Ethanol in Your Fuel: Just Say No

Ethanol free fuel
TruFuel ethanol-free fuel at Home Depot

Gasoline with 15% ethanol (E15) has been offered for sale in America since mid-2012. But the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t addressed the question of how to keep the average joe from putting it into lawn mowers, generators and other outdoor power equipment.

It isn’t that the agency didn’t know that gasoline with higher than 10% ethanol was bad for small engines. The Department of Energy studied that very thing in a 2008 report (PDF), with a focus not only on vehicles but also outdoor gear, including pressure washers, leaf blowers, generators and string trimmers. Among problems the researchers found when using E15 or blends with even more ethanol:

  • A Honda generator idled erratically while running fuel with 20% ethanol (E20).
  • Three Weed Eater Featherlite leaf blowers running with fuels higher than E10 failed or would not idle.
  • A Stihl FS 90 string trimmer ran at such a high idle on E15 and E20 that its clutch engaged by itself.

With all machines tested, average exhaust temperatures rose proportionately to ethanol content. In other words, the more ethanol the fuel contained, the hotter these products ran.

None of this apparently swayed the EPA, which merely says that E15, by law, cannot be used in any engines other than those in cars model-year 2001 or later, except for those of flex-fuel vehicles. But unless you’re paying attention, richer ethanol blends than E10 are bound to make it into your gear eventually. Consider, for instance, a so-called blender pump—one pump used to deliver everything from E10 to E85, the level used in flex-fuel vehicles. Even if you chose E10 to fill up your gas can, if the customer before you bought E85, what remains in the hose will make it into your can, and ultimately into your mower, string trimmer or chain saw.

But you don’t have to take it. Two options:

At the Pump

They’re not easy to find, but some gas stations do include ethanol-free fuel (called E0) as an option. Websites such as pure-gas.org and Buy Real Gas list stations that sell it. And if you live near any kind of seaport, you’ll find that gas stations serving boat owners tend to offer ethanol-free gas. In all cases, however, call first—and expect this fuel to cost more than you’re used to paying.

On the Shelf

It’s taken a few years, but it’s now hard to walk into a home center or Sears outdoor-gear department and not see multiple brands of canned ethanol-free fuel. Some is for handheld machines that require a 40:1 or 50:1 fuel-to-oil ratio; the gas includes both stabilizer and the right amount of oil for two-stroke engines. And some are for four-cycles engines like those found in mowers, snowblowers, and generators. (These products also include stabilizer.) One great feature: It lasts two years once opened. TruFuel might be the most common brand, though Sears sells it under the Craftsman brand. And most manufacturers now sell E0 in their own brands, such as Echo, Husqvarna and Stihl.

This fuel is even more expensive than marine fuel—a quart can typically costs about $6. But for a little perspective, don’t think about the national average retail price, $2.225 per gallon as of yesterday. Think instead of how much you pay for that wonderful new cold-brew coffee at Starbucks.

At an average $3.60 for a 16-ounce serving, it costs $7.20 per quart—not counting a tip for the barista—which is $1.20 more than the TruFuel. Sure, the coffee is bound to taste much better than a fluid that was never intended for human consumption. But your body can’t tell the difference between Starbucks and Maxwell House. Use only pure gasoline in well-maintained outdoor power gear, and it will thank you for years.

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What’s in Your Fuel? Your Gear Knows

Fort_Myers_fuel_pump
At pumps in some states, like this one in southwest Florida, you can buy ethanol-free fuel.

Someone in a trench coat beckons from outside your local Toro dealer. You can’t quite see his face as he whispers that no matter what you heard about the mower you just bought, it won’t run at 100% right out of the box. It will run a bit hotter than it should, and if you’re even a bit neglectful, you’ll be sorry.

Were this actually to happen, you’d probably push that mower right back into the dealership and demand your money back. You might even want to call the authorities. There are two problems with such responses. First, it’s the fault of neither the dealer nor the manufacturer. Second, it’s the authorities that got us into this mess. In a word, it’s ethanol, which is added to fuel in varying amounts at pumps throughout most of the country.

Made from corn, ethanol was supposed to keep our nation from having to import as much foreign oil. But in cars, some of this supposed benefit never shows up since ethanol reduces mileage. For outdoor power equipment, it’s worse. Being an alcohol, ethanol absorbs water. This separates and sits above the gasoline in the tank, so it’s often first into the carburetor. (In larger engines like those found in lawn tractors, fuel is gravity-fed, so problems are less frequent.) This results in starting problems.

The news gets grimmer still. Leave any fuel sitting in a machine, and the gas will “varnish,” gumming up and ruining your carburetor and fuel lines. And when that fuel contains ethanol, the results of any carelessness are compounded. Parts that should move stop moving, and rubber and plastic parts get brittle.

Fuel that’s 10% ethanol, called E10, is bad enough, but ever since fuel with 15% ethanol hit the market (thanks, Environmental Protection Agency!), outdoor-gear manufacturers have begun to worry. Their products are warranted for the use of only up to E10, but if they fail due to fuel with more ethanol than that, you’re more likely to blame the manufacturer, not yourself or the government.

What’s more, richer mixtures such as E20 and E25 are on the way. So-called flex-fuel vehicles can accept fuel up to 85% ethanol without problems, so you might find E85 at the pump, too. You know the difference between regular and premium fuel, but would you notice if the pump said E15? Look hard enough on the pump, and you’ll find a tiny sticker (see below) telling you it’s illegal to put E15 into small engines like those in outdoor gear; it’s intended only for late-model cars. But who’s watching? Better to have a sticker warning you that these richer ethanol mixtures will ruin your outdoor equipment.

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The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), the industry’s trade group, doesn’t think we pay enough attention at the pump. OPEI recently commissioned Harris Poll to assess how much the average shmo knows about what he’s putting into his gear. Among the findings, which continue a pattern evident over past surveys:

• Almost two-thirds of Americans age 18 or older who own outdoor power equipment say they either aren’t sure (42%) or don’t pay any attention (22%) to what type of fuel they use.

• 66 percent of Americans will use the least expensive grade of gasoline whenever possible.

• 60% also assume that any gas sold at a gas station must be safe for all their vehicles or power equipment.

“The research continues to prove that Americans are still unaware of the damage that can occur to their outdoor power equipment as a result of mis-fueling,” says Kris Kiser, President and CEO of OPEI.

With or without ethanol in your fuel, you need to maintain your gear. But you can help the odds that it’ll last many years by avoiding ethanol altogether.

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