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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This sounds like more miss information put out by the big oil company's. Any one wanting to know the facts of using ethonal as a fuel should get David Blume's book Alcohol Can Be a Gas!

1. Almost every country can become energy independent. Anywhere that has sunlight and land can produce alcohol from plants. Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world imports no oil, since half its cars run on alcohol fuel made from sugarcane, grown on 1% of its land.

2. We can reverse global warming. Since alcohol is made from plants, its production takes carbon dioxide out of the air, sequestering it, with the result that it reverses the greenhouse effect (while potentially vastly improving the soil). Recent studies show that in a permaculturally designed mixed-crop alcohol fuel production system, the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere by plants—and then exuded by plant roots into the soil as sugar—can be 13 times what is emitted by processing the crops and burning the alcohol in our cars.

3. We can revitalize the economy instead of suffering through Peak Oil. Oil is running out, and what we replace it with will make a big difference in our environment and economy. Alcohol fuel production and use is clean and environmentally sustainable, and will revitalize families, farms, towns, cities, industries, as well as the environment. A national switch to alcohol fuel would provide many millions of new permanent jobs.

4. No new technological breakthroughs are needed. We can make alcohol fuel out of what we have, where we are. Alcohol fuel can efficiently be made out of many things, from waste products like stale donuts, grass clippings, food processing waste-even ocean kelp. Many crops produce many times more alcohol per acre than corn, using arid, marshy, or even marginal land in addition to farmland. Just our lawn clippings could replace a third of the autofuel we get from the Mideast.

5. Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, we can easily use alcohol fuel in the vehicles we already own. Unmodified cars can run on 50% alcohol, and converting to 100% alcohol or flexible fueling (both alcohol and gas) costs only a few hundred dollars. Most auto companies already sell new dual-fuel vehicles.

6. Alcohol is a superior fuel to gasoline! It’s 105 octane, burns much cooler with less vibration, is less flammable in case of accident, is 98% pollution-free, has lower evaporative emissions, and deposits no carbon in the engine or oil, resulting in a tripling of engine life. Specialized alcohol engines can get at least 22% better mileage than gasoline or diesel.

7. It’s not just for gasoline cars. We can also easily use alcohol fuel to power diesel engines, trains, aircraft, small utility engines, generators to make electricity, heaters for our homes—and it can even be used to cook our food.

8. Alcohol has a proud history. Gasoline is a refinery’s toxic waste; alcohol fuel is liquid sunshine. Henry Ford’s early cars were all flex-fuel. It wasn’t until gasoline magnate John D. Rockefeller funded Prohibition that alcohol fuel companies were driven out of business.

9. The byproducts of alcohol production are clean, instead of being oil refinery waste, and are worth more than the alcohol itself. In fact, they can make petrochemical fertilizers and herbicides obsolete. The alcohol production process concentrates and makes more digestible all protein and non-starch nutrients in the crop. It’s so nutritious that when used as animal feed, it produces more meat or milk than the corn it comes from. That’s right, fermentation of corn increases the food supply and lowers the cost of food.

10. Locally produced ethanol supercharges regional economies. Instead of fuel expenditures draining capital away to foreign bank accounts, each gallon of alcohol produces local income that gets recirculated many times. Every dollar of tax credit for alcohol generates up to $6 in new tax revenues from the increased local business.

11. Alcohol production brings many new small-scale business opportunities. There is huge potential for profitable local, integrated, small-scale businesses that produce alcohol and related byproducts, whereas when gas was cheap, alcohol plants had to be huge to make a profit.

12. Scale matters—most of the widely publicized potential problems with ethanol are a function of scale. Once production plants get beyond a certain size and are too far away from the crops that supply them, closing the ecological loop becomes problematic. Smaller-scale operations can more efficiently use a wide variety of crops than huge specialized one-crop plants, and diversification of crops would largely eliminate the problems of monoculture.

13. The byproducts of small-scale alcohol plants can be used in profitable, energy-efficient, and environmentally positive ways. For instance, spent mash (the liquid left over after distillation) contains all the nutrients the next fuel crop needs and can return it back to the soil if the fields are close to the operation. Big-scale plants, because they bring in crops from up to 45 miles away, can’t do this, so they have to evaporate all the water and sell the resulting byproduct as low-price animal feed,which accounts for half the energy used in the plant.

What about my 1966 Cub Cadet tractor? It is nice that we are moving to new materials for new engines, but I'm concerned about the old engines some of us like to keep for another 20 years.

"Drivers of flex-fuel cars don't have to worry much. Their on-board computers can regulate fuel mixtures."

Wrong - they don't have to worry because they have parts that are designed to withstand the higher heat and the higher corrosive nature of ethanol.

The on-board computers adjust the mixture (air & fuel) because ethanol carries with it its own Oxygen molecule so less air needs to be brought in to combust the fuel. Less air in = less nitrogen in = less NOx in the exhaust.

The onboard computers also adjust the ignition timing as the percentage of ethanol in the fuel goes up because ethanol burns slower than gas and needs to be ignited further in advance of top dead center.

On board computers do not "adjust the mix" to effect the corrosive nature of the fuel.

When talking about the dangers of an uninformed public, try not to misinform them further.

Injectors to accomodate the fuel, non-rubber fuel lines, and noncorrosive metals are well and good in new motors. In the boating industry, however, how does one integrate them into an engine that's ten (or more) years old? We've already seen many problems in the use of E10.

I work for a manufacturer of small outdoor power equipment and we recently considered this issue and found a solution. Because we test-run every unit we build, we required a fuel blend that wouldn't damage the engines (ranging 3.5 - 16HP) and evaporated quickly, since international air cargo carries tend to frown on gasoline-scented packages.

The answer was simple, though a bit pricy: 100 Octane avgas from the local GA airfield.

Dear Mr. Deming,

Color coding is fine, but where I live you have no choice. I have to use fuel with up to 10% alcohol as that is all anyone sells in my area. I have no problem burning it in my primary vehicle, but my motorcycle has already started to see the effects of alcohol in the fuel (according to my mechanic.

And let me add...

Aircraft jet engines run much hotter then any little engine for your mower. Technology has developed simple fuel computers much like those on jet engines.

For instance, a C610 Jet engine and Garrett engine can run on 90 octane gas. I personally have used cheap gas in Nigeria in the Lear I was flying. Just remember to set the fuel controller and go!

The same practices will be made with auto engines and little engines. The computer will automatically test the fuel and set the mixture and combustion.

This is nothing new and has been in the plans for "again decades".

According to the AFP, the National Petroleum Agency reported that in Brazil, ethanol sales for 2008 are passing the sales of gasoline for the first time. The article said that the figures only take into account sales of hydrated ethanol that can be used in its pure form in most cars in Brazil, and not anhydrous ethanol that is used just to blend with gasoline.

"Sales of hydrated ethanol, through October, hit 15.8 billion liters (4.2 billion gallons), up 44.9 percent from a year earlier, it added. Brazil is a leading producer of ethanol from sugar cane, the world number two after the United States, which uses corn as its base plant. But about 90 percent of cars sold in Brazil’s market can be run on either ethanol, gasoline or a mix of both in any proportion. Less than 10 percent of the U.S. vehicles sold run on high blends of ethanol.
Ethanol costs about .63 cents USD per liter compared to 1.07 USD locally for a liter of gasoline."

This is so stupid. We have been color coding fuel for decades. We color code fuel caps and distribution point nozzles.

If you are color blind, have someone else fill your little engine. Read the article about 'Toro' and their engine products.

When we move to E85 we will all be aware and the injectors on small engines will accommodate the fuels. Duh,,,, We are also moving to fuel lines that are not rubber and we use internal metals that do not corrode.



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