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The problem with ethanol in gasoline

We recently bought our first home and will be buying a lawn mower, trimmer and snow blower. In doing my research, I found warnings about the harm that ethanol in modern gasoline can cause to these engines as well as to my dad’s Olds 4-4-2, which I put away every winter. What is the problem and, more importantly, what is the cure? – Tom and Barb

In addition to being less volatile than gasoline – requiring more of it than gasoline to travel the same distance – ethanol can cause irreparable harm to gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines, whether in an automobile or a chain saw.

There are four problems with ethanol:

1.) It is corrosive when in contact with certain materials in fuel storage and delivery systems, including some rubber compounds and the zinc and aluminum alloys used in carburetors.
2.) Because it is an alcohol, ethanol dries out the rubber components in a fuel system. This leads to cracking and brittle fuel lines, floats, seals and diaphragms.
3.) Ethanol is hygroscopic – it likes water. Water enters fuel containers when they are filled up. Once in the gasoline, it forms a chemical mix that causes corrosion of internal parts. As the fuel level in a tank or container drops, water condenses on the cool surfaces of the vessel, drops and runs down into the fuel where the ethanol welcomes it.
4.) It acts as a solvent in older engines, dissolving the varnish and other deposits in tanks and lines. These then are carried to the carburetor or injection system where they can clog the small orifices involved.

In 2001, under pressure from the farm lobby, seeking a ready market for corn – used in the manufacture of ethanol – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved gasoline with 15 per cent ethanol content, but prohibited its use in small engines and other power equipment due to the potential damage.
At that time, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that gasoline containing the allowed 15 per cent ethanol caused corrosion of metal parts, including carburetors, degradation of plastic and rubber components, harder starting, and reduced engine life in small engines. Other studies have shown that automobile engines produced prior to 2007 showed damage to valves, valve seats, seals, hoses and other components.
Because of its love of water, gasoline containing ethanol should not be allowed to sit for any length of time. This is the reason it is not present in giant storage tanks, pipelines or bulk carriers, but added at the refinery just prior to delivery to gas stations.
The shelf life of gasoline containing ethanol is about one month, compared to three or four months with gasoline. Buy it in small quantities, run tanks near dry before refilling and after use. Do not store in that little red container more than a month, especially not over the winter or summer months. If it is older than that, dump it into a car or truck that uses gas frequently where it will mix with the fresh gasoline. If possible, run any tank containing ethanol dry before putting any engine away for a season or more.
There are some additives, such as Sta-Bil that promote safer long-term storage. I don’t know of any scientific studies to back up these claims but do believe them and use the products myself.
Since 2010, a Canadian Federal Renewable Fuel Regulation has required an annual volume-weighted average of 5 per cent renewable fuel (ethanol) in gasoline, excluding that sold into colder areas like the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and much of Quebec. The Regulation applies to refiners and importers. There are similar regulations in place regarding gas stations in Ontario and all provinces to the west. None of the four Atlantic provinces have regulations in place requiring ethanol, so many of their storage facilities have not been set up to handle fuel containing ethanol.
Here is where it gets tricky. Generally speaking, refineries will add ethanol to regular and a lesser amount to mid-grade gasoline to meet federal and provincial regulations. Because these grades make up the bulk of sales, it is not necessary to add ethanol to premium grades to achieve the required average.
In most areas of the country, it is thus possible to buy gasoline that does not contain ethanol. Buy premium if in doubt, regular in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. There may be ethanol in regular grade in southern Quebec, New Brunswick and P.E.I. as the giant Irving refinery in New Brunswick does add ethanol to regular. Its largest customers are south of the border, but some may be delivered to Quebec and local stations.

What are the negative effects of using ethanol in our engines? There are four major problems that I know of from ethanol in our gasoline;

1. Debris in fuel / premature fuel breakdown. It is almost impossible to empty all of the fuel from any engine system so there is always old fuel somewhere in any fuel system. Straight gasoline starts to deteriorate around 30-60 days and ethanol fuels break down even faster than straight gasoline. When gasoline breaks down leaving gum and varnish in fuel tanks, fuel lines, carburetors, etc. Ethanol is also a great cleaner of gums, varnishes, dirt and the rust that water in the fuel creates. That is why ethanol is used in almost every bottle of carb / injector cleaner on the market. So when you fill up your tank you introduce fresh ethanol to run through your fuel system and it will dissolve the deposits running all that crud through the engine’s fuel system clogging fuel filters, injectors, and carburetors. Clogged fuel filters will drop fuel pressures telling the regulator to work the electric fuel pump harder to keep the fuel pressure up. This will burn out fuel pumps. Gummed up carburetors and fuel injectors all lead to poor performance and all of this leads to hefty repair bills. Considering you never really know how long the E10 sits at the refinery in a holding tank before it gets transported to the pump station to sit in the underground storage tank just to be purchased by you to sit in your tank before being burned in the engine, break down of the E10 gasohol fuel can be a real issue.

2. Water in fuel. Pure gasoline does not absorb water but ethanol will. Ethanol is hydrophilic this means that it pulls moisture from the air and bonds with it. In ideal conditions E10 gasohol will keep roughly .5% water by volume is suspended in gasoline. Our fuel tanks and fuel storage cans are hardly ideal conditions as they need to be vented allowing the ethanol to absorb more moisture from the atmosphere or in the form of condensation. Ethanol never truly bonds with gasoline molecules it is a loose mixture at best so when the threshold of .5% water is exceeded or the E10 gasohol mixture cools off every night the water / ethanol solution falls out of suspension in the gasoline. Oil and gasoline float on water as they are lighter than water so the water /ethanol mixture will stay at the bottom of your fuel tank. The process of the water and ethanol separating from the gasoline and sinking to the bottom is called “Phase Separation”. Phase Separation is a real problem because the water from the bottom of the tank is sucked up and sent to the engine it causes a lean condition raising the engine temperature causing valve damage, carburetor, fuel lines and electronic fuel injection pumps pull fuel from the bottom of the tanks where the ethanol / water mix stays and water doesn’t burn well in the engine leading to premature engine / fuel system corrosion and poor engine performance. It gets worse, ethanol and water mix in E10 gasoline is a breeding ground for microbes like bacteria and fungi which just adds to the corrosion and debris in your fuel system.

3. Loss of power, octane rating, performance and mileage from E10 gasohol. Contrary to what most people believe, higher octane gas does not make your engine more powerful. Only if your engine is built for performance or racing with a higher compression rating do you will need to use a higher octane gasoline. Your vehicle manufacturer tells you what octane rating to use depending on your vehicle’s requirements. This information can be found in the vehicle owner’s manual, on the fuel door or gas cap. At the pump you typically have three choices of octane ratings use gasoline that has an octane ratings from 87 (lowest), 89 (midgrade), and 91 or 92 (premium) this is due to a few factors, but it is mainly relevant to the compression rating of your engine. The higher the compression the higher the octane required. This is due to the fact that gasoline and air mixture heats up as the piston moves on the compression stroke gasoline will ignite before the spark plug fires. This is called pre-ignition and it will damage the engine. Octane prevents this by slowing down the burn rate from an early damaging explosion to a slower more controlled burn. Pure ethanol has an octane rating of 113, so adding ethanol will raise the octane rating of gasoline. The gasoline blender has to take this into consideration and uses a lower octane base gasoline so when the ethanol is added you don’t get a higher octane fuel. Now what happens is this; you purchase E10 gasohol with an octane rating of 87, phase separation occurs and as the ethanol sinks to the bottom of the tank the octane rating in the gasoline actually gets lowered to around 82 to 84. This is too low for a gasoline powered engine to run efficiently and causes loss of power and engine damaging pre-ignition. Ethanol produces about 34% less energy than the same amount one gallon of gasoline so in an E10 mixture you will lose 3% - 5% of your horse power and MPG.

4. Ethanol is corrosive. Ethanol is an excellent solvent and will clean all of the gunk and grime that an engine will accumulate but these same strong cleaning qualities can lead to trouble for your engine. As I had stated earlier in this article ethanol is a great cleaner and this alone can cause issues as it dislodges built up dirt sending harmful and filter clogging particles through your fuel system and engine. Ethanol is also a drying agent and can disintegrate plastic, rubber, some types of fiber glass, aluminum and magnesium. Ethanol is most corrosive to ferrous metals (metals that contain iron, such as steel). This corrosion leaves behind salt deposits and a jelly like substance, both of which can clog fuel filters, fuel pumps and carburetors. Ethanol also burns at a higher temperature than gasoline causing damage to pistons. Any car or truck that is not a “Flex Fuel” vehicle is most likely not equipped with ethanol resistant parts and even less small engines like lawn mowers; motorcycles etc. are equipped with ethanol resistant parts. Marine motors and ethanol just do not get along at all due to the high water content in their operating environment. Due to the high damage rate and risk of marine motors developing polluting gasohol leaks from ethanol damage, a lot of marinas are currently offering ethanol free gasoline. According to the FAA ethanol is forbidden in airplane fuels (excluding air craft licensed as experimental). Using E10 in 2 cycle outdoor power equipment (weed whackers, chainsaws, etc.) can seize motors and most manufacturers will not honor warranties on their equipment if E10 is used. E10 is bad enough, but if E15 is put into place we can expect severe damage to any vehicle not equipped like an E85 Flex Fuel vehicle. Please consider that the levels of ethanol are not closely monitored by most gas stations, but you can purchase inexpensive ethanol test kits to be sure the ethanol percentage is not over 10%.

Over 75% of Repairs on Small Engines with Starting/Running Issues are Fuel Related... Primarily Due to ETHANOL