smoking gun. We don't find a smoking gun."
But there is a global web of day to day speculation on future oil prices, wheeling and dealing by companies to lock in lower long-term prices, but does that hurt consumers at the pump?
"(In) 2011, consumers paid almost 83 cents more per gallon because of oil speculation, meaning things that had nothing to do with supply or demand, but more a Wall Street tax on gasoline," CalPirg spokesperson Jon Fox said.
CalPirg is a consumer group that studies gas prices.
Other experts suggest speculation may add a much smaller increment to the cost of gas.
Is there a sure fire way to find the best price?
Kelly reminds consumers it's not worth driving too far to get the best deal because of the extra time and gas it may take to get there.
A number of websites claim to closely track gas prices, but one site in particular seems popular with many consumers.
It's called Gas Buddy.
"I love it," Sacramento consumer Sally Buckley said. "It's a free app you can get on your phone. . . You find your nearest location, cheapest, it's probably 99 percent true."
She claims the application is quick, easy and fun to use.
"Wherever it says to go,"Buckley said. "I've saved a lot of money."
How does economist Kelly decide where to buy his gas? He claims he picks the ones with the cleanest restrooms.