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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Pressure Washer Power Comes at a Cost

Clean_Deck_Table_Chairs
The deck table and chairs got sparklingly clean, but the deck needs cleaning next.

Got mildew? Wherever you live, some parts of your property naturally get more shade than others. And if you live in humid regions, the combination of moist air and shade is an open invitation to every spore that happens by. Before long, it’s a colony with squatters’ rights. You can rescind the invitation, but brushes and bleach will knock you out first. You need a pressure washer.

Cleaning with a pressure washer, in fact, can be a joy to use since you can see such a difference in what you’re cleaning. And once you set out to clean something—such as the deck chairs and table in this photo—it’s hard to resist moving on to the deck, retaining walls, siding and everything else that could use a good once-over. Like eating potato chips, you can’t clean only one thing, such as the above deck chairs and table.

But pressure washers can be the most finicky of outdoor power gear. Setup, including the point at which you turn on your water connection, must be just so to avoid overheating the pump. Choosing the right spray nozzle or setting can make a difference between cleaning and ruining a deck, siding, or even driveway asphalt. Startup often needs several pulls, and few if any gas models come with electric start. Planning your work and staying focused on the work will keep you safe from the concentrated spray. And when you’re done, stowing the machine properly will keep your pump from corroding—and leaking in the spring from residual water that froze.

All power-tool manuals are required reading, but skipping the guide that comes with your pressure washer can be particularly unforgiving. First, you could keep the thing running a good 15 to 20 years if you know how. Even more important is the safety, which deserves its own discussion.

Here is more advice from Tool to Power on setup, safety, proper operation and storage.

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