Small-en­gine machine mak­ers clash with ethanol in­dus­try over dam­age

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Man­u­fac­tur­ers of lawn mow­ers, snow­blow­ers, chain­saws and other small-en­gine equip­ment con­tinue fu­el­ing a de­bate over the sup­posed dan­gers of ethanol, but the ethanol in­dus­try ar­gues that they are merely look­ing for a scape­goat to mask op­er­a­tor er­ror.

Gaso­line blended with ethanol has be­come com­mon­place for Amer­i­can driv­ers, es­pe­cially since Congress en­acted the 2007 Re­new­able Fuel Stan­dard and be­gan man­dat­ing in­creas­ing amounts of the fuel at gas pumps across the coun­try. Crit­ics ar­gue that while such blends — in­clud­ing the most com­mon, E10, which com­bines 10 per­cent ethanol with reg­u­lar gaso­line — pose no prob­lems for au­to­mo­biles, they can of­ten wreak havoc on small en­gines.

Those prob­lems be­come even worse, they say, with higher ethanol blends such as E15.

“You’re putting al­co­hol into the fuel. They’re dif­fer­ent atoms. They don’t like to stay mar­ried,” said Kris Kiser, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Out­door Power Equip­ment In­sti­tute, the lead­ing trade group for power equip­ment and util­ity ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers. “This is a big deal, and ev­ery­body wants to down­play it. … But we’re

pretty sen­si­tive to it.”

One of the key is­sues, Mr. Kiser and oth­ers ar­gue, is how rarely much of the small-en­gine equip­ment is used. While au­to­mo­biles run through tanks of gas rel­a­tively quickly, lawn­mow­ers and other small ma­chin­ery of­ten con­tain the same gaso­line for weeks or months.

Over time, the ethanol at­tracts mois­ture, sep­a­rates from the fuel, and causes se­ri­ous en­gine prob­lems, steer­ing car own­ers to re­pair shops.

“Some­times a cus­tomer will have an is­sue … and it’s not cov­ered un­der war­ranty be­cause it’s a fuel stor­age is­sue,” said Terry Ditsch, vice pres­i­dent of prod­uct ser­vice at Echo USA, one of the na­tion’s lead­ing small-en­gine prod­ucts man­u­fac­tur­ers.

Like a host of other com­pa­nies, Echo has pro­duced a guide sheet warn­ing cus­tomers to avoid any ethanol blend higher than E10 and urg­ing them to take ex­tra pre­cau­tions when us­ing gaso­line blended with ethanol.

Some com­pa­nies even of­fer spe­cially designed fuel that is en­tirely free of ethanol.

Both sides of the de­bate point to stud­ies that seem to prove their points, though anec­do­tal re­ports of en­gine prob­lems have sky­rock­eted since ethanol has be­come more prom­i­nent, Mr. Kiser and oth­ers say.

Ethanol pro­po­nents say most of the prob­lems in small-en­gine equip­ment can be traced back to simple mistakes by the owner, not any in­her­ent prob­lems with ethanol it­self.

“You can bring it into a me­chanic and he says, ‘Do you use ethanol? There you go, that’s the prob­lem,’ with­out hav­ing ever di­ag­nosed it,” said Donn Lar­son, the CEO of Lar­son Sales in Hud­son, South Dakota, a whole­sale dis­trib­u­tor of out­door power equip­ment.

“You put fuel in there and ethanol gets blamed. It’s easy,” he added. “And peo­ple buy into it in droves. But speak to them, ask them where they got their in­for­ma­tion and why they think ethanol is a prob­lem, and they typ­i­cally can’t an­swer you.”

Mr. Lar­son and other ethanol back­ers con­tend that own­ers ei­ther al­low fuel to sit too long in their equip­ment or use a blend that is in­com­pat­i­ble with their prod­ucts. A 15 per­cent ethanol blend, for ex­am­ple, isn’t suited for some older pieces of equip­ment.

Oth­ers see the Out­door Power Equip­ment In­sti­tute and other crit­ics as un­wit­ting agents of the oil and gas in­dus­try, which long has op­posed fed­eral ethanol man­dates and in­creased use of the fuel. The small-en­gine com­plaints, they say, are just pieces of a broader war against ethanol.

“We’re a threat, and that’s not com­pat­i­ble with the sta­tus quo,” said Doug Ber­ven, vice pres­i­dent of cor­po­rate af­fairs at POET, a South Dakota-based bio­fu­els com­pany. “From an ethanol in­dus­try [per­spec­tive], what we want is to of­fer choice to the con­sumer. We would like to see all dif­fer­ent types of fuel blends at a pump so a con­sumer al­ways has the best value.”

But whether con­sumers fully un­der­stand the choices they are get­ting re­mains an open ques­tion. E15, for ex­am­ple, has been fed­er­ally ap­proved for au­to­mo­biles made in 2001 or later. Us­ing the blend in ve­hi­cles older than that could lead to en­gine prob­lems.

Mr. Ditsch and oth­ers ar­gue that cus­tomers sim­ply may not pay at­ten­tion to the spe­cific type of fuel they are us­ing, es­pe­cially if they are ac­cus­tomed to fill­ing up with the cheap­est choice at the pump.

“The prob­lem is you’ve got this lit­tle sticker no­body pays at­ten­tion to,” he said. “This thing with E15, where it’s avail­able but it’s not re­ally for small en­gines — you’ve got a dis­con­nect be­tween what’s avail­able in the mar­ket­place and the gen­eral public’s un­der­stand­ing of where it can be used.”

One in an oc­ca­sional se­ries


Gary Tay­lor works on a lawn mower at Brodd’s Small En­gine Re­pair in Lin­coln, Ne­braska. Shop owner Tim Brodd prefers fuel with­out ethanol, if it’s avail­able.

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