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air compressors at gas stations should be free

September 14, 2007

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.

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6 Comments
  1. November 7, 2007 1:40 pm

    Andrew–the same trend is happening elsewhere, I can attest. The various places I used to air up in Denver are now all charging. And, you are correct that I tend to check the tire pressure less often now than I used to!

    Like you, I very seldom have any cash on me at all. If I can only remember to leave a few quarters in the console of both vehicles, I could check them more easily. Now, back to the other problem: short-term memory issues…

  2. Abraham Jacob permalink
    December 19, 2008 2:38 pm

    The Petrocanada station on Goreway and Queen in Brampton, On Canada had a nice free air tower. However, today when I went to top up my tires, I found that that was replaced by an air station which had to be fed with a dollar coin to activate

    I felt that this is real money grab. Universally, air is free in pumps and that is how I have known it. The only place I had to pay for air till date was at SUNOCO (50 cents) where they say the money collected goes to Sick Kids (hopefully it does)

    Charging a dollar for air is outrageous. Gas companies are probably the greediest industry. The high profits they have made make them more greedier.

    I decided not to fill up in this station so that I do not contribute to their profits. I have decided to fill up only in pumps where air is free. Hope that other motorists follow this so that as consumers we can teach them as lesson.

  3. Don permalink
    June 26, 2009 10:14 am

    I had the same experience yesterday at the local BP station, at Fairmount circle, in University Heights, OH. I had been regularly filling up there, and having to ask them to turn on their air compressor, to fill my tires,(which they cheerfully did). Yesterday, I had filled my tank with gas as usual, when I then asked to use their compressor for air. I was then told that they no longer could do that, and I would have to deposit coins to get air. I asked them why, and the attendant replied that there was now a new owner, and there was no more free air, even for customers. This seems like a very customer-unfriendly attitude. It also seems there should be some kind of consumer law providing free air to consumers, since having the correct tire pressure benefits the environment in general.

    Suffice it to say, I will no longer purchase gas at this station.

  4. Crystal permalink
    November 10, 2009 9:26 am

    I am sorry that you fill that way but we own a gas station and have you ever stopped to think that the compressor that is running is costing the company. I know it does us. We charge 75 cents for air if you do it if we have to do it for you then yes there is another charge for that. We are a full service station but we have to replace the compressor when it goes out (Not anyone else!)
    So it is fair for the charge. If you are a regular gas customer and need air at the time of your purchase you are not charged for it. But if you just come up and need air and you are not a regular gas customer then you will be charged for the air at our station in Chatham, VA.

  5. December 10, 2009 11:57 pm

    A lot of of guys talk about this issue but you said really true words.

  6. Ann permalink
    March 19, 2010 8:50 am

    I have the answer to why air costs money at gas stations! The air compressor costs $1300 or more. How is a station supposed to recoup that cost without charging the customer? I own a gas station and we took out our free air because people kept breaking/stealing the end. We would replace it (for $10), just to have to replace it again the next week! We did that for a year. Finally we got wise…why keep shelling out money for something that isn’t making us anything? And, as your story indicates, the people that used the air hose didn’t buy anything from us anyway. Please realize that you’re spending more money in gas driving around town looking for a free air hose.

    This entire blog wouldn’t be here if people weren’t so selfish. Why should the gas station owner pay for you to air up your tire?

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