air compressors at gas stations should be free
I’d noticed over the past few days that the tire on our other vehicle was looking a little soft. With the only inflating device I own being a bicycle pump (a really cheap one at that), and it being the vehicle that I drive the least frequently, there wasn’t much I could do about it until I could get it to an air compressor at a gas station. Well, what an eye opener that turned out to be.
The first station I tried had an air compressor, but it had recently been converted from a free push-the-button-and-fill type to one that requires a 50¢ donation to a select charity. That’s a nice gesture, but it’s so rare for me to carry cash these days, let alone actual change, I had to take a pass and keep driving on my under-inflated tire. The next station I came to (and there aren’t all that many on the West side of Waterloo) was the same deal: 50¢ to inflate. Again, I had to carry on. Thankfully the 3rd station I came to had an air hose that was free to use and I could re-inflate my dreadfully low tire and top up all the others.
(Oh, in case you’re considering it, don’t bother filling up with nitrogen. It’s purely a marketing scheme. You benefit from having no moisture in your tire that could cause bigger temperature-based pressure fluctuations, but for the cost it’s really, really not worthwhile. The proof? The tires I had to refill had all been filled with nitrogen in the spring, on a vehicle that was brand-new in October.)
This little adventure in trying to fill my tires got me thinking. I pulled in to (and quickly pulled away from) two perfectly good air compressors, simply because I didn’t have 50¢ on me at the time. I’m also cheap, and knowing that free air station do exist I’d much rather find one than shell out even a couple of coins. If that is my reaction, I have to guess that there is a segment of the population that is also in one or both of the two boats; no change, and/or stingy enough not to want to spend 50¢ on tire inflation.
So, for the lack of half a dollar, how many people are driving around on underinflated tires? How much less mileage are they getting as a result? How much bigger is their emissions/carbon footprint because of this? And is the change that these air compressors are eventually donating to charities really worth the net emissions and carbon increase? I’m going to guess not.
Gas stations are already footing the bill for the electricity used to power these pumps. One way or another, they’re giving power away for free. By putting even a minimal cost on operating the pumps, this creates a barrier that some consumers are either not willing or unable to overcome. Thus, having air compressors cost anything basically amounts to having more people driving around on underinflated tires for longer than they would otherwise. Thus, my conclusion is that all air compressors should be free.
What of the charities? Make the donation optional, if you want, but don’t make the air compressor’s operation dependent on a donation. If we look at the larger good, having more tires at proper inflation levels is probably going to do more than a hanful of change going to a charity will. Call me pessimistic, but that’s how I see it.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking to top up your tires in Waterloo for free, the Shell station at Westmount and Father David Bauer Drive offers free air, and last time I was there (admittedly a couple months ago) the former GTO station at the corner of Columbia and Phillip (now also a Shell? I forget) provided free air. Once you’ve got your tires inflated and you’re feeling good about saving gas and reducing your emissions, send $5 to your favourite charity. Then everyone wins.
UPDATE 2010-08-25: This post has generated quite a few comments, not all of which I found balanced or fair. The comments I found to be harsh, regardless of their side of the issue, have been removed, and comments are now closed. I have kept what I believe to be the comments that are balanced and speak to both sides of the issue.