Tough Starting? Look Twice Where You Fill Up

gas cap with warning
The fuel cap on the Craftsman 37441 mower: E0-E10 Yes, E15-E85 No

Spring is the time to fuel up your outdoor power equipment—at least the products that run on gasoline. But even if you protected your gear last season by running out the fuel or mixing in fuel stabilizer, you could face trouble with what you add this season. It’s possible you’ll bring home the wrong gas.

That’s among the findings from the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), the trade group for manufacturers of small engines and equipment, which commissions a study each year through The Harris Poll. The bottom line: Americans on average know even less than they used to about what fuel at the pump is appropriate for their gear.

Time was, pretty much any gasoline you saw at your local gas station would do fine in your lawn mower, generator, pressure washer, or handheld power tool. For background, that gas was a mix of ordinary fuel with roughly 10 percent ethanol (called E10), an alcohol made from corn. But starting in 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed gasoline with higher percentages of ethanol (with 15 percent, E15, or higher) to be sold through the same gas pumps. It’s meant for newer cars…nothing smaller.

Gas-powered outdoor gear can do acceptably well with E10 fuel. But if you add fuel with higher percentages of ethanol, engines get funky. They run hotter. The ethanol draws in moisture, which can build up and separate in the tank, a process called phase separation, which lead to starting problems for many products. And they cause plastic and rubber parts (including fuel lines) to stiffen and clog.

You perhaps see the point of fueling up with only E10—or even E0, gas with no ethanol, which some states still allow. (You can also buy ethanol-free gas at home centers.) The trouble is that a rising percentage of respondents do not know the difference among the many variations at the pump.

When it comes to ethanol in gas, the cheapest fuel is typically the one with the most ethanol. That one is the absolute worst for your equipment, and the lower price is a prime reason for misfueling.

Sure, they can tell apart regular, premium and ultra; the higher the octane, the higher the cost. But when it comes to ethanol in gas, the cheapest fuel is typically the one with the most ethanol. That one is the absolute worst for your equipment, and the lower price is a prime reason for misfueling. Two-thirds of respondents, in fact, say they buy the cheapest gas whenever possible.

Food for Thought
Of the 2,000 adult respondents to OPEI’s poll, 11 percent use the wrong fuel in their power gear. That might not sound like many, but the 11 percent means 220 adults using the wrong fuel in perhaps several products they own—thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. The 11 percent also seems discouraging when you consider that in the poll for 2015, only 7 percent used the wrong fuel.

The study found, too, that Americans are more likely now than in past years to believe that any ethanol blend in gasoline whatsoever is safe for any gasoline-powered engine. A whopping 38 percent believe any blend will do, a gradual rise from 30 percent in 2015.

More findings:

  • Only a fifth of respondents say they notice pump markings indicating ethanol content when they buy gas, compared to 25 percent last year. Perhaps part of the reason: The EPA sticker warning that blends above E10 cannot legally go into lawn equipment and could cause damage is a fraction of the size of the myriad ads on the pump and the screen above. You can see it below.
  • Just over 40 percent admit they don’t look for any warnings at all when they’re fueling their car.
  • Maybe most troubling of all, more than half of those polled (51 percent) fill up their portable gas can with the same fuel they use to fill their vehicle.

The good news for a responsive federal government to heed: Consumers are taking notice. Roughly two-thirds of those polled believe ethanol-free gas should be more widely available at filling stations.

“What goes in your car or truck may not be safe to put in your lawn mower, and consumers are not paying attention and making unintended mistakes,” said Kris Kiser, president and CEO of OPEI. “Yet pump labeling and consumer education are inadequate. As ethanol continues to be subsidized [by the government], more stations sell it. We’re concerned about consumer safety and choice.”

Fortunately for the alert, the fuel pump isn’t the only source for warnings about what to use in your power gear. Everything from the smallest gas-powered handhelds to the largest lawn tractors carry multiple warnings upon purchase. Even if you throw away the owner’s manual and all the tags, you’ll see one indication that doesn’t go away: a notice on the gas cap to use no blend higher than E10.

Ignore it at your equipment’s peril.

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Is Your Mower Ready for Spring?

Cleaning mower deck / Credit: ToroWinter has a way of delivering one last smackdown before it pushes off, and this one was a case in point—with snow still lingering in some areas despite the approach of Passover and Easter. But even if you can’t yet see the lawn, this is a good time to prep your walk-behind mower for a lawn just itching to grow. You’ll need less than an hour if you have parts and tools ready, and it’s time well-spent.

What to have ready: fresh gasoline, fuel stabilizer, oil (SAE 30), and possibly a replacement air filter and spark plug. Your manual will specify which plug is appropriate. You’ll also need a socket-wrench set, a short (about three-foot) 2×4, a drain pan, a pair of work gloves and, if you’re blessed with the gift of foresight, a spare mower blade.

Drain those fluids
Your first chore is to tip that mower over, and this is a good time to put on the gloves. If your fuel tank has old gas to which you had added fuel stabilizer, you might be able to start the mower with it. But if you hadn’t stabilized the fuel—just left it sitting over the winter—you should drain out every drop possible. For that, you’ll need to remove the gas cap and slowly turn the mower over with a drain pan beneath. (Many service stations will accept old fuel.) But don’t add fresh fuel yet.

If you had changed your mower’s oil before putting away the machine last fall, you needn’t do it again now. But once that old fuel is out, tip the mower back upright and reposition the drain pan on the other side. Remove the oil cap and turn the mower back over, in the other direction. Don’t yet refill it.

Start with a sharp blade
Many people pay no attention to the blade, but it’s important for a couple of reasons. A sharp blade means less work for the engine—less resistance as it turns—and it also is less stress on the grass. A dull blade rips rather than slices the grass, and you’ll soon see its effects from the brown-tipped lawn, the beginning of a season gone bad.

So while your mower is on its side, check the direction the blade turns and wedge in the 2×4 to keep the blade from moving. Use a socket wrench to remove the bolt or two holding the blade in place, and removing it while noting the order you’ve removed the parts accompanying the blade. (Here are more-detailed instructions.) If you have a spare blade you sharpened (or took for sharpening) at your leisure, install it now. If you have only one blade, the rest of your mower prep will need to wait till a blade is back on the machine. Unless you have a mower like Toro’s Recycler SmartStow line of models that store standing up, gas tends to spill out when you tip the mower over.

Once you have the newly sharpened blade on, of course, it’s time to refuel and add oil if necessary.

The filter matters
Given that it takes seconds to change a mower’s air filter, you might think it’s a task you can shrug off. Before you do, consider the part of your yard that gets the driest during the summer. Running a mower over that section might leave you wishing you’d used a dust mask for yourself, and that’s exactly what the air filter is. Even if your entire lawn is pretty moist all summer, the air filter stops a lot of fine debris that otherwise would make it into the carburetor. That, as much as old oil, is what will shorten that mower’s service life. Take those few seconds and remove that old filter; some foam filters can be washed and reused. Your manual will give you more detailed instructions, but some advice is here as well.

And now the electrical
Remember the last time you replaced your mower’s spark plug? If you keep good track of it, you know you needn’t change the plug every year—though a good wire brushing and regapping (see video below) could help. If you don’t know how old the spark plug is, replacing it removes one last potential obstacle to starting. You’ll need your socket set’s smaller spark-plug socket for this. Hand-tighten first to be sure the plug is straight before finishing with the socket wrench.

Mowers with electric start typically use lead-acid batteries that need May temperatures to charge. In other words, you might be using the pullcord to start the mower at first. While you do, check it for fraying. You might not need it much once you can regularly charge the e-start battery, but next fall—or during a days-long rainy week—you can take the mower in to replace a cord that’s wearing thin.

If you have a cordless-electric mower, lucky you: You can skip everything above. But one thing you must do, every fall, is take the battery indoors for a winter-long trickle charge out of the cold. If you’d left it in the mower over the winter, you might be replacing that battery sooner than you think.

Last licks
There’s more you can do to help your mowing, such as spraying the underside of your mower’s deck with silicone spray, a lubricant that helps keep grass from stick to the deck. Manufacturers also recommend greasing your wheels’ axles and provide instructions in your manual. Want more still to do? Read through that manual. The steps above, however, are the most helpful for getting you going so you can enjoy the spring in your hammock—instead of shopping for a new mower at your local home center.

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