The Herald Bulletin

March 20, 2010

Weights, measures officials protect consumers

Week in March recognizes regulators

By Aleasha Sandley, Herald Bulletin Staff Writer

ANDERSON — Whether consumers are filling up their cars’ gas tanks, buying a gallon of milk or drying clothes at a laundromat, one man in Anderson makes sure they always get their money’s worth.

Russ Willis is director of the city’s Weights and Measures Department, a one-man operation responsible for ensuring all goods and services sold in weight, volume, count, size or time actually measure up to their advertised amounts. A little-known protector of consumers and businesses, Willis spends his days checking retail scales, gas pumps and all manner of measuring equipment.

“We protect the consumer and we protect the business,” Willis said of himself and other weights and measures inspectors around the state. “They lose money if equipment is over- or under-weighing.”

The first week of March was national Weights and Measures Week, a time designed to recognize those inspectors who make sure consumers get what they pay for. Indiana has 86 weights and measures officials throughout the state, according to a statement by Larry J. Stump, director of Indiana’s Division of Weights and Measures.

“Nearly everything we buy is sold by weight, volume, length, count or measure,” said a press release from Willis. “Think of examples — a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, a liter of wine, a yard of cloth, a pound of hamburger, a cord of wood. Your weights and measures inspectors are at work behind the scenes protecting consumers and businesses from unfair practices.”

In the winter months, Willis goes around to retail outlets and pharmacies in the city to make sure their scales are correct according to his state-certified equipment; he also checks time-measured equipment, such as tanning beds, car washes and clothes washers and dryers. In the summer, Willis spends his days checking all the gas pumps in the city.

“A lot of times the gas pumps more often than not are giving the gas away,” he said. “As price goes up, the number of complaints goes up. When gas prices were almost $4 a gallon, I got a lot of calls.”

When checking gas pumps, Willis pumps five gallons of gas on fast speed and five gallons on slow speed. They each must come within six cubic inches — about six tablespoons — of five gallons.

“Rarely do you find problems; they’re always just a little bit off,” he said. “(Gas stations) can’t use the pump if it shorts the customer.”

Willis also checks the packaging on products, such as meat or produce sold by weight in grocery stores, to make sure the store doesn’t include the weight of packaging when pricing the item.

“It adds up to pennies, and that adds up over time,” he said.

Over the last two years, Willis has noticed a problem with some nutrition bars not weighing their advertised amount, and in January, he got a call from the state weights and measures office telling him bags of ice being sold in Anderson were underweight.

“It was 10 degrees outside and I was checking bags of ice,” he said.

Weights and measures officials must keep up with state-of-the-art technology, including measuring equipment and the ability to measure materials such as coal while it is in motion on trucks or rail cars.

“Motor fuel quality, another function for weights and measures, is also a rapidly advancing science,” according to Willis’ press release. “Regulatory officials are challenged with the development of performance specifications and laboratory testing of evolving fuel sources, such as ethanol, biodiesel, biobutanol and hydrogen. Regardless of the technology in place, inspectors are well trained to secure accuracy and equity.”

Weights and measures officials must be recommended by the mayor or county commissioners in Indiana and certified by the state, Willis said. They must attend training each year.

Besides consumers, businesses also welcome weights and measures officials into their facilities.

“It helps them in their responsibility to be fair to their customers,” Willis said. “They may be losing money because the scale is not accurate.”

Madison County Weights and Measures Inspector Kyle Noone said jobs like his were necessary for a fair marketplace.

“Weights and measures regulation and inspection is necessary to ensure fair practices are being followed in the marketplace,” he said in Willis’ press release. “Our main goal is to ensure equity in the marketplace for both the seller and buyer. Wherever there is weighing or measuring devices used commercially, we are also there.”

Willis advises consumers to watch the scale and amount registered when paying at a store, making sure the weight, price and other information is visible. If they have questions about the weight or price charged, they should ask a manager, and if the problem is not resolved, they should call 641-6186 in Anderson and 641-9662 in Madison County.

Contact Aleasha Sandley: 640-4805, aleasha.sandley@heraldbulletin.com.