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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Toro’s Latest Walk Mower on Steroids

Toro TimeMaster / Credit: ToroThere are a couple of great reasons to buy a 30-inch walk-behind mower. You’d like to walk, not ride, a large property while mowing for the exercise, but you don’t have hours to spare every time you mow. Or else you already mow with a lawn tractor or ZTR but also want a mower to cut tighter spaces, such as near gates or clumps of trees too tight for a riding mower.

Whether it’s one of these reasons or another, the $1,049 Toro 30” TimeMaster, Model 21199, proved its claims—and has improved further since the first version appeared in stores six seasons ago.

The Toro TimeMaster looks like an ordinary mower that someone fed with Miracle Gro. It achieves its 30-inch cut using two 15-inch blades whose paths overlap slightly. The price of this rear-wheel-drive machine approaches what you would pay for a rear-engine rider such as the 28-inch Snapper 2017 Rear Engine Rider RE110, $1,499, or 30-inch Cub Cadet CC 30 Rider, $1,200. But at those prices, you could ride more enjoyably in a low-end lawn tractor.

Besides, the point is to walk. And the TimeMaster is a lot easier to push than it looks. Even earlier versions we’d seen had Toro’s usual Personal Pace variable-speed control, and the help is more than welcome with a large machine. (You can get it up to a trotworthy 4.5 MPH.) There’s also an extra traction-assist handle: Grip it while you slide the Personal Pace bar forward to get more control. Also, despite the mower’s size, the TimeMaster is easy to tip back when you want to turn it.

First, of course, you have to get it started. You can pay $100 extra for the TimeMaster Model 21200, which has electric start, but even on this model, getting it going was exceptionally smooth. The mower is auto-choke, with no need to prime, and its 233cc, overhead-valve Briggs & Stratton engine fired up every time, no nudging needed. The blade-brake clutch is a given in a mower of this price, although we found we needed to engage the blades slowly each time, even when the mower was warm. Too quickly, and it seemed too much for the engine.

Testing the TimeMaster
We ran the mower through its paces across multiple runs, over level and slightly sloped turf at a range of deck heights. You can adjust the steel deck’s height for cuts 1.25 to 4.25 inches high.

The mower comes set for mulch mode, with its side-discharge door shut and the rear-discharge plug in place. In that mode, the most commonly used, it processed clippings finely and left no noticeable clumps.

In side-discharge mode, there was little difference. The TimeMaster cut just as evenly, and no windrows of poorly distributed clippings cried for another mow—or a good raking.

And in bagging mode, the Toro was admirable. The lawn looked about as trim, so efficient were the other modes, but this mower nevertheless found enough to fill its bag to the brim. As with other Toro models, removing the bag to empty it (and reattaching it) takes seconds, although a full bag will need a good shake to get the clippings pouring.

Other noteworthy features
Should you want to adjust deck height, the Toro makes it relatively easy: one lever for the front pair and another for the rear. You can adjust the handle height in one or two positions, plus another straight up for storage. Another familiar plus is a washout fitting for a garden hose. (Remember to keep the mower on a level surface and adjust the deck to its lowest, shortest-cut setting.)

To help you use all the fuel and keep it from sloshing around, the Briggs engine includes the foam insert (aka the sponge) found in many Briggs engines. Take our advice and use fuel stabilizer mixed into the fuel—and, for a last fire-up before winter storage, use a little ethanol-free fuel.

Given the size of this mower, certain tasks are more complicated. Every 50 hours, for instance, you’ll need to check and perhaps retighten the belt drive. After the first five and then every 50 hours of use, you’ll change the oil—but turning the 132-pound machine on its side to drain the oil is tougher than with the usual walk-behind mower. (Do so when the gas tank is empty.) And once a year, you’ll have two blades to remove and have sharpened.

The verdict
Most of us would get by fine with a standard 21-inch mower, self-propelled if your property’s terrain could use it. But if you have a specific use for a plus-size mower, the Toro TimeMaster Model 21199 should provide many, many seasons of top-notch cutting with a broad swath every pass. And presuming proper maintenance, the three-year warranty—and three-year Guaranteed-to-Start (GTS) promise—should give you even more assurance.

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