Thursday, October 6, 2011

Ethanol breaks down engines

By Bob Confer

It didn’t take long for government intervention in the energy industry to catch up with the economy. By creating mandates for the usage of ethanol in gasoline and subsidizing the production thereof, the alternative fuel placed considerable demand on the corn markets and subsequently drove up the price of many items at the grocery store. This problem has deeply affected shoppers since early 2006.

It’s taken a little bit longer to see a similar effect that ethanol has had away from the dinner table and out in the garage. Countless small engines are now falling victim to the substance after having been abused by it the past few years.

Most lawnmowers, chainsaws, weed eaters and boats - and a good number of motorcycles and ATVs - are ill-prepared to handle high doses of the corn-based fuel, especially the 10% blend that has overtaken the United States the past 5 years. Unlike cars, they weren’t designed to compensate for blended gasoline nor were their components made hearty enough. Ethanol makes small engines overheat and can irreparably damage them. Even if they don’t overheat, they perform miserably (some mechanics cite a 15% reduction in horsepower) because rubber hoses, gaskets and valves become gummed-up by the ethanol or the water it attracts from the air. On top of that, ethanol has been known to actually destroy the fiberglass fuel tanks found in boats.

Hardcore boating enthusiasts and professional landscapers have dealt with the ethanol issue quite well, patronizing marinas and gas stations that sell ethanol-free gasoline because they were educated on the matter through hobby or trade magazines (in some parts of the US ethanol-free gas is sold at a premium or is nearly impossible to find). But, your run-of-the-mill boat owner who goes out on the water but a few times a summer or the Average Joe who mows his own lawn hasn’t been so fortunate. They’ve been caught off guard by the poison.

And, have they ever!

Repair shops across the United States are reporting explosive growth in their business. An economist or federal official might attribute that trend to thrifty consumers who, influenced by the recession, are trying to stretch the life of their equipment as long as they can. They’d be dead wrong. Truthfully, it’s because of the ethanol. This is best exemplified by a shop in Westfield, New Jersey, a town of 30,000. That shop repairs 5,000 pieces of equipment per year and the owner says 75% of that volume is a result of ethanol damage. That’s one shop out of a handful serving that community while that community is one of thousands in the States. Just imagine the number of repairs nationally.

Repairs and replacements aren’t cheap. The replacement of a mower’s carburetor might cost $100. Motorcycles are also falling victim to the same issue and riders might be facing a $200 bill. Taking the fix even further, a new ride-on mower could cost a couple of thousand dollars while a new fuel tank (and fuel system) for a boat can cost just as much.

What isn’t cheap, as well, are the means to prevent damage. If you can’t find a local gas station that sells ethanol-free gas, you might have to buy “canned gas” which can cost up to $8 per quart (that’s $32/gallon). You can also buy gasoline stabilizers which often retail around $10 per 8 ounces.

You can’t blame manufacturers for this mess. When a quality manufacturer puts powered goods to market, that company – and the consumer – expect the product last for decades. All things being equal, they should have. But, how would a manufacturer know in 2000 that a half-dozen years later the government would actually force high volumes of alcohol-infused fuels upon the markets?

Now they know and items produced in recent years are ethanol-ready. But, that beloved chainsaw or boat in your garage may not be so lucky. You’re going to have to go out of your way to keep it safe and running for the long haul by overcoming the ethanol trap. And you must be diligent about it: As if 10% mixes weren’t bad enough, 15% is coming down the pipeline, courtesy of the EPA.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 10 October 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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