Ethanol is a useful tool to reduce the consumption of foreign oil, and has proven to be safe for most engines in blends up to 10% (designated as E10). But the government has recently made a push to increase the ethanol content in gasoline.
E15, which is a blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline, will soon be coming to a gas station near you, if it hasn’t already. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contends E15 is compatible with cars newer than the 2001 model year and is a valuable alternative fuel source, although some automobile manufacturers state that E15 does not comply with fuel requirements specified in their owner’s manuals.
But the major objection with E15 is with the way the fuel is being distributed. Organizations such as the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) contend that adequate measures are not in place to prevent misfueling and point out that there is the continued need for fuel with 10% or less ethanol, since small non-road engines are not designed or warranted for fuel above E10. (See “Beware of E15” at ForConstructionPros.com/10362939.)
No one denies the compatibility issues between E15 and non-road engines. In fact, following the EPA and Department of Energy (DOE) testing in outdoor power equipment and other non-road products, it was determined E15 is not suitable for any non-road use.
Organizations filed lawsuits to address the potential misfueling concerns, and there are still efforts under way in the courts and in Congress by engine makers and product manufacturers to stop the introduction of mid-level ethanol fuels. But as of this writing, a single warning sticker on the pump will alert customers that the fuel is not suitable for use in certain engines.
More Alcohol Damages Engines
E15 has raised many red flags since the initial waiver was granted on July 25, 2011. “This fuel is universally opposed by our entire industry because of the problems it causes,” says Brad Murphy, Subaru Industrial Power Products.
While a 5% increase in alcohol content may seem pretty minor to most of us, the reality is it significantly changes the properties of the fuel. Keep in mind this is actually a 50% increase in alcohol from the current E10 fuel.
“Research has shown that using E15 can have harmful and costly consequences on small engines and outdoor power equipment,” says Murphy. “Most engines would have great difficulty in meeting both emissions and performance expectations with this type of alcohol range.”
The effects of E15 can’t be categorized as isolated. “In fact, DOE testing showed that seven out of the 11 engines tested behaved ‘poorly’ or ‘erratically’ with the fuel,” says Murphy. “The EPA acknowledges these results, despite the fact that its overall position is increasing ethanol content in gasoline is desirable.”
Briggs & Stratton Corp. has conducted its own extensive testing on levels of ethanol above 10%. “Increasing the levels of ethanol in gasoline results in increased levels of alcohol,” says Laura Timm, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Briggs & Stratton. “Alcohol has inherent properties that cause issues with our engines and they become more acute with increasing alcohol content. Increasing the alcohol in fuel changes the air-fuel ratio (enleanment) in our carbureted engines.”
This makes it very difficult for the engines to meet both emissions and performance expectations. “Enleanment will also result in higher operating temperatures that will lower engine life due to issues such as valve sealing, piston scoring and head gasket leaking, just to name a few,” Timm notes.
An interesting dilemma is that you can’t be guaranteed of the exact percentage of gasoline vs. alcohol. “Most gas stations have tanks where the supplier puts the mixed gasoline into the storage tank and the pump pumps it up. Because alcohol separates from gasoline, consumers can get a higher mix of alcohol in their fuel,” Murphy explains. “If you increase to 15%, the effect gets multiplied, so you might end up with double the alcohol that you expected. That’s a problem.