Mowing Dilemma: High-ethanol Fuel May Ruin Small Motors

Original article published in the Lincoln Journal Star.

Tim Brodd has fixed small engines — lawn mowers, rototillers, chainsaws, string trimmers — since the early ’90s.

He started tinkering in the garage of his northeast Lincoln home and now owns a small business with six employees.

When he makes his monthly trip to get gas for his own yard machines, Brodd prefers fuel without ethanol, if it’s available, but he doesn’t go out of his way to find it.

It’s a choice backyard botanists, mechanics and boating enthusiasts face each time they head to the pump: Should they buy fuel blended with ethanol to run their small engines?

The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade association representing more than 100 manufacturers and suppliers, says using gas with up to 10 percent ethanol is OK but warns against anything higher, unless the machine is specifically designed for it.

The organization has launched a public awareness campaign called “Look before you pump” aimed at keeping those higher blends out of the tanks of boats, utility vehicles, lawn mowers and power equipment.

“Midlevel ethanol fuels, E15 and other midlevel blends dispensed at blender pumps for flex fuel automobiles, will destroy outdoor power equipment and other non-road products,“ said Kris Kiser, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.

“We think folks ought to be educated about it.”

Historically, Kiser said, the fuel paradigm was that whatever went in your car or truck could go in the gas can. And whatever went in the can could go in the boat, generator, chainsaw or mower.

“And for the first time in history, that isn’t the case. And putting a 3-by-3 pump label on an E15 pump and putting no label on a blender pump is frightening,” he said.

Equipment can safely use the most common ethanol blend, E10, but mixes with 15 percent ethanol and higher burn hotter, which can ruin engines and possibly cause unintentional clutch engagement — like a chainsaw that suddenly powers up its chain.

The Nebraska Ethanol Board says concerns are overblown and the campaign only serves to confuse consumers.

“In most communities in the state it is going to be difficult to find an E15 pump, unfortunately,” said Ethanol Board Administrator Todd Sneller.

“The idea that there is some perceived threat out there is overblown. That is just not a realistic concern.”

Sneller said there are about 70 E15 pumps in the United States and they are marked as dispensing a fuel approved only for vehicles model 2001 and newer and for flexible fuel vehicles.

With 150 million people using 300 million non-road powered products, the labels on those E15 pumps aren’t enough, Kiser said.

“Everyone wants to call us anti-ethanol because we’re drawing attention to these fuels. We’re not. As engineers, we can build an engine to run anything. Except that the engines we’re building today are designed based on a certification of fuel given to us by the government,” he said.

The institute’s “Look before you pump” campaign graphics and written warnings will be at national retailers including Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and True Value, according to a news release.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association also plans to adopt it, Kiser said.

From a service standpoint, Brodd said fueling a lawn mower with E10 or a clear unleaded gas doesn’t make a huge difference. What does is not letting the fuel sit. Ethanol is an alcohol, which can absorb water.

“It is possible that alcohol will absorb moisture and that moisture will end up in the fuel system and cause corrosion issues and hard-starting, poor-performing engines,” Brodd said.

He recommended that if fuel, either ethanol or non-ethanol, sits in equipment more than three days it should be drained and to get new gas monthly.

“When my fuel gets within that 30-day window I will pour it in my vehicle, then the next time I go to the filling station I fill up the can and I have fresh fuel again,” Brodd said.

“That is usually the best prevention that you can do.”