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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Easy Winter? No Excuse to Diss the Generator

Champion generator / Credit: WalmartEl Niño technically means unpredictable weather, but in some parts of the country, it has meant a welcome two-winter respite from the layer upon layer of snow we get some years. But if you haven’t checked on your portable generator in ages and now think you’re in the clear, don’t relax too much. Late winter and early spring, with hard rains and the lingering potential of a crippling glaze of sleet, still can pack a punch to the utility power we so take for granted.

Take a few minutes, then, to fill up a thermos with coffee or hot chocolate, and head out to wherever you keep that generator. Your objective: to ensure it will start when you need it. How difficult that’ll be depends on how much attention you’ve been giving the machine, represented below by two alternate states of readiness:

You do regular startups
In this scenario, you know your generator will start up without trying because you’ve powered it up every month or so on a schedule. You wheel it out far away from the house, check the oil, turn off any fuel shutoff, set the choke, and then on press the “on” switch. If you have electric start and have kept that function’s battery charged, you’re good to go. The generator fires right up. If your generator doesn’t have e-start, you give the recoil a few pulls. Same results.

You haven’t run it in months
Here, your mission is more complicated. You do everything as with above, but your e-start battery needs charging, which means you’re pulling the cord. Which doesn’t necessary improve matters. Ask yourself at this point when you last added fresh, stabilized gas. If you hadn’t started the generator since last winter, whatever fuel remains in the tank isn’t doing a thing for you.

Have a standby generator?
These are professionally installed outdoors, have weatherproof casing and run on natural gas or propane. They turn themselves on when your power blows but also switch on to diagnose themselves—and flash any service messages on a visible panel. This keeps you from having to remember when you last changed or added oil, as with a portable, but you do typically need to check the panel.

At this point, siphon out everything you can (here’s one way) and add fresh gas, but not before mixing in fuel stabilizer to help your odds. Check the oil and spark plug, too. If repeated cord pulls don’t bring your generator to life, you still have time to call your local repair shop. Many will pick up your generator, clean out (or rebuild) the carburetor and bring it back to readiness.

The first alternative, of course, is the one that works for you and your family. Keep the generator fueled with stabilized gas, start it up regularly and check the oil each time (and change it annually). That way, you should be ready when the power goes. Since power outages often strike during periods of rain or snow—when you can’t safely run the machine—consider also a weather-resistant canopy like the one we’ve just reviewed.

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