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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Latest EFI Engines Add to List of Benefits

Kohler Command Pro EFI ECH440LECarbon-monoxide (CO) injuries and deaths occur every year despite ample labels on portable generators, and in manuals, that warn against running a generator in spaces with little ventilation. Even running a generator outdoors but near a home’s window or door could expose family members to this invisible and odorless yet deadly gas, and one symptom of overexposure is drowsiness—which is no warning since countless people experience it every day anyway. But what if the generator itself could help save lives?

That’s what Kohler Engines wants to do. Its Kohler Command Pro EFI ECH440LE (photo above), a four-stroke, 14-hp engine with electronic fuel injection (EFI), emits significantly less CO and other pollutants than other engines without reducing performance.

The company is quick to warn that such an engine still emits some CO, so a generator using this engine still cannot be safely run in basements, attached garages and other insufficiently ventilated spaces under any circumstances. But if someone is running the machine there anyway, lower CO emissions could potentially give the operator and family members more time to recognize what’s happening and get out. The odds of survival rise when a home is equipped with CO detectors mounted strategically indoors.

Part of Kohler’s recent announcement relates to a proposed rule by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to limit portable generators’ CO emissions. While you won’t yet see the engine in any generator now available, Kohler says that one generator maker has already signed on to use the engine in a 7.5-kilowatt generator, expected to ship this April. Whatever portable generator you might have, run it well away from any openings to the house. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you position the generator 20 feet away from the home.

EFI advances toward residential gear
An added benefit to the Kohler Command Pro EFI ECH440LE is its EFI, which delivers fuel savings, better durability and easier starting. But Kohler’s array of available EFI engines, including one the company announced for riding mowers this past summer, is only some of what you’ll see in outdoor gear this spring. Here are other fuel-injection engines we’ve heard about:

Yamaha V-twins. Gravely, a division of Ariens, is the first beneficiary of three vertical V-twin engines Yamaha has announced for 2017 lawn machines. As their names denote, the MX-V EFI engines exclusively use EFI rather than carburation. Gravely makes only commercial-grade equipment, but it’s only a matter of time before EFI-class engines cross into the residential lines that Ariens sells.

Gravely Pro-Turn 200 and 400 lines with Yamaha EFIThe MX775V-EFI, MX800V-EFI and MX825V-EFI engines range from 29 to 33 gross horsepower. Three-valve hemispherical heads, closed-loop EFI (which uses an oxygen sensor for greater fuel savings) with variable ignition timing, and low-friction design are standard. Other features include easily accessible hatches for easy maintenance, a rotating grass screen for protection against clogging from debris and a specially designed stainless-steel muffler claimed to fit a variety of ZTR mower frames.

Kawasaki bolsters EFI line. Also for the commercial market, Kawasaki recently announced its 29-horsepower FX850V-EFI, built for lawn riders, which adds new functionality to the engine maker’s overall EFI capability. The new engine joins two other EFI engines in the company’s existing line: the FX730V-EFI and FS730V-EFI. All three are part of the FX and FS Series.

Among features of the enhanced system are an integrated electronic governor and an engine control unit (ECU), which together keep drive wheels and cutting blades working at peak speeds even on challenging terrain such as hillsides. Besides EFI-specific benefits, such as dependable starts in any type of weather, you can plug in a PC or tablet to diagnose problems and schedule the precise service needed.

Tillotson’s residential walk-mower engines. One of the oldest carburetor manufacturers, Tillotson recently launched a line of residential-lawnmower engines backed by the new TillotsonTCT carburetor. While not technically EFI, it achieves similar results, as this video suggests:

The company claims that the three Diamond Standard Vertical engines—140, 173 and 196cc—will deliver more power and torque, along with greater stability and lower emissions, than the typical walk-mower engine. It achieves this through the TillotsonTCT carburetor, which combines a form of mechanical fuel injection with enhanced atomization and accelerated fuel flow. It maps carburetor performance to the engine, increasing and decreasing the fuel/air mixture, to allow optimum engine performance with the lowest possible emissions. We’ll let you know once we hear which mowers this spring will use one of Tillotson’s new engines.

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