Ethanol could kill your small engine

An ethanol pump


Kai Ryssdal: Thirty-six billion gallons -- that's how much renewable fuel the government says the U.S. must produce by 2022. And here's an unexpected consequence of that ethanol mandate: Alcohol is murder on lawnmowers and small engines. Mechanics insist that as gasoline blended with ethanol takes over at gas stations, small engines across the country will start choking to death. Wyoming Public Radio's Peter O'Dowd reports.

Peter O'Dowd: At the WyoTech automotive school in Laramie, Wyo., Larry Wostenburg likes to conduct experiments with engines for his students. Today's test: how much ethanol a small engine can take before it breaks down.

Larry Wostenburg: We're going to put a little choke action on here and start this baby up.

Wostenburg pours alcohol into a lawnmower's fuel tank. His supervisor Jack Longress explains why using too much ethanol can destroy this kind of engine.

Jack Longress: It's a recipe for disaster because, eventually, when those pieces get brittle they're more susceptible to breaking.

Alcohol makes engines run dangerously hot. It melts rubber components. Longress says use anything higher than 10 percent ethanol on small engines long enough, and the insides will start to rot.

Longress: The corrosive properties, what you'd see is, much like what you see on the top of dirty battery terminals.

Drivers of flex-fuel cars don't have to worry much. Their on-board computers can regulate fuel mixtures. But small engines like WyoTech's lawnmower don't have those features. They're more likely to malfunction if they're filled with the wrong blend, and broken engines can mean injured operators. That's just one of the reasons why Kris Kiser is so worried. He's with AllSafe, an advocate group for small-engine manufacturers.

Kris Kiser: What were concerned about are mid-level blends entering into the marketplace in advance of consumers being educated about their use and what their affects will be.

Kiser says millions of chainsaws, lawnmowers and boats could be vulnerable to death by ethanol. This year the government ordered the production of 9 billion gallons of renewable fuel. A decade from now, that number will grow to 26 billion gallons. As the mandate expands, Kiser says higher blends of ethanol will be pumped from every gas station in America. And unless people know what they're doing, he says they could easily fill up with a blend far too potent for their machines.

Kiser: If they drive up to a pump and they see E-20, E-30, E-40, I don't think they know what that means. Even if they do know what it means -- that E-30 means 30 percent ethanol in the gallon they're producing -- if they are selling it at the pump, I think there is the assumption that it's OK, that it's going to work in whatever I put it in.

Ron Lamberty: That's kind of a moot point. We've already got those concerns.

Ron Lamberty works for the American Coalition of Ethanol. He points out that consumers are quite capable of telling the difference between diesel and regular fuel at the gas station. He says America's well on the road to using more renewable fuels like ethanol. Small engine manufacturers can either protest, he says, or start improving their products.

Lamberty: If we always listened to the naysayers, we would still be sitting here with leaded regular gasoline in the United States. We've got to move forward and the small engine guys have to come along.

Critics say they might come along more quickly if the science were more definitive. No one really knows exactly how sensitive small engines are to ethanol. The standard threshold for lawnmowers, for example, is 10 percent, but our experiment showed it could run on a much richer mixture.

The Department of Energy published a study on ethanol in small engines this fall. You can check just how deadly the fuel might be to your old John Deere.

In Laramie, Wyo., I'm Peter O'Dowd for Marketplace.

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Now my lawn mower which ran for flawlessly for 17 years is dead. Buy the cheapest thing you can, so you won't feel about junking it. Ethanol is fine if keep using the machine, it's when they have to sit over the winter unused that things seem to melt down.

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All the bull about the problem and not a word about a solution.

My small push mower stopped running due to ethanol gasoline.

I bought a bottle of fuel additive from Sears automotive, plus one of their fancy spark plus.

My push mower is running perfect again.

I MIGHT EVEN TRY THE SAME remedy on my previous similar push mower which died the same way.


I concur with the issues since ethanol fuel came on the scene. My tractor has to have it's carb rebuilt every other year after 12 years of flawless service. I threw away a 2cycle weed eater last year. It cost $150 to get going the year before and then quit again after the winter. Now my lawn mower which ran for flawlessly for 17 years is dead. Buy the cheapest thing you can, so you won't feel about junking it. Ethanol is fine if keep using the machine, it's when they have to sit over the winter unused that things seem to melt down.

Alan Rowberry does not own a 2cycle engine.

Power equipment manufacturers are lobbying FOR more ethanol. A simple equation - more destroyed old engines means more sales for them. That's capitalism for you. Its the same reason a 40 year old refrigerator will still be working 40 years from now, but if you buy one now it will very likely fail within 5 years.

I've been running my 1978 Honda 400cc motorcycle on E100 produced by a still in my backyard for about 14 months. I changed the carb mainjet, advanced the timing and put on a fuel filter. It runs much cooler, smoother, cleaner and faster than it ever did on gasoline. Seeing as how all the small engines in Brazil were running E100 fuels without problems and that all the early internal combustion engines were run initially on alcohol (without computers duh!) and that Henry Ford himself felt it a far superior fuel for his engines than gasoline, I can only conclude that you have other problems affecting your small engines than alcohol fuels.

I have had a hugh problem with ethanol clogging up all of my small engines from my lawnmowers, 4 wheeler, boat etc. Eveything is being ruined and I.m dishing out alot of money for repairs. Now there is no place in town to buy gasoline without ethanol and the goverment says in the near future there won't be any gas without ethanol. Is there a way to stop the effects it has on engines? Maybe Lucas additive or sta-ble or something?? I hate ethanol!!!

I spent more than $400 to replace the carb an a nearly new Yamaha small generator. It started running poorly after less than 10 hours of use over a three month period.

I use it for my fifth wheel trailer, very rarely; and kept the tank full to be ready for the need. The owner's manual says to drain the tank when it is not in use. I really thought I was doing a work around by starting it for about 15 minutes every week or two.

They should have instructed the owner that ethanol adds water to the fuel over time; and that if the generator is not run enough to use up all the fuel in a couple of weeks, it should be drained and replaced.

I found a place to by ethanol free gasoline for my generator and lawn mower.

My concern is that this issue is not being considered as legislation moves forward and ethanol free fuel will no longer be available.

What will be the impact on small engine production? How much are the small engine technology improvements going to cost the consumer? What about all of those engines in use now? Do the policy makers even care?


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