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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Stihl Delivers Cordless Power in a String Trimmer

Stihl FSA 56 string trimmerWith every new year’s lawn season, we can count on one thing: that battery-powered outdoor tools will creep even closer in performance to their gas-powered siblings. And now and then, you needn’t shell out a lot of green to own green gear. The Stihl FSA 56 string trimmer, from the manufacturer’s AK line of midrange cordless-electric tools, is the second of two Stihl cordless tools reviewed here—and, at about $200, is moderately priced for a battery-powered trimmer.

The price for the straight-shaft trimmer includes a 36-volt, lithium-ion AK 10 battery and AL 101 charger, though we tested the trimmer with the beefier AK 20 battery we’d already had on loan from testing the Stihl MSA 120C-BQ chainsaw. (That product will not run on the AK 10.) Already have tools from Stihl’s AK line? You can buy the FSA 56 without the battery and charger for $50 less.

Revving up the FSA 56
As with the MSA 120C-BQ, the battery snaps snugly into place and has four LEDs indicating remaining power. Starting the trimmer takes three steps, one of them the usual safety lockout for the actual trigger, but the lockout itself has a lockout—a retaining latch you must release before anything else. Without a glance first at the manual, you might find the unit adult- as well as child-proof. But once you’ve done it once, you won’t forget it. You need to hold down only the trigger to keep the tool whirring.

The business end of the trimmer has a bump head for feeding line plus the usual metal blade in the deflector to keep line from spanning beyond the 11-inch cutting width. Not many years ago, a dual-line, battery-powered string trimmer was scarce. Now they’re fairly common, and this pair has an ample 0.80-inch diameter. We didn’t need to swap spools but ran through the process anyway and judged it as easy as in the video below. As with the unit itself and all Stihl products, you’ll find replacement spools only at a Stihl dealership.

The FSA 56, as tested, weighs 8.2 pounds, and we found it well-balanced and easy to operate along the perimeter of the test property. But the news gets better: With the lesser AK 10 battery, the one actually sold with the unit, the trimmer weighs only 7.3 pounds. The shaft is also adjustable by several inches, and you can adjust the angle of the front (loop) handle with a quick turn of a star knob.

Turf battles
We tested the FSA 56 on everything from soft, overgrown grass to a some stiff-stemmed weeds, with a persistent patch of ground elder providing much of the challenge. The dual lines ripped deftly through the grass and ground elder, though the heaviest growth likely accounted for the roughly 30 minutes we got out of the AK 20 battery before it began to cut out. (It’s rated for 34 minutes; the AK 10, 17 minutes.) Not that the trimmer didn’t slice through the denser patches. It did, but if you have a lot of thick weeds on your property, you might want to pay another $70 for a second AK 10, which would serve for another 15-17 minutes while the first battery charges.

Stihl claims that with the standard AK 10, you can “trim the length of five football fields on a single battery charge.” With most homes and their diverse plants and widths of the places the mower can’t reach, there’s no way to judge that claim. Still, we trimmed plenty of property on a charge—even accounting for fallen sticks, which add resistance, among the weeds we cleared. We even edged with the FSA 56, though we had to do it by holding the trimmer sideways; the cutting head can’t be rotated as with some other manufacturers’ trimmers.

As with the MSA 120C-BQ chainsaw, the charger took about 2 ½ hours with the AK 20. Buy the string trimmer in the usual way, with the AK 10 battery, and you’ll be up and running again in about 80 minutes.

A couple of caveats: We found no concerns about the battery life, but perhaps none arose since we used the higher amp-hour battery. Some customers on Stihl’s own site have complained about short battery life, along with problems getting replacement spools. For this second grievance, we advise you check before buying the trimmer that your local dealer stocks replacement spools for this product.

The verdict
With either battery on the FSA 56, you’ll be spending a lot of time charging it if you live in a woodsy neighborhood with lush growth around the edges. That, in fact, might be the concern of some buyers who’ve posted user reviews to Stihl’s website. In such settings, you’d be better off with a gas machine such as the $240 Stihl FS 56 RC-E.

But if you have modest weed growth along your property’s perimeter and don’t want to deal with the maintenance of a gas-powered weed whacker, the FSA 56 deserves your consideration. For power, ease of use, and light weight at the price, you can’t do much better in a cordless string trimmer.

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