Ethanol at the Pump: We’re No Smarter

When we swing by the local gas station to buy fuel for a snowblower, chainsaw or other outdoor power equipment, we know not to fill up with diesel or kerosene—no matter how much cheaper it might be.

What more than 60 percent of us still don’t know about today’s gasoline pumps, however, could shorten the running lives of our power gear by years. It comes down to one word: ethanol. And according to an annual poll commissioned by the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), the industry’s trade group, we aren’t getting any smarter.

Ethanol, a corn-based biofuel, has been mixed with gas at U.S. fuel pumps for more than 15 years—in the nation’s effort to increase the use of renewable fuels. But until recent years, ethanol in gasoline at the pump was limited to no more than 10 percent, a mixture called E10. Cars and trucks do fine with E10, but the smaller engines in outdoor power products only tolerate it.

Fast-forward to mid-2012, when the Environmental Protection Agency allowed richer mixtures of ethanol (starting with 15 percent mixtures, called E15) to be sold alongside the usual E10 from the same pumps. What’s the problem? Small engines like those in outdoor gear run correspondingly hotter the more ethanol you add. Because there’s extra ethanol in E15, the fuel draws more moisture, and water does not dissolve in gasoline. Rubber and plastic parts stiffen up, and moving parts stop moving. What’s worse, using ethanol mixtures richer than E15 void warranties, so you can’t run to the products’ manufacturers for restitution.

On fuel pumps, a small EPA sticker tells you that fueling up outdoor power equipment with E15 is illegal. But it doesn’t warn it will ruin your engine. (Prominent labeling on products as sold tells you that.) This, at least partially, explains why nobody is paying attention when fueling up.

OPEI’s online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, conducted online by The Harris Poll, annually gauges how much consumers are learning about how to protect their gear. The results aren’t pretty:

  • Among those who own outdoor power equipment, 58 percent don’t pay attention to or aren’t at all sure about what fuel they use.
  • Roughly two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) will use the cheapest grade of gas whenever possible (up from 63 percent in 2015), which is likely why just over half (52 percent) use the same fuel to fill up portable gas cans that they use to fill their vehicles. Who, after all, makes two separate fuel purchases at one pump stop?
  • Only one in five Americans say they notice mentions of ethanol content at a fuel pump, though more than four times as many (86 percent) notice price.
  • Nearly nine in 10 Americans (87 percent) agree that the federal government, which allowed the sale of higher-ethanol fuels in the first place, should do more to educate the public on correct fueling for various engine types.
  • Not everyone is misfueling unknowingly. About an eighth of respondents, 12 percent, admit to using fuel with higher than recommended ethanol levels—E15 or higher blends intended for so-called flex-fuel vehicles—for their outdoor power equipment. That’s up from 7 percent in 2015’s poll.

“To add to this concerning trend, E15 is being marketed as ‘Octane 88,’ said Kris Kiser, president and CEO of OPEI. “So we essentially have a muddled marketplace that now has to deal with even more mixed messages.” The poll bears this out: Nearly nine in 10 Americans (85 percent) are unaware that Octane 88 fuel contains more ethanol than the typical Octane 87 fuel. It makes sense, given that choices such as Octanes 89 and 91 have accompanied Octane 87 at the pump for decades.

For six years OPEI has worked to inform and urge consumers through its “Protect Your Power” program. “But we can only do so much when we’re talking about having to educate the entire country,” said Kiser. “The government, which is allowing these fuel changes, should be doing more education.”

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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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