Caltex service station, Sandton - 14 March, 6am.
Fitness coach Marius Robbertze fills up the tank of his Toyota Fortuner with 50ppm diesel. As he leaves, the engine malfunction warning light comes on, and the vehicle starts jerking. He manages to drive to the Woodmead Toyota dealership, where the service manager and mechanics diagnose the problem as water in his diesel tank.
He leaves the vehicle there for the day while the fuel tank is drained, fuel line flushed, fuel tank filters replaced and a small amount of fresh diesel is pumped in at a cost of R4300.
Caltex service station, Sandton - 14 March, 6.20am.
Ingo Winckelmann, a risk consultant with an investment bank, fills the tank of his Audi Q3 with 50ppm diesel and drives 2.5km to work. That afternoon, on the way home, the vehicle sputters to a stop after just 30 metres. It is towed to the Audi dealership in Fourways, where the mechanics report that about half the fuel tank contains water.
The same remedy gets applied, but at a cost of R4800.
So two men, unknown to each other, have remarkably similar experiences after filling their vehicles with 50ppm diesel from the same service station, 20 minutes apart. And their motor dealerships diagnose the same problem – water in the diesel – and correct it in the same way, after which their cars perform normally.
Naturally, both reported their incidents to the Caltex service station in Sandton. In fact, Robbertze says the owner met him at the Toyota dealership that evening, and she was handed a bottle of the diesel-water mix by the mechanics, who had drained it from the tank.
Both men were referred to Chevron South Africa, owner of the Caltex brand, and on 19 March were separately sent identical letters by an attorney representing the fuel company.
“We are instructed that our client appointed an independent contractor to conduct tests on the diesel tank, pump and nozzle from where the diesel was pumped into your motor vehicle.
“The independent contractor’s report is that there was no water in the tank, pump or nozzle.
“Our client conducted extensive tests in a laboratory on the diesel from the tank from where the diesel was pumped into your motor vehicle, which tests concluded that there was no water in the diesel.”
In other words, the service station and Chevron denied all liability, and offered no explanation for how the respective motor dealerships had found relatively large amounts of water in the fuel tanks of the two vehicles which had filled up, 20 minutes apart, with the same diesel, suffering the same malfunction shortly thereafter.
Of course, Robbertze and Winckelmann had no idea at the time that they weren’t alone.
Winckelmann happened to spot a complaint which Robbertze posted about his incident on 8 April, on consumer complaints website hellopeter.com. As the post did not include any contact details, Winckelmann asked Chevron’s attorney about that incident.
In an e-mail dated 11 April he wrote: “Would you please provide me with details of the complaint received (by the service station) on March 14, which necessitated the closure of the pumps.”
Five days later, the attorney responded: “I confirm that the service station received a complaint which prompted the investigation and testing referred to in my previous mail.
“I am, however, not at liberty to disclose the nature of the complaint.”
It took Winckelmann and his wife two weeks to track Robbertze down through internet searches.
The two men have never met, but they’ve discussed their experiences through e-mail, and each believes it cannot be a coincidence.
Robbertze said: “I can’t believe they can continue to deny all liability.”
Winckelmann said: “Surely this can’t be a coincidence.”
Approached for comment about the alleged water contamination, Chevron SA’s communications manager Suzanne Pullinger began by saying that the company viewed any customer complaint in a serious light.
“Since becoming aware of the matter, we have been determined to establish the possible cause of the claims made by Mr Winckelmann and Mr Robbertze that they purchased diesel contaminated with water.
“We have engaged with the complainants, informing them of the extensive tests we, together with independent third-party contractors, have conducted in order to determine whether or not there was water in the diesel pumped at the Sandton Caltex Service Station on 14 March 2014.
“We continue to value all customers and will always investigate every complaint received.”
“After conducting a full investigation, all the tests undertaken confirmed that there was no sign of water in our tanks or product. We firmly stand by these findings and place on record that other customers purchased fuel before and after the two complainants on the same day and no adverse reports have been received from these customers.
“We believe we have done everything in our power to resolve the matter as efficiently as possible and although we appreciate that the complainants have experienced much frustration, we have given the matter our full consideration and stand by the integrity of the test results.
In response to Winckelmann’s persistent claims that the only possible explanation for his and Robbertze’s experiences could be that there was water in the diesel tank when they filled their vehicles, Chevron’s attorney sent him the following detailed rebuttal:
“At about 1am on 14 March 2014, tank 5 was tested for water in anticipation of a delivery of diesel.”
“This is standard practice.”
“At 1.07am, diesel was delivered to the service station and 5465 litres of diesel were pumped into tank 5.
“At 1.40am, tank 5 was tested for water, which showed no water in the tank.
“Our client’s monitoring equipment on site detects anomalies on site for the entire storage facility including all tanks and lines. The monitoring equipment indicated ‘no water in tank 5’.
“On 14 March 2014, after a complaint was received, a retail business consultant employed by our client tested tank 5 and found no water contamination.
“Tank 5 was closed down to ensure that no further diesel was pumped from tank 5.”
“The following day, an independent contractor tested tank 5, its bowser and nozzle and could find no trace of water.
“On 16 March 2014 the contractor again tested tank 5 and could find no trace of water. On 16 March 2014, Sandton Caltex service station conducted its own tests on tank 5 and could find no trace of water.
“On 17 March 2014, our client instructed a third-party contractor to check the integrity of the tank and no leakage was found.”
Neither the complainants nor Consumer Watch has had sight of those test results, but Chevron remains adamant that the water found in Robbertze’s and Winckelmann’s fuel tanks that day did not come from their fuel tank, which makes this one of the most intriguing cases I’ve investigated in 16 years of consumer journalism.
What other explanation could there be?
That the two men were in cahoots, and falsified their story? To what end? There was no profit motive. Why go to all that schlep and risk damage to their engines, only to claim back what they had already outlaid?
How else could that water have got into the vehicles’ fuel tanks? Chevron didn’t offer an explanation for that.
Winckelmann says: “I filled my tank at the fuel station on the day in question, so there is no possibility of me adding water to a full tank.
“Interestingly enough, 65 litres of diesel got me 2.5km down the road before the car became immobile. Expensive fuel!”
As for why no other motorists who filled up with 50ppm that morning had complained, Winckelmann suggested that as water is heavier than fuel, it could be that it lay at the bottom of the service station’s tank, and was therefore dispensed into his and Robbertze’s vehicles as the first diesel customers of the day.
Despite this possibility, Pullinger says there were customers before those two, who did not file “adverse reports”.
The upshot is that two men are about R5 000 out of pocket – considering they both lost a full tank of diesel on top of the repair costs – and they remain convinced that the water that came out of their fuel tanks came from the same service station, but they have no way of proving it.
The fuel company, meanwhile, holds up its tests as solid proof that there was never any water in their diesel tank, pump or nozzle.
Perhaps the other motorists who filled up with diesel at that service station early on the morning of March 14 could shed additional light on the case.