An Everyday Ethics Conundrum: Free Air

air pump

Help me out with this one, if you can.

Our car has a slow leak in my right front tire. It get about seven pounds low every three days or so, and it has not been convenient for me to spend the time to go to the dealer and have the thing plugged. For several months now I have just filled the tire at the closest filling station, which has two air pumps (one is perpetually broken) that require six quarters to start the air coming.

About a week ago, both of the air dispensers—including the busted one— began sporting signs announcing that air would now be $2.00 for five minutes rather than $1.50. At the time, that caused me additional annoyance since I only had six quarters, and had to get change at the 7-11 to acquire the additional fifty cents. But when I put in the coins, the air turned on after only six quarters, as it always had. I finished filling the tire in about a minute, wasting the other four minutes of potential air, assuming the change in price had just occurred and the owner hadn’t yet adjusted the machine. But today when I went to fill up the once-again underinflated tire, it still only took $1.50 to start the air flowing.

The question: Am I ethically obligated to inform the owner of this? Do I owe him a buck for the last two air purchases?

29 thoughts on “An Everyday Ethics Conundrum: Free Air

  1. I would tell the owner and offer to pay. That said, if he/she is decent, they’ll appreciate your honesty and not accept the money.

    • Second.

      Amazingly, the Quick Trip stations/convenience stores, have no charge air hose/compressor set ups. Unfortunately, the one I’ve been using isn’t really operational right now. Dealing with abused and non functional compressor setups is really, really annoying. A blight on the service station industry.

      I just replaced a tire that had a pinhole leak on its sidewall that set off the low pressure thingy on the dashboard every three or four days. Same deal: five or so pounds lost. I got to the point of simply pumping it up with a nice bicycle pump. It took the dealer three visits to finally detect the leak. They over inflated it and then put it in water. Why it took three visits is beyond me. Competence.

    • I suspect that the owner knows this already. (He’s an idiot–I’ve dealt with him before.) I think he just put up the sign to make people put in more money than the machine requires, and has no intention of paying to have it adjusted.

      Does that change your analysis?

  2. Nah. Find a filling station where they will give free air as a benefit of being a good customer. It costs them next to nothing to run the compressor for a short while.

  3. I would tell the owner, and offer to pay the missing amount.

    But I do agree with Wayne in that you should keep your eye open for stations with free air.

  4. Wait, you’re the ethics specialist. Don’t you know the answer? Your conscience must be bothering you.

    There’s a Dandy Mart down the road from me and they have free air. I have an air compressor but I got gas there and noticed the air machine; so, I used that rather than drag out my compressor. I had one of those slow leaky tires too on my last car.

    I still remember those free air pumps at the gas stations when I was growing up. We’d go over and crank up the PSI to fill our bicycle tires. Of course, back then there was a lot more service at a gas station – you didn’t even have to pump your own gas.

    Anyway, I like CD-VAPatriot’s response. Tell the owner and offer to pay. That might be a problem though because the actual owner / manager may not be in store when you visit and you’d have to just tell the counter person at the time.

    I never knew getting a little free air could be so complicated.

  5. I think you should pay what the machine requires. The owner/manager has not yet implemented the price increase at the machine, until he does, it is on him. You could ask when he is goint to implement the increase, but until the pump requires 8 quarters, keep giving it 6. I would have a different answer if you were doing something to make the pump start early, but you are following the rules of the pump.
    You are welcome to come to my house and take as much air as you like for free (I have several friends that do just that) but I fear that you would prefer to not drive the six hours up to the end of Long Island.

  6. Jack asked, “Am I ethically obligated to inform the owner of this? Do I owe him a buck for the last two air purchases?”

    No and no. When changing prices it’s the business’ responsibility to get the transition right. It might be nice to inform them but you’re not ethically required.

    P. S. You’re going to spend more filling up your leaking tire than it will cost to remove a nail and plug it, plus as your tire goes down it can be destructive to the tire and cause unsafe conditions at highway speed. Stop delaying, get it fixed.

    • This is my exact response, including the PS. I would just add that it would be faster and probably better to take it to a tire shop instead of the dealer(unless the dealer is closer).

    • I have to agree – get the tire fixed, and make sure they don’t bullshit you that it CAN’T be fixed, it has to be replaced.

  7. It’s not the owner who is an idiot, and this is not an ethics conundrum over which to ponder. Keep pumping those quarters in. Won’t take long before you’ve spent more on pumping up the tire than you would spend to repair it. And I don’t buy the “too busy” or “inconvenient” excuse. A good local station will fix your tire in a few minutes.

    • Well, my hourly fee is abut $400, and so far, all of the air has been paid for by loose change out of jars, sofa cushions and pants pockets. With the lockdown, I have to use the car about two days out of a week, so at this point, the costs have been worth not adding one more extended hassle to the day. But that period is rapidly drawing to a close.

      • Your hourly rate is irrelevant other than to say your time is too valuable to fix the tire. So is everyone’s time. Proper automobile maintenance, including tires, oil, windshield wipers, and filters extends the car’s life expectancy and saves money. Proper auto maintenance is a safety factor, which bears directly on ethics.

        You may be doing more damage to the tire by running it on improper tire pressure than by not fixing it. You also risk hurting yourself and others if the tire fails and causes an accident.

        It is one thing to inflate the tire as a temporary fix but this seems to be a longstanding problem with a leaky tire. Fix it.

        To me the conundrum is really a problem in search if a dilemma to justify not fixing it: should I tell the thieving convenience store owner that he is cheating people with the price on the pump, when you pretty much already know he knows about it and is happy taking an extra $.50 from unsuspecting customers?
        And why you would keep frequenting a disreputable business owner who is willing to cheat people out of $.50 for air is a mystery to me. Imagine: if he’s willing to steal $.50 for using his stupid air pump, what else is he willing to do stiff his customers? Is he tweaking the gas pumps to charge more for less gas sold because he knows the state can’t possibly inspect the millions of gas pumps all around his state in any reasonable or timely fashion? What about the food? Does he clean his hot dog warmers? Does he sell expired or contaminated food? Is he paying his providers or is he stiffing them by returning perfectly good merchandise he says is defective?


        • My lease is unusually well-cared for, since my son is an auto mechanic and works for the dealer where I got the car. Since the post’s question was very specific, my personal reasons for putting off getting the extremely slow leak fixed wasn’t included in the post, and should be irrelevant.

          Since my wife’s catastrophic fall in early January 2020, the many setbacks to her recovery have limited her mobility and caused other issues, also irrelevant to the post. I have made great efforts not to be away from the house for more than an hour unless absolutely necessary—that’s my judgment call, as is my call that occasionally driving three miles off the highway on one tire underinflated by 5-7 pounds is hardly life threatening, as is my call that it is worth spending maybe 40 bucks so far in spare change to delay the 90 minute (or more) tire repair trip. As for other air sources, two stations are within 5 minutes of my house, and one of them recently shut down. A third is three times the distance away, and the air source there is intermittently out of order. I could also buy a portable pump, but that would cost more than I’ve laid out so far, and I have more pressing purchases to make while my business recovers from the lockdown.

          None of which was put up for general discussion or approval in the post.

  8. Did you know that if you drive to a Costco with a tire center they’ll fill all of your tires…for free? No questions asked.
    They don’t even ask for proof that you bought your tires at their store (or any other Costco) – although I did.

  9. A couple of times per week for several months, and not just at times you are buying gas, compared to one trip to a tire shop where most of the time will be yours to use while you wait? You’re already wasting time at $400 per hour. Wasting time mostly is not ethical.
    Risking harm to yourself and passengers in a car with a known defective tire? Not ethical.
    Paying an amount actually charged vs. what is advertised? Ethical.
    But, since you feel guilty (else, why bring it up here?), tell the manager and offer to pay. You’re sure to feel better.
    But, get the damn tire fixed.
    A somewhat similar situation — I was dropping off some donations at a thrift shop and noticed a grill cover which was exactly right for my new grill. There was no price on it, and the sales lady said, $3.00. I told her that was way too low (it looked at most to be very lightly used, original box and all), so she named a higher price. “Still too low, I said.” We settled on a price and I paid. When I took it out of the box, it turned out to be brand new, retail, $70.00. So, ethics whizzes, how much should I have paid?

  10. Vending machines are an odd extra piece in the interaction… You’re not dealing with a human directly, you’re dealing with his machine.
    How many times has some machine failed to drop your favorite bag of chips? Most states mandate licencing and posting of contact numbers for this scenario. Some machines have a sensor that rotates the screw drive another credit’s turn if nothing had dropped on the first selection. I’ve even had such a machine drop two bags of chips then dump a refund into the change dish because both bags snagged against the front glass and slowly slid down the narrow space taking more time than the sensor expected.
    There’s a hacking subculture around vending machines, probably the best known example is Steve Jobs himself dealing in the hardware that could play control tones into payphones in order to fool the central office into believing quarters were inserted. Another early trick was to put packing tape on the end of a dollar bill so that after the machine counted a credit it would detect a non-money insert and reverse the bill acceptor’s motors to eject that dollar back.
    My take is that it’s the vendor’s responsibility to maintain the machine. The machine itself might not support the vendor’s desired price, or it might be configured similar to a car wash where a large number of quarters starts the machine and an extra one or two give the additional time to complete the job. If all you’re doing is topping off a few extra pounds, then you’re probably driving away while the machine is still chugging away at pumping your compensation into the atmosphere anyway.
    Of course, these are all rationalizations, and many of these are similar to those posted about months ago on the story of people defrauding the self-checkout stations.
    Your response if you bring it up might be very similar to what I observed at my first job in a fast food chain. Some fellow employee discovered that the gumball machine started to drop chiclet gum into the cute before the ratchet locked the quarter in the one-way channel to the money box. It then was easy to return the crank and get your quarter back, plus the one or two pieces of what would be a handful of gum if you turned the crank completely. They then proceeded to empty half the gum out of the machine and fill their pockets with that one quarter.
    The next time the vendor came by, the employees told him that the machine was doing this. His response? “Yeah, it does that because it’s designed to only work with the expensive round gumballs. These chiclets are far more profitable, but most people don’t notice.” He still made more money than he would have had he bought the machine’s desiged gumballs. He made a deal with us that he wouldn’t replace the machine with a different one as long as we didn’t abuse the knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.