Q: Ethanol 15 (E15), a gasoline blend with up to 15 percent ethanol instead of the previous limit of 10 percent, is starting to make its way into the marketplace. This could be a problem for owners of pre-2001 model-year cars, and definitely will be for anyone who uses lawn mowers, string trimmers, snow blowers or any equipment powered by small gasoline engines. When it comes to the latter, E15 will kill them. E10 has been hard enough on our business and the marine industry.
— Rob Leiser, Leiser's Rental Barn, Forks Township
A: Ethanol has been a controversial motor-fuel additive since its inception, and E15 may be its most highly contested formulation, producing more conflicting traffic than E10, or even E85, a mix of up to 85 percent ethanol and only 15 percent good ol' gasoline. Ethanol's once-presumed environmental benefits have hit a stretch of rough road in recent years, and the government is considering reducing the amount of ethanol that must be blended into our gas supply in 2014 compared to last year's minimum.
E85 began creeping into the marketplace about five years ago, but sales haven't progressed very far past the starting line, certainly here in the Lehigh Valley. E85 can be used only in "flex fuel" motor vehicles with engines and fuel systems specifically designed for the mix. In other vehicles the high concentration of alcohol can damage fuel lines and possibly engine components. Newcomer E15 is even rarer; I'm unaware of its availability anywhere in our region.
The road to federal approval of E15 in a limited number of vehicles was a winding and confusing one. I thought E15 still was awaiting final approval in 2012, but the Department of Energy's Renewable Fuels Data Center now says it was approved in 2011. According to an Environmental Protection Agency website, in 2011 EPA "granted two partial waivers that taken together allow but do not require the introduction into commerce of gasoline that contains greater than 10 volume percent ethanol (E10) and up to 15 volume percent ethanol (E15) for use in model year 2001 and newer light-duty motor vehicles, subject to certain conditions."
So, technically, it was approved that year, but only for the specified vehicles, and manufacturers had to register their E15 blends and meet the specified conditions, including "a misfueling mitigation plan for minimizing the potential for E15 to be used in vehicles and engines not covered" by the partial waivers.
Three years later, E15 is coasting very slowly into the market. Again, I've seen none of it in the Lehigh Valley — let me know if I'm wrong — and even E85 is available at a subcompact number of private gas stations and at the Turnpike's Lehigh Valley Service Plaza. Wary of ethanol's limited horsepower, — it offers about one-third less energy than gasoline — motorists with flex-fuel cars mostly have been cruising past the E85 pumps. Since ethanol can't be transmitted in the same pipelines as gasoline, the availability of E15 is concentrated mostly at stations in the Midwest, where many ethanol plants are located.
Since E15 got the green light, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade group for power equipment manufacturers, has been working for more effective signage requirements to help prevent consumers from putting the stuff in their lawn mowers, string trimmers and similar equipment.
In those devices, E15 "will destroy your engine," said OPE President Kris Kiser. Even boat motors are threatened, he said: "If your boat [motor] fails 30 miles offshore, you've got a real problem on your hands."
Kiser said the government requires a warning sticker on pumps dispensing E15 that specifies the fuel is to be used only in flex-fuel vehicles or in 2001 and newer passenger vehicles. (I included a copy of that sticker with the March 8, 2013, column still available at themorningcall.com. It specifically warns consumers not to use E15 "in other vehicles, boats, or gasoline-powered equipment," going on to say that doing so "may cause damage and is prohibited by federal law."
Wooo! Prohibited by federal law! FBI agents will take you away in handcuffs in front of your neighbors if you load this stuff into your string trimmer.
OPE has a hard time seeing much humor in the situation. Though the sticker features black characters on an orange background, the size requirement is a subcompact 3 by 3 inches. That may fit comfortably in the limited space available on multiple-fuel pumps, but it's also easy to miss. "It's inadequate," Kiser said.
OPE created a more colorful, attention-getting warning label of its own (reproduced for today's graphic) that members feel should grace E15 pumps. Some of the major power-equipment retailers post the OEM label near their product displays, Kiser said.
You cited ethanol-related fuel problems with the small-engine equipment you service as part of your business, Rob, even with E10, and Chad Ringer of Albright's Hardware in South Whitehall Township reported remarkably similar experiences. He said E10 has caused chronic problems in the operation of small-engine equipment, particularly in two-cycle engines — the kind that burn a mix of gas and oil.
"We see it every single day," he said. Ethanol draws water from the mix, which can cause rough running, or the water and ethanol can combine into a gel-like substance that gums up the tiny carburetors or the fuel lines that feed them, Ringer said.
While E10 causes carburetor and other fuel-related problems, equipment manufacturers' tests show that E15 can burn the little engines out completely, and quickly, Ringer said.
"It's a big deal," he said of the threat of E15.
Fuel stabilizers specially formulated for gas mixed with ethanol have been developed, and they do seem to help, Ringer said. But they're not a cure-all; they can extend fuel life, but for how long is unclear.
Ringer's first-gear recommendation is to avoid using old gas, even if it means using smaller containers (or filling containers only partially) and getting gas more frequently.
Your advice, Rob, is to use an ethanol stabilizer, and even then, avoid using fuel that's more than about 45 days old. It might be thought of as the six-week rule.
Many brands of ethanol stabilizer are available. The kind I bought — $9 for enough to treat 80 gallons — claims to keep the fuel fresh for up to a year.
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