E15 gasoline is chief worry at outdoor-equipment show

Consumer Reports News: October 26, 2012 04:38 PM

A slow rumble across the convention-hall floor during this week's annual Green Industry and Equipment Expo (GIE+Expo) wasn't coming from the outdoor gear being demonstrated behind the Kentucky Expo Center, at the show's 19-acre outdoor area. Rather, it was from news that some gas stations in Iowa, Kansas and Wisconsin had begun selling gasoline with 15 percent ethanol, or E15. We talked to Kris Kiser, President and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, but the subject came up in conversations with every manufacturer we met.

Even E10, the gasoline with 10-percent ethanol that's sold in most of the country, can have harmful effects on the small, non-road engines used in outdoor power equipment. Without ethanol in the fuel, gas to which you've added a stabilizer like Sta-Bil could sit in an engine for a month or two without harmful effects. But with E10 gasoline, storing a machine without starting it up regularly or, for wintertime storage (summertime for snowblowers), without running down the engine till it's dry can ruin it. Rubber and plastic parts become brittle, and moving parts can crust up from impurities in the water that ethanol, being an alcohol, attracts.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of E15 gasoline in cars with model years 2001 or later and says it's not approved for older cars, outdoor power equipment, and other engines (such as those in boats). By law, labels to that effect must be posted on all pumps dispensing E15. Still, Kiser has described a number of situations in which someone could inadvertently put E15 into an unapproved engine.

If the average person is gassing up a late model car and also has a gas can to fill for the mower and string trimmer, for instance, would the customer really put back one pump's nozzle and gas up from another pump, especially if driving a few feet from the E10 pump to the E15 one is necessary? And if a landscaper gives his crew cash to fuel up all the machines, will the workers know not to just gas up with the cheapest fuel? It's a no-brainer not to fuel up with diesel or kerosene. But to most people, gasoline is gasoline.

Manufacturers of outdoor power equipment and their engines say they will not honor the warranty of a product someone has been running with E15. The reason? Besides the above effects of ethanol, engines running even E10 gasoline run hotter. And with E15, the results can be dangerous, considering reports of "unintentional clutch engagement"—such as a powered-up chain saw that suddenly decides, because it's running so hot, that you've pressed the button to start the chain.

Manufacturers see a train wreck coming because their customers will ultimately blame them for problems. They already do, even though a problem with a product, with or without ethanol's involvement, most often stems from neglected maintenance. Dealers don't want to have to tell customers the manufacturer won't honor their warranty. And for what gasoline-powered products you own, everything from hedge trimmers to the beefiest lawn tractors, heed the myriad warnings manufacturers are splashing all over the gear they make: Put nothing but E10 in your machines. And even with that, take care to protect them through judicious use of ethanol-free gasoline and by running your products routinely if there's gas in the tank.

As Kiser explained, the problem with E15 not only isn't going away—it's getting worse. Even the eventual wide availability of E15 gas won't solve the requirements of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), whose implementation brought about E15. In other words, he explained, E15 alone won't meet the volume of renewable fuel required to be blended into transportation fuel. "So," said Kiser, "at next year's GIE Show, we'll be sitting here talking about E20 and E25."

Ed Perratore

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