Corn-based ethanol has become the additive of choice for oxygenated fuel in the U.S. While that’s good news for the environment and the nation’s path to energy independence, ethanol can wreak havoc on small engines. Dealers are often at a loss when it comes to explaining to customers why today’s fuel is affecting engine performance.

Ethanol can work as a solvent to free gunk in fuel tanks and engines that can clog carburetors and fuel lines. Ethanol alcohol is also hygroscopic, meaning it attracts and absorbs water. Today’s gasoline can spoil like milk in as little as 30 days.

As part of Rural Lifestyle Dealer’s 2011 Dealer Business Trends & Outlook survey, dealers serving the rural consumer and lawn and landscape market were asked: “Due to controversy and confusion on the effects of increased ethanol blends for small engines, what recommendations are you giving rural lifestyle customers when it comes to refueling and long-term storage?”

A dealer in Wisconsin said, “We have had oxygenated fuels in our area longer than many areas of the country. We recommend that customers try to buy no more than a 30-day supply of gasoline at a time, and no more than 90 days worth of diesel fuel. For off-season storage of gas engines, we recommend running the engines dry and store them with no fuel in the tank.”

Of the dealers who derive 25% or more of their business from rural lifestyle consumers, 56% say they recommend a fuel stabilizer to their customers.

A dealer in Mississippi said, “I give them a bottle of gas treatment with each purchase and a long talk on their responsibility to up keep the equipment and treat the gas year round.”

A dealer in Idaho responded, “Fuel stabilization and additive products will be good sellers this year.”

Dealer recommendations to customers

A dealer in New York tells customers to: "use high-test fuel and good stabilizer year round. We recommend adding a drop or two of Marvel Mystery Oil and run unit as dry as possible for long term storage. Then change the oil, take the battery out, and and fully charge it. We also tell them to only use less than 10% ethanol fuels."

Another dealer in Missouri said, "I still ask that they steer clear of ethanol blends if at all possible. Use fuel stabilizer for long term storage or leave the fuel system dry or empty when ever possible. These steps tend to reduce fouled ignitions and failed fuel system components."

In New York, a dealer tells customers to "use clean containers, replace rusted or dirty containers, store fuel containers 6 to 8 inches off the floor inside unheated garage. Before refilling container check for water and debris. Use 89 octane fuel for 2-cycle engines and major brand mixing oil (Echo, Husqvarna, Stihl). And don't purchase large quantities of fuel to store for several months."

For storing gas-powered equipment, the same dealer has this check-list: "1. Start unit. 2. Remove old fuel from tank and discard properly — small amounts can be added to units used all seasons or to large gallon containers. 3. Restart unit and allow to run at low to medium engine speed. 4. Replace fuel filter for next season."

New fuel products

In addition to fuel stabilizers such as Gold Eagle’s Sta-bil, a few products have been introduced to help prevent or combat the effects of ethanol in gasoline.

VP Racing Fuel offers SEF Small Engine Fuels, available as 4-cycle fuel, and premixed 2-cycle fuel, both 50:1 and 40:1, in packaging ranging from quarts to drums. The product contains no ethanol, while additives keep it stable for extended periods.

When equipment is stored for a lengthy period, ethanol absorbs moisture and separates from the gasoline, yielding insufficient lubrication for the engine, while degrading rubber and plastic components in the fuel system.

The result is hard starts and sometimes engine replacement, says Steve Burns, president and CEO of VP Racing Fuel. He predicts the problem will only get worse as the EPA continues to increase the amount of ethanol allowed in street gas.

A specialist in developing fuel for motorsport applications, VP started looking at small-engine fuel after it was approached by fire and rescue units that were experiencing problems with chain saws and other emergency equipment.

Another product on the market comes from B3C Fuel Solutions LLC, which manufactures Ethanol Shield to protect fuel systems from harmful effects of ethanol-blended fuel as well as clean varnish and carbon deposits from the system.

Ethanol Shield envelops water molecules as they are introduced into the fuel system, preventing them from bonding with ethanol. The water is then carried through the fuel system to be vaporized in the combustion chamber. The manufacturer also says Ethanol Shield creates a bond between ethanol-blended fuel (E-10) and 2-cycle oil. RLD