Ethanol in Fuel - PassageMaker
The horror story of ethanol in fuel is not about to end

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, Sail Magazine.

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.

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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.

Ethanol was also a big agenda item at the American Boating Congress this past year.

Ethanol was also a big agenda item at the American Boating Congress this past year.

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 pre-2001 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. 

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, Sail Magazine.

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