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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.

"The complaint form exists so that we can be alerted and follow up," he said. "We investigate every complaint."

Many drivers do not know they have the right to ask attendants to switch on the air and water machines for free, consumer advocates said.

"I suspect that many consumers are not aware of their right to free air, and station owners are collecting money that they are not entitled to," said Joe Ridout, spokesman for San Francisco-based Consumer Action. "It's an expense that a consumer need not pay for if they purchased gas."

Some, like Santa Rosa rental car agent Chris Vorlob, look for gas stations that do not have coin boxes on their air machines. Vorlob was unaware that state law entitles him to free air at any gas station, with a fuel purchase.

"I breathe air. Why should I have to pay for it?" Vorlob said last week as filled up his tires at the Tower gas station on Todd Road and Santa Rosa Avenue, which does not charge for air. "It makes no sense. It should always be free."

T.J. Dhaliwal, manager of the Shell station at Farmers Lane and Highway 12, said that stations like his charge for air and water so that non-customers don't abuse the service. When it was free, people would use the water to wash their bikes, he said.

"We aren't making a huge profit from it," he said. "But we don't want people just taking the air and water all the time without buying gas."

Gurvi Multani, the manager of the Tower station, said offering free gas and water is part of good customer service.

"We never charge a penny for air," he said. "Customers appreciate that. Even if they don't buy gas, they can get air for free. Sometime, they will come back and buy gas."

(You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com)

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