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Hey, Matt!

Why is it that most service stations around here don't offer free air and water? Isn't it California law that gasoline retailers must offer free air and water? Pissed I have to pay 50 cents to fill up my leaking tire!

-- Steve Covault, San Diego

The elves went into our Room of Laws and scrambled through file cabinets and wastebaskets for the relevant piece of paper for your case. They found it under somebody's old cup of latte. Best we can see through the coffee rings, Section 13651 of the California Business and Professions Code backs you up. Most gas stations have had to offer air and water by law since 1984, but the law didn't say anything about it being free, so mostly we had to pay. Station owners argued it helped them cover the costs associated with the new machinery.

The air-water-giveaway legislation went into effect in 2000. It says if you buy fuel for a passenger car or a commercial vehicle with an unladen weight of less than 6000 pounds, tire and radiator refills are to be available at no charge. (If you wheel in for air or water only, you'll have to pay.)

In contrast to their mood in 1984, station owners and makers of air and water dispensers were bummed. They challenged the law, arguing that it deprived them of their property without just compensation. The court snickered and ruled against them, reasoning that air and water are matters of safety for the motoring public. Underinflated tires and overheated engines are dangerous.

Let's pause here to savor the rare moment of clear thinking by Sacramento. It's not only commonsensical, it favors the consumer, a double miracle.

Somewhere on or near the air-water dispenser there must be a sign indicating that they're free with a fuel purchase. The sign also needs to display the 800 number you can call to report a station that is out of compliance. Because Sacramento loves paperwork more than almost anything, there is a form available for downloading to make your official notification (www.cdfa.ca.gov/dms/awform). Of course, at the moment, Sacramento has plenty of other fires to douse. No telling where a consumer's air-water outrage might rank on their to-do list.

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