The clerk at Lowe’s was understandably skeptical. Here I was again, just like yesterday, returning a leaf-blower that would no longer start. Two blowers in two days had to be some kind of record, I thought, and her reaction was understandable. “You’ve got some luck with these things,” she reasoned. “Maybe you should switch to a different brand.”
But I knew better. It wasn’t Black and Decker’s fault. It was ethanol’s.
For some time now, I’ve researched and learned all I could about the U.S.' No. 1 fuel additive, committed to discovering the real truth behind the hype. Environmentalists, farmers and marine industry veterans all seem to have opposing views on ethanol, and, with friends in each group, I’m particularly interested.
Recent news places the issue back in the limelight: the amount of ethanol in the U.S. fuel supply is slated to increase in 2018. Boat owners are understandably concerned. If you’re not, consider this: a recent interview with bass boat mega-dealer Toho Marine finds that the majority of outboard problems they diagnose can now be attributed to fuel-related issues. And that’s on big, modern rigs, folks.
Initially, I assumed that ethanol was being forced down our throats for the well-publicized environmental reasons we all heard about a decade ago, yet now I hear it hurts more than it helps. In addition, with gas prices seemingly stable, why do we need ethanol? What, exactly, is going on here, and what should boaters know?
For starters, let’s start with a quick, condensed history lesson. I don’t pretend to be an environmental scientist here, so bear with me.
Originally, ethanol (a form of alcohol derived primarily from corn) was worked into the U.S. fuel supply as a way to cut down on the amount of fossil fuels we were using and clean up emissions. In the early 2000s, the country's need for gasoline was increasing at a very rapid pace and, coupled with pressing environmental concerns, “growing our own fuel” seemed like a logical solution. Some years later, a mandate was put in place that required a certain amount of ethanol be used each year.
But problems began to pop up. First off, in order to meet the massive demand, millions of acres of land across the U.S. quickly became corn fields, some of which was once very important for other uses (an estimated 10 million acres of land in the Conservation Reserve Program were converted). With so much agriculture comes mounting environmental concerns, most notably nutrient loading from fertilizer, leading to algae blooms, wildlife reduction and other problems.
In addition, it’s now been proven that the process of producing ethanol requires about as much fossil fuel consumption as what we get back from ethanol in the first place. Yet, mandates require a certain amount of ethanol be placed in our fuel, regardless of demand. So, as we move into an era of slowing fuel consumption thanks to things like more efficient automobiles and alternative fuel sources, the ratio of ethanol in gas is set to increase.
For years, the marine industry has done all it could to put a foot down and demand the move toward increased ethanol be halted. Problem is, nobody’s listening.
Now, if I pretended to understand all the back-room deals and secret handshakes between big agriculture, the oil industry and the government, I’d be a fool. Let’s face it, oftentimes as consumers we know very little about the decisions being made for all of our “benefit." But in any case, the EPA is holding on to ethanol with both hands, despite the argument that it does nothing to help the environment (I forget what EPA stands for …).
Anyway, what this means to boaters is that ethanol blends, oftentimes in excess of 10 percent (the level most outboard manufacturers label as a maximum safe blend) will become commonplace at the gas pumps. In many locales, they already are, as E-15 pops up in more cities across the country.
Now the major problem with ethanol-blended fuels, whether they be used in boats or my leaf-blowers, is ethanol’s affinity for water, creating a sludgy compound that separates itself from gasoline – a process called phase separation.
So, to avoid ethanol pitfalls in your boat and small engines, take these steps:
> If at all possible, fill up with ethanol-free fuel. Once quite uncommon, it’s becoming easier to find. For example, all the pumps at the new Wawa station down the street from me now have a no-ethanol option. Look for it, especially at marinas, and look for it to expand. You’ll pay more now, but it’s worth it in the long run.
> If you must use fuel containing ethanol, never use a blend higher than 10 percent. Be sure to check – the percentage is posted on every gas pump.
> Don’t trust fuel additives or stabilizers to fight off ethanol problems. To summarize, most do little to combat phase separation, and it’s been proven that no additive can reverse phase separation once it occurs. The only solution then is to completely drain the fuel tank.
> Finally, use your gas. I know it sounds like I’m trying to make excuses to go fishing, but fresh fuel will give far less problems than fuel that sits around collecting moisture. Believe it or not, the more you fill up, the better your chances of beating ethanol.
For now, the marine industry continues its fight against big brothers Ag and Oil. Good luck to them; they’ll need it. We can all lend a helping hand by becoming educated on the matter and voicing our concerns wherever possible.
Ethanol’s not the answer, nor was it ever.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)