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Outdoor power gear won't start? Check your fuel.

Strategies for starting everything in your shed

Published: May 14, 2014 03:45 PM

Few things are more frustrating than getting out your outdoor power equipment to mow the lawn or trim some edges only to find it doesn’t start. The culprit could be the oil, spark plug, or air filter but most likely it’s the fuel. Neglect the fuel of gas-powered gear and you’re guaranteed hard starting—if you can fire it up at all. Fortunately, there are a few strategies that you can use to restore your equipment if not your confidence.

If it’s left in the engine too long without fuel stabilizer even traditional gasoline, without ethanol, can quickly break down and ruin a carburetor, especially in a hot shed or garage. But today’s gasoline with 10 percent ethanol, called E10, compounds the problem. Since it’s an alcohol, ethanol draws water into the engine. Over time it causes corrosion of metal parts, including the carburetor, and makes plastic and rubber tubing brittle. This results in harder starting and hotter running, which can shorten engine life unless you pay some extra attention to your equipment. Here are your options, by type of gear:

Lawn tractors and zero-turn-radius riders
The larger engines of riding mowers are less affected by fuel problems, but you can’t neglect them altogether. Add measured amounts of fuel stabilizer to the gasoline before you gas up. Before winter storage, fill the tank all the way with stabilized fuel; such brands as Sta-Bil have versions claimed to contain the ethanol, though Consumer Reports hasn't yet tested them.

Walk-behind mowers and blowers
Because they're in storage over the summer, snow blowers are particularly prone to problems because of heat buildup in a shed. But walk-behind mowers, portable generators, and pressure washers are no less trouble-free if you leave unstabilized gasoline in the tank over long periods. At the very least, add stabilizer to all gas. For a portable generator, start it up once a month and run it for five minutes. For mowers, consider using ethanol-free gas for the first and last fuel-ups of the season. And before storing a pressure washer, run some ethanol-free gas through it. The gas isn't cheap, but it’s kind to your gear. Get it at a marina (roughly $8 to $10 a gallon) or in quart cans at dealers, Sears, and home centers (about $6 per quart). For the most protection over months of inactivity, run your gear dry and, once it cools, drain the carburetor bowl.

Handheld gear
Gas-powered string trimmers, leaf blowers, chain saws, and other handhelds are the most vulnerable machines since their fuel systems are especially small. Their mostly two-stroke engines get some stabilizer from the oil you mix with the gas, but consider using only ethanol-free fuel, which helps your equipment start more easily. If you find this too costly, use stabilized gas and start your gear up once every few weeks.

Do you keep a gas can loaded with extra fuel? In addition to mixing in fuel stabilizer when you first buy it, consider keeping a record of how old it is. Gasoline sold in the warmer months has more additives and can be more finicky in an engine than what you buy over the winter. And over months of storage, it loses effectiveness. Start each season with a fresh supply.

To replace a mower, generator, string trimmer, leaf blower, snow blower, or chain saw that’s given up the ghost, see our buying guides before reviewing our Ratings and recommendations.

—Ed Perratore (on Twitter, @EdPerratore)

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