The hor­ror story of ethanol in fuel is not about to end

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Pro­tect­ing your en­gine from ethanol in fuel

One of the first sto­ries I ever edited for pub­li­ca­tion in a boat mag­a­zine, way back in 1986, was about the dan­gers and gen­eral in­con­ve­nience im­posed on recre­ational boaters by the blend­ing of al­co­hol with ga­so­line. As I re­call I ar­ranged to il­lus­trate it with a sen­sa­tional gothic draw­ing of a fuel pump that had a skull and cross­bones on it and a ven­omous snake in place of a fuel hose. It is a sober­ing thought, and a de­press­ing one, that the same story could be run today, more than 30 years later, with very few tex­tual changes and with the same il­lus­tra­tion.

Of all the in­dig­ni­ties that the fed­eral government has in­flicted on recre­ational mariners—in­clud­ing war­rant­less searches without cause, ir­ra­tional toi­let laws, the ban­ning of ef­fec­tive bot­tom paint (while paint on com­mer­cial ves­sels goes un­reg­u­lated!) and the ban­ning of two-stroke mo­tors—I’ve found cop­ing with ethanol in fuel to be by far the most an­noy­ing. Since the 2005 fed­eral Re­new­able Fuel Stan­dard made 10 per­cent ethanol (E10) ga­so­line nearly ubiq­ui­tous in this coun­try, I have fought an un­end­ing bat­tle ser­vic­ing the 5hp out­board mo­tors I use to pro­pel my sail­boat’s dinghy. I have an ever-shrink­ing map in my head of the places I know where I can buy ethanol-free fuel (cer­tain mari­nas, yes, but you can also find it at some race­tracks), and in the past cou­ple of years, out of des­per­a­tion, I’ve started buy­ing ethanol-free syn­thetic fuel at $25 a gal­lon. (Ex­pen­sive, yes, but buy­ing a few gal­lons a year is still cheaper than hav­ing my fuel lines re­placed and my car­bu­re­tor re­built ev­ery year or two.)

Ethanol, of course, is anath­ema to many smaller ga­so­line en­gines. As a sol­vent it at­tacks cer­tain sorts of rub­ber and plas­tic, and it also ab­sorbs wa­ter. Ma­rine en­gines are par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble, pre­cisely be­cause they are idle much of the time. Sailors with smaller boats driven by aux­il­iary out­boards, and sailors like me with out­board-driven ten­ders, can go weeks, some­times months, without run­ning their mo­tors. The wa­ter in ethanol-blended fuel mean­while will sep­a­rate out, caus­ing cor­ro­sion and spawn­ing gunky life-forms. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent mag­a­zine sur­vey, 92 per­cent of those work­ing in the ma­rine industry have seen sig­nif­i­cant en­gine dam­age caused by ethanol. Those who work on out­boards, mean­while, re­port that over 70 per­cent of fuel-re­lated en­gine prob­lems they see in­volve ethanol.

There are fuel ad­di­tives that sup­pos­edly sta­bi­lize ethanol-blended fuel, and I’ve tried a few, but I’ve found they gen­er­ally don’t work for long. For me, us­ing syn­thetic fuel has so far been the best so­lu­tion. It is get­ting eas­ier to find (Tru­fuel and VF are brands com­monly seen in small-en­gine power sup­ply stores and in­creas­ingly in com­mon hard­ware stores), is very sta­ble when stored for long pe­ri­ods, and is higher-oc­tane than most E10 fuel. Even bet­ter, for those lucky enough to still be run­ning two-stroke mo­tors, you can buy it pre-mixed with oil.

BoatUS has been lob­by­ing the government for years on our be­half about the ethanol prob­lem, but to no avail. It seems the big agribusi­nesses grow­ing the corn that is dis­tilled into ethanol are much bet­ter at the lob­by­ing game. In 2012 the fed­eral En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency al­lowed E15 fuel on to the mar­ket, but not dur­ing sum­mer months, as the higher ethanol con­tent helps cre­ate smog when it’s hot out­side. Now Pres­i­dent Trump has asked for a Clean Air Act waiver and has urged that E15 fuel be sold year-round.

You need to be aware of this. It is il­le­gal to use E15 fuel in older pre2001 au­to­mo­biles and in any ma­rine en­gine. In­deed, the war­ranties on many ma­rine en­gines are im­me­di­ately voided as soon as you run E15 fuel through them. But the only thing to pre­vent you from put­ting E15 fuel in a ma­rine fuel tank at your neigh­bor­hood gas sta­tion is a small or­ange warn­ing sticker on the fuel pump. You need to look for those stick­ers and should run from any pump bear­ing one.

Mean­while, if, like me, you burn only a few gal­lons of gas a year to run a dinghy mo­tor, you might want to stop by your hard­ware store to see if they carry syn­thetic fuel. Or here’s an­other idea: maybe it’s time to start think­ing se­ri­ously about get­ting an elec­tric or propane-pow­ered out­board mo­tor for your boat or ten­der. s

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