Mom-and-pop service stations are running into a problem as gasoline marches toward $4 a gallon: Thousands of old-fashioned pumps can't register more than $3.99 on their spinning mechanical dials.
The pumps, throwbacks to a bygone era on the American road, are difficult and expensive to upgrade, and replacing them is often out of the question for station owners just scraping by.
Many of the same pumps can only count up to $99.99 for the total sale, preventing owners of some SUVs, vans, trucks and semitrailers from filling their tanks.
As many as 8,500 of the nation's 170,000 service stations have old-style meters that need to be fixed — about 17,000 individual pumps — said Bob Renkes, executive vice president of the Petroleum Equipment Institute of Tulsa, Okla.
In Florida, the problem isn't much of an issue in large metro areas like Tampa-St. Petersburg and Miami-Fort Lauderdale. But it pops up more often in the state's rural interior counties, said Jim Smith, president of the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.
But it's not just the old filling stations with archaic pumps that need updating. Smith said some digital pumps will need a computer upgrade to handle $4-a-gallon gas.
"They could be as new as 5 or 6 years old," Smith said. "It's really a matter of plugging in new chips and recalibrating them."
Some scenarios are like the one at Chip Colville's Chevron station in Reardan, Wash., where men in the family have pumped gas since 1919. Three stubby, gray pumps were installed when gas was less than $1 a gallon. They top out at $3.999, only 30 cents above the price of regular gas at Colville's station.
"In small towns, where you don't have the volume, there's no way you can afford to pay for the replacements for these old pumps," Colville said. "It's just not economically feasible."
The problem is worse in extremely rural areas, where "this might be the only pump in town that people can access," said Mike Rud, director of the North Dakota Petroleum Marketers Association. For many station owners, replacing the pumps altogether with electronic ones is just not an option.
"The new ones run between $10,000 and $15,000 apiece," Colville said. "It's an expense that's not worth it."
Mechanical meters can be retrofitted with higher numbers when pump prices climb another dollar. The last time that happened was in late 2005, when gas went over $3 a gallon, and owners of the older pumps installed kits that went to $3.999.
This time around, owners of the old pumps will need to install another kit that can handle prices up to $4.999, and possibly higher. Industry experts say those changes could cost as much as $650 per pump.
To deal with the problem, some state regulators are allowing half-pricing — displaying the price for a half-gallon of gas, then doubling the price shown on the meter. In North Dakota, regulators recently told service stations their mechanical pumps could use half-pricing, provided they use signs to alert costumers and find a permanent solution by April 2009.
Times staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report.