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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Before You Put Away Your Snowblower for the Season

Yard Machines snowblower mid-stormSpring is coming, with birds singing and crocuses thrusting from the soil as soon as they drum up the nerve. With all this spring-like activity, the last thing you feel like doing is something winter-related. Especially if it means going out to your shed to see the snowblower you hoped not to have to see again till maybe November. But you have to stow it properly. You’ll be proud next winter when the first snows blow, and your machine fires right up.

Your task isn’t hard, and it could even be fun. Put on some music and take a mug of coffee or hot chocolate out with you. However you choose to make it an event, here’s what to do:

Empty the Gas Tank
If you do only one task of the bunch, this is the most decisive for next winter. Routinely add a stabilizer to your fuel, and you might be okay leaving the fuel in the tank for a few months. But once summer comes and the snowblower is sitting in the hot shed or garage, you can’t be absolutely sure. Our advice: Siphon as much out as possible, and run the engine dry. Even better insurance is to add a few ounces of ethanol-free fuel, sold in home centers and some outdoor-gear dealers, and run it dry again. That helps clear the carburetor and fuel lines.

Drain the Oil
Changing the oil once a year won’t make the difference in starting, but it will help prolong engine life. What’s more, draining the oil immediately after running the fuel dry ensures that the oil will be hot enough to flow out easily. Your owner’s manual will show you the location of the snowblower’s drain plug, and you need to position an oil-drain pan or similar container beneath it before you loosen the bolt and tip the machine back. If you’re unsure what grade of oil to put back in once you’ve reattached the bolt, the manual will tell you. The video below, for Toro single-stage models (but generally applicable to all gas snowblowers), can also help if you’d like still more guidance.

Hose it Down
During the winter, your snowblower gets a healthy coating of dirt on and around the auger and, on two-stage models, the impeller. Also present is salt, both from what you might have spread on your driveway and from your town’s coating on the roads—and your driveway, from the plows. With temperatures well above freezing, disconnect the spark-plug cap and give the machine a good hosing down. (The engine should not be running.) Next, to keep the water itself from promoting rust, wipe down the snowblower. Your leaf blower can help to dry parts that are harder to access.

A Few More Checks
These remaining tasks could also be done in late fall, but if you think you might forget, it’s better to do them now. Start with the spark plug. Screw it out, at least inspect it and clean off the crud with a wire brush. (Coat the plug’s threads with anti-seize compound for easier removal next time.) If you don’t remember when you last replaced it, though, consider doing so now.

Next, for a two-stage model, look at the auger for the shear pins, which protect the transmission from excessive wear. Perhaps none broke over the winter, but they do corrode enough that they’re ready to snap. Even if they look secure, you still want to be sure you have spares.

And check the linkages, the little cables that run from your drive and auger controls to the machine itself. All should be taut; if not, consult the manual for how to tighten them.

For Electrics, Mind the Batteries
Few people in snow-prone regions have cordless electric snowblowers. If you own one and can get away without a lot of shoveling what the machine can’t handle, you don’t have to bother with the gas and oil. You do, however, need to bring the battery indoors for charging. Your manual should tell you if you can merely leave it on the charger, for trickle charging, till you need it again.

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