It's free to breathe, but air comes with a price at gas stations

  • Samuel Meza inflates his tire with free air provided at the Mission Valero gas station, on Sonoma Highway and Mission Boulevard, in Santa Rosa, on Friday, June 28, 2013. While the Mission Valero station offers free air and water, other local gas stations provide them for a fee. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

We breathe it every second of every day. It is available free all around us in the atmosphere.

Yet many gas stations in California still charge customers up to $1.50 to inflate their tires with air, despite a little-known 1999 law that requires them to provide free air and water to customers who have purchased gasoline.

Many drivers don't know they are entitled to free air and water when they buy gasoline, and they end up paying extra for the service, consumer advocates say.

"I do think it is a widespread rip-off by an industry that is already ripping us off at the pump," said Jamie Court, president of Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog. "I'm shocked that this hasn't been litigated. It's a deceptive practice that is costing consumers money."

In Santa Rosa, 17 of 23 gas stations surveyed by The Press Democrat last week had installed coin boxes that allow them to charge customers for air or water. Fees ranged from 75 cents to $1.50.

Each of those stations had posted a sign required by the law informing customers that air and water is free with a purchase of gas. But in many cases, those signs were small and difficult to read.

Upon request, each station agreed to provide air and water at no charge, even without a gasoline purchase.

Gas stations that charge customers for air and water after a fuel purchase can be fined up to $250 for each violation. Consumers can file complaints with the state Department of Food and Agriculture on its website, www.cdfa.ca.gov/egov/dms/aw/.

Members-only discount warehouses, like Costco, and cardlock facilities are exempt from the law.

Statewide, the agency receives 150 complaints each year, according to Steve Lyle, director of public affairs for the agency.

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