There’s a lot of controversy and confusion surrounding the production of fuel from crops. For casual consumers, it’s bad enough that fuel has become a political issue, but it’s becoming clear that ethanol-blended gas can cause performance problems in engines, particularly those on outdoor power equipment. The confused and concerned casual consumer may be buying power equipment from you, and he’s going to look to you, his dealer, for advice.

With ethanol blends up to 15% (E15) recently approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the issue’s not going to disappear anytime soon. It’s important to understand what bio-based fuel can do to small engines, and how to prevent those problems. When your customer’s engine doesn’t work, he’s going return to your dealership — even if poor fuel quality is the culprit. And he’s not going to be happy.

Ethanol is used to oxygenate gasoline, which helps reduce carbon monoxide in emissions. Thanks in part to this country’s infrastructure for growing and distributing corn, ethanol produced from that commodity has become the additive of choice.

In an engine, ethanol can work as a solvent to loosen gunk in fuel tanks and other areas, which can clog carburetors and fuel lines. Ethanol alcohol also attracts and absorbs water, causing fuel to spoil much like milk in as little as a month.

As part of Rural Lifestyle Dealer’s 2011 Dealer Business Trends & Outlook survey, published in the Winter 2011 issue, dealers serving the rural consumer were asked what they tell customers when it comes to handling fuels containing ethanol.

The majority of the dealers who responded are giving rural lifestyle customers a clear message. Of these dealers, 56% say they recommend a fuel stabilizer to their customers, with a few even giving a free bottle to get them started.

Proper storage was another common suggestion. Because ethanol-blended fuel can spoil, dealers recommend that customers buy only enough fuel for 30 days.

Other dealers recommend that customers avoid ethanol-blended fuel whenever possible. That’s not always easy to do. In my own region of rural southeastern Wisconsin, there are a few stations with ethanol-free gas, but they’re the exception.

Others dealers who responded to the survey opt to do nothing, hoping to avoid confusion by not addressing the issue — a tactic that’s a risky proposition at best.

The situation with ethanol blends in engines will be exacerbated when E15 gasoline starts hitting the marketplace. Confusion among consumers will likely increase, as well. Hoping to prevent such a catastrophe, groups representing the auto, marine, motorcycle, outdoor power equipment and snowmobile industries filed a petition in mid-March asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure the continued availability of gasoline blends of no greater than 10% ethanol (E10).

Their concern is that much of the equipment available today was not designed or warranted to run on fuel containing more than 10% ethanol, and that fuel retailers who are not prepared to offer both blends at their stations may opt to offer only E15.

“Misfueling is our prime concern, and we foresee that consumers will be forced to fuel with E15 unless EPA requires stations to carry both legacy (E10) and new E15 fuels,” says Kris Kiser, executive vice president for the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI). There will be little to prevent them from misfueling.

Even if it’s a case of “misfueling” at the pump, it’s the dealer who will get the call when an engine won’t start. Customers will have questions about using ethanol in their new equipment. Being able to give recommendations about handling ethanol (including non-ethanol options and additives) will help ensure customer’s machines are ready to work every weekend.