Ethanol: Learn To Love It?

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Water-damaged carb, possibly from ethanol blended fuel

Water-damaged carb, possibly from ethanol blended fuel

Ethanol is gasoline has become a fact of American life, with 10% ethanol blends at just about every station around. While 10% ethanol is a mixture that’s been approved by all automakers and just about all small engine manufacturers, the anecdotal evidence out there shows there are problems in small engines—especially older units. Want to confuse yourself? Just Google up “Small Engines Ethanol,” and the results will show that for every source claiming ethanol blends—even at 10%—are just fine (Renewable Fuels Assn., Minnesota Corn Growers, etc.), there’s another source, generally a local newspaper article, talking with dealers and small engine technicians who say they are seeing engine problems caused by ethanol. For example, here’s a recent article from the Green Bay Press Gazette that was included in the latest Outdoor Power Equipment & Engine Service Assn. “OPE-In-The-Know Newsletter”:

Some Question If Ethanol Blends Are Partly To Blame
By Nathan Phelps www.greenbaypressgazette.com

September 19 — Jim Schlumpf stops short of saying it’s because of ethanol, but in the last year, he’s seen a noticeable spike in the number of fuel-related repairs he’s taken care of at Jim’s Outboard Service Inc. in Hobart. “We don’t have any scientific evidence,” he said. “We have beliefs and ideas, but there’s nothing concrete where we can say, ‘Yes, this is causing it.'”

Regardless, several area marine engine service centers say they have fixed an increasing number of fuel-related problems ranging from deteriorating hoses to gunked-up carburetors. “It’s suspect,” Schlumpf said, about ethanol and the repair work he’s seen. “I used to be an engineer with Texaco, so I
know lubricants and fuels pretty well.”

The American Coalition for Ethanol states on its Web site E10 is “safe to use in small engines such as motorcycles, lawn mowers, trimmers, boats, personal watercraft, snowmobiles, ATVs, and many others.” However, the ethanol industry is running into concerns that the fuel additive is bad for boats and for outdoor power equipment, such as lawn mowers, chain saws and string trimmers. Experts say that some of the concerns are founded, while others are not.

And consumer fears have created a public relations problem for ethanol in many areas of the country. However, the impact of ethanol on boats and small engines could pose a more serious challenge for the industry’s long-term growth.

Like Jim’s, Mr. Outboards Watersports Marine in Lawrence has seen service for fuel-related issues rise. About 75 percent of its repair business is related to fuel issues — especially with older engines, said owner Glen Truttmann. “There has been a huge increase as people are having a harder time finding non-ethanol-blended fuel,” he said. “A lot of it is related to the shelf life of the fuel. A lot of time you’ll have a tank of gas in a boat for two or three months, so there are several different additives that can be put into the fuel tank and it will help eliminate some of those problems.”

Truttmann said they get information at least once a month from manufacturers regarding ethanol use in marine engines. Those companies have also developed fuel stabilizers specifically for gas blended with ethanol. “They know there’s a problem, and they’re doing their best to address it,” Truttmann said. “The additives are their best way of counteracting it right now.” He points out owners manuals advise owners to avoid ethanol.

The ethanol industry wants the Environmental Protection Agency to allow conventional cars and trucks to run on higher blends of ethanol than the 10 percent limit now allowed. But the agency can’t approve higher blends unless it is proved that the fuel would be OK for boats and power equipment as well as automobiles.
Determining automobile policy based on weed whackers is just ridiculous to me,” said Ron Lamberty, market development director of the American Council for Ethanol.

The ethanol industry is growing to a point where production will begin to saturate the market for 10 percent ethanol, estimated to be about 13 billion gallons. The industry is expected to produce nearly 10 billion gallons of ethanol this year. An additional 3 billion gallons of production capacity is under construction.

Congress could come under pressure to relax the national biofuels mandate if the EPA is unable to permit ethanol blends of more than 10 percent, Lamberty said. Under current law, motorists are required to use 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022.

Manufacturers of power equipment and boats say more research is needed before the government approves higher ethanol blends. “We’re not anti-ethanol. What we’re concerned about is this transition,” said Kris Kiser, a spokesman for the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, which represents manufacturers such as Toro Co., Deere & Co. and Black and Decker Inc. Industry experts say ethanol poses three potential problems for boats: The alcohol can eat away the fiberglass tanks in a small number of older boats, dislodge gunk and clog filters, or absorb water from moisture-laden air, resulting in water getting into the fuel.

Bob Adriance, editor of the Virginia-based boat-safety journal Seaworthy, estimates about 5,000 to 10,000 of the 1.6 million boats registered around the country have fiberglass tanks that can be damaged by ethanol. The tanks have to be replaced unless ethanol-free gasoline is available. There are ways to deal with the other problems, Adriance said, including keeping spare filters handy until the ethanol cleans all of the gunk from the engine. Tanks also should be topped off to limit the amount of moisture-laden air that could
be inside.

Doug Smith, who runs a marina in Annapolis, Md., had to replace the fiberglass tank with a plastic version in his 1965 Bertram boat when ethanol was added to gasoline. But otherwise, the transition to ethanol has been problem-free, he said.