What’s in Your Fuel? Your Gear Knows

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At pumps in some states, like this one in southwest Florida, you can buy ethanol-free fuel.

Someone in a trench coat beckons from outside your local Toro dealer. You can’t quite see his face as he whispers that no matter what you heard about the mower you just bought, it won’t run at 100% right out of the box. It will run a bit hotter than it should, and if you’re even a bit neglectful, you’ll be sorry.

Were this actually to happen, you’d probably push that mower right back into the dealership and demand your money back. You might even want to call the authorities. There are two problems with such responses. First, it’s the fault of neither the dealer nor the manufacturer. Second, it’s the authorities that got us into this mess. In a word, it’s ethanol, which is added to fuel in varying amounts at pumps throughout most of the country.

Made from corn, ethanol was supposed to keep our nation from having to import as much foreign oil. But in cars, some of this supposed benefit never shows up since ethanol reduces mileage. For outdoor power equipment, it’s worse. Being an alcohol, ethanol absorbs water. This separates and sits above the gasoline in the tank, so it’s often first into the carburetor. (In larger engines like those found in lawn tractors, fuel is gravity-fed, so problems are less frequent.) This results in starting problems.

The news gets grimmer still. Leave any fuel sitting in a machine, and the gas will “varnish,” gumming up and ruining your carburetor and fuel lines. And when that fuel contains ethanol, the results of any carelessness are compounded. Parts that should move stop moving, and rubber and plastic parts get brittle.

Fuel that’s 10% ethanol, called E10, is bad enough, but ever since fuel with 15% ethanol hit the market (thanks, Environmental Protection Agency!), outdoor-gear manufacturers have begun to worry. Their products are warranted for the use of only up to E10, but if they fail due to fuel with more ethanol than that, you’re more likely to blame the manufacturer, not yourself or the government.

What’s more, richer mixtures such as E20 and E25 are on the way. So-called flex-fuel vehicles can accept fuel up to 85% ethanol without problems, so you might find E85 at the pump, too. You know the difference between regular and premium fuel, but would you notice if the pump said E15? Look hard enough on the pump, and you’ll find a tiny sticker (see below) telling you it’s illegal to put E15 into small engines like those in outdoor gear; it’s intended only for late-model cars. But who’s watching? Better to have a sticker warning you that these richer ethanol mixtures will ruin your outdoor equipment.

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The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), the industry’s trade group, doesn’t think we pay enough attention at the pump. OPEI recently commissioned Harris Poll to assess how much the average shmo knows about what he’s putting into his gear. Among the findings, which continue a pattern evident over past surveys:

• Almost two-thirds of Americans age 18 or older who own outdoor power equipment say they either aren’t sure (42%) or don’t pay any attention (22%) to what type of fuel they use.

• 66 percent of Americans will use the least expensive grade of gasoline whenever possible.

• 60% also assume that any gas sold at a gas station must be safe for all their vehicles or power equipment.

“The research continues to prove that Americans are still unaware of the damage that can occur to their outdoor power equipment as a result of mis-fueling,” says Kris Kiser, President and CEO of OPEI.

With or without ethanol in your fuel, you need to maintain your gear. But you can help the odds that it’ll last many years by avoiding ethanol altogether.

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