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Proving how water got into vehicle's gas tank is unlikely

Published April 10, 2005

On Sept. 29, my wife and daughter took our van to a gas station and filled the tank with $29.04 of gas. Shortly after driving away, the van started sputtering, coughing and lost power. I had it towed to a repair shop, where it was diagnosed as having water in the tank.

I wrote to the gas station on two occasions requesting reimbursement. Both letters were ignored. I could go to small claims court, but even if I won the court does not collect my money for me. I hope you can assist me in this matter.

- Earl Satterley

We ran your complaint past Richard Trenk, an automotive expert we occasionally consult, and he confirmed what we suspected - that Action cannot help in this situation. Here's why:

It's almost impossible to prove that water in a vehicle's gas tank was introduced at the time of fueling, Trenk said. There are a lot of normal ways that water can get into the tank. Running a tank half full or less most of the time can contribute to moisture condensing inside it. In our humid Florida climate it is better to keep your tank as full as possible most of the time to minimize condensation inside the tank.

Given that the accumulation of a small amount of water is not unusual, gas tanks are designed with two features to avoid the problems you described, Trenk said. The first is that the fuel pickup tube, which is connected to the pump, does not reach down to the very bottom of the tank, where any existing water collects. (Water weighs more than gas.)

Second, Trenk said, a nylon screen on the fuel pickup tube in the tank "usually" prevents water from being sucked up. However, if the tank is run very near to the empty mark, as indicated in this case by the large fuel charge, then accumulated water can be sucked up along with the gasoline. This, in turn, can result in engine roughness, loss of power or even complete engine stalling.

Some gasoline refiners add chemicals to the gas that allow small amounts of water to be absorbed and burned off with the gasoline.

Trenk said the only way the gas station could have been at fault is if the canister-type filter at the gas station pump had not been properly serviced and changed, or if the station's fuel storage tank was itself nearly empty. Six months after the fact, that is going to be impossible to prove.

The probability is that the water had been accumulating in your van's gas tank over a long period of time. So we're back where we started: You're probably going to have to swallow the repair cost yourself.

For future reference, any time you encounter or suspect a problem at the gas pump - from water in the tank to incorrect octane level to inaccurate weight - you may file a complaint with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service's petroleum inspection bureau at (850) 488-9740. Or call the consumer service's toll-free hotline toll-free at 1-800-435-7352. While it's probably too late for an inspector to determine whether there was a problem six months ago, if other consumers complained about this particular gas station at that time, you might have a chance to recoup your money.

Wrong tile installed in home

We recently moved from Clearwater to Delray Beach. In November, in anticipation of the move, we bought floor tile from a home improvement store and hired our own installer. We ordered 76 boxes of tile. We had brought with us a sample from the Clearwater store; we submitted it for identification when we placed the order. There weren't enough of those tiles in stock at the Delray branch, and the salesman agreed to order the tile we chose and have it available for pickup there.

On Dec. 10, we were notified the tile had arrived. When we inspected the cartons of tile, the salesman was with us; we confirmed the labels on the boxes and the name were what we had ordered. Our installer picked up the merchandise, brought it to our new home, and proceeded with the installation. At this point, since we were no longer needed in Delray, we drove back to our home in Clearwater.

After the installation, we returned to Delray and found that the tile was the wrong design, color and texture. It was covered with smudge marks and, when we tried to wipe them off, we found they were built into the tile itself. We also learned to our dismay that the tile was not made in Spain, but in Venezuela. The fact that the cartons were marked with the correct name and style number was a total misrepresentation. The tile that we were given was ugly and of inferior quality. We couldn't possibly see ourselves living with it.

We complained to the store, which sent our salesman and two manufacturer representatives to make an inspection. They found nothing wrong with the tile and offered no compensation.

Since we found it impossible to live with the tile, we proceeded to have it removed and replaced, with tile from another store, at a cost of more than $5,000. We made many attempts to have the home improvement store reimburse us, but it absolutely refuses to assume any responsibility. We would appreciate anything you can do to help us.

- Max and Evelyn Goren

Unfortunately, the time to correct this mistake has passed. It's a pity you didn't open at least one of the boxes to inspect the tile when the store alerted you to its arrival, if for no other reason than to make sure the tiles hadn't arrived in a million pieces. At that point, you could have easily prevented this costly situation in which you find yourself.

Given that you accepted the order and had it installed without verifying that it was what you wanted - did your installer not know? - we're afraid there's nothing we can do for you.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, e-mail or call your Action number, 727 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

[Last modified April 7, 2005, 09:36:03]

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