Good for the farmers, bad for everyone else

The benefits to using ethanol as a fuel are few, the drawbacks plenty. But at this point you don’t have much choice. Your elected officials and the Corn Growers of America, like a pair of evil step-parents in a Disney cartoon, have decided what’s best for you and that’s final.

The current law allows for the gasoline you buy at the pump to be blended with 10 percent ethanol (E10) and pays refiners such handsome tax credits that they’re all doing it.

Ethanol has less energy content than gasoline.

Then there are a handful of gas stations (less than 2 percent of the total) that sell E85 – a blend of 15-percent gas/85-percent ethanol. E85 can only be used in specially equipped vehicles called Flex Fuel Vehicles, or FFVs.

The biggest drawback to using ethanol in fuel is that ethanol doesn’t have near the energy content of gasoline. In fact your miles per gallon will drop by 27 percent when using E85 in an FFV. And if you’re the kind of contractor who pencils out how much work a machine or truck can do per dollar unit of cost, look at it this way – it takes 1.5 gallons of ethanol to do the work of 1 gallon of gasoline.

And while all the experts are assuring the public that E10 is fine for use, there is a growing chorus of ordinary people who say otherwise. Businessweek in 2009 published The “Great Ethanol Scam,” detailing some of the typical engine failures and horror stories that resulted from using E10 and E85 fuel. The term they used, as did numerous, mechanics and auto enthusiasts, was “ethanol poisoning.”

You can read the article online here:

One of the biggest problems with ethanol in any combination is that it’s hydrophilic; in other words, it loves water. Think whiskey and soda. And as any mechanic knows water in fuel is bad.

The longer E10 or E85 sits in your tanks the more moisture it absorbs out of the atmosphere. Most experts say after two months of sitting the E10 fuel in a chainsaw, boat engine, ATV or other small engine will be too wet to start.

Automotive fuel systems tend to be better equipped to handle wet fuel. But the water in the fuel will cause some cavitation in the cylinders – microscopic pitting of the cylinder wall as the water superheats and explodes against the metal.

Whether or not this causes premature engine wear is yet to be seen, but the days of a well-cared for gasoline engine lasting 250,000 or even 500,000 miles may be coming to an end. In two-stroke engines the water in the fuel crowds out lubricating oil on the cylinder walls leading to excess friction and premature wear.

Last year, the government and the EPA tried to force feed the public a proposal to raise the ethanol content in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent (E15). But a coalition of industry groups including the Auto Alliance and the Outdoor Power Institute managed to shoot down that initiative.

The Businessweek article cited above and some fuel experts we know have suggested that the blending of gasoline and ethanol is not always as precise as it could be.

In other words, even if the pump reads E10 you may be getting five percent ethanol or 15 percent.

If you experience an engine failure, whether it’s a new $40,000 pickup or a $2,500 concrete saw, and you suspect contaminated fuel to be the source, we suggest you order one of these fuel alcohol test kits at to find out if in fact your equipment is suffering from ethanol poisoning.

And if you’re buying any new two-stroke or four-stroke equipment with gas engines be sure to have a conversation with your dealer about the proper additives to negate the effects of ethanol in those engines.

Many manufacturers now sell a single additive that will protect against ethanol problems, provide the necessary lubrication and keep the gas fresher longer.