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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Cordless Stihl Chainsaw May Be Just Enough

Stihl MSA 120C-BQ chainsawYou can’t beat a gas-powered chainsaw for a property full of trees, especially when many of them seem itching to cause trouble. If you’re like many suburban homeowners, though, you don’t need to break out the chainsaw often enough to maintain a gas model. Sometimes, too, cutting doesn’t require a tool with so much muscle. That’s the thinking behind the Stihl MSA 120C-BQ chainsaw, part of the manufacturer’s AK line of midrange cordless-electric tools.

We tested the Stihl MSA 120C-BQ, whose $240 price (all prices noted are rounded) includes a protective plastic scabbard but no way to power the saw. Pay another $100, and you’ll get the 36-volt, lithium-ion AK 20 battery and AL 101 quick charger, though you might already have this from another tool in the AK line. (Don’t, however, use the AK 10 battery for the MSA 120C-BQ; it doesn’t supply enough power.) If you have no other tools from this line, you can buy the chainsaw as a set with the AK 20 battery and AL 101 charger for $300.

Also your job to purchase and wear, if you value your health and safety, is hearing and eye protection, a secure helmet, boots, heavy-duty nonslip gloves and protective pants or chaps intended for chainsaw use.

An important plus in any chainsaw intended for DIY users is ample safety features. As with other, beefier chainsaws from Stihl—guide bars for professional tree-feller saws range up to almost 60 inches long—you get the Quickstop chain brake, tool-free chain tensioning, comfortable handles and low vibration. The saw weighs a mere 8.4 pounds with battery, which made for easy handling throughout our testing.

The MSA 120C-BQ we tested came with its chain mounted already on the saw’s 12-inch bar, and the rest was easy. The oil reservoir has a wide spout, so filling it was a snap. The ¼-inch chain remained well-lubricated throughout our cutting.

Testing the MSA 120C-BQ
Stihl claims its chainsaw will run up to 35 minutes on a charge, which the company says will get you 100 cuts if you’re cutting nothing wider than four inches, such as some firewood. Our test hardwood trees, ranging from three to eight inches (but five-plus on average), didn’t allow for a true test of 100 cuts per charge. What we achieved through two charges was roughly 50 cuts per run, still plenty for a homeowner saw.

One point to keep in perspective is that the MSA 120C-BQ isn’t meant for heavy-duty work. With any chainsaw, you have to position your body properly to avoid leaning into your cut—and apply just enough pressure to let the saw do the work at the speed its engine (or motor) allows. With a cordless saw like this one, you’ll be taking it slow through hardwood.

This isn’t a limitation, as long as you’re patient and keep the tool in perspective. Want a chainsaw that will tear through everything you’ve got? Consider a gas-powered model such as the $230 16-inch Stihl MS 180 C-BE, a 16-inch saw that, at $230, costs $10 less than the MSA 120C-BQ without battery and charger.

The verdict
The MSA 120C-BQ is more than a capable chainsaw. While no battery-powered chainsaw, even the $280 MSA 160 C-BQ from Stihl’s pro-level AP line, can rival the best of its gas-powered brethren, most of us don’t need all that oomph. This saw delivers just what most DIY tree work calls for, and it’s lightweight and maneuverable enough for years of confident use.

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