Accidental high ethanol blends cause complaints

By Erin Voegele | September 15, 2009
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services received more than 500 consumer complaints regarding fuel containing high levels of ethanol between June 8 and July 7. The complaints focused on fuel sold at retail locations in the Tidewater area of the state, which includes the cities and counties along Virginia's coastal region. As of mid-August, inspectors from VDACS' Office of Product and Industry Standards had investigated each complaint.

While the vast majority of fuel sampled by OPIS investigators was found to be in compliance, five Stop Sale orders were issued. The affected pumps were sealed out of service and labeled with a prominent tag designed to prevent customers from inadvertently purchasing the contaminated fuel. In each of these five cases, the retailers quickly brought their fuel into compliance, and upon subsequent testing by OPIS, the Stop Sale orders were lifted. In fewer than 10 separate instances, inspectors found that retailers who took delivery of suspect fuel had voluntarily closed their pumps and replaced the suspect fuel with fresh gasoline.

According to Elain Lidholm, VDACS director of communications, the ethanol level of the fuel found at the investigated locations varied from 16 percent to 50 percent ethanol. Since the investigators' field test kits can only measure up to 50 percent ethanol, it's possible that some of the fuel blends contained even higher percentages of ethanol.

Early indications were that the contamination originated at the wholesale level and by mid-August, the department had confirmed that the source of the contamination had been traced to a single entity. VDACS is working with the state's Attorney General's Office to determine if civil penalties will be incurred. "Early indications are that it was an honest mistake," Lidholm said. "There doesn't seem to be any indication of intentional contamination."

Testing fuel blends at the loading rack before they are delivered for retail sale is one way this kind of blending error can be avoided. Wilks Enterprise Inc. provides one such testing product, known as the InfraCal Blend Analyzer.

The InfraCal Blend Analyzer is designed to be easy to use for non-technical personnel. "They have no moving parts, can be operated from a battery pack, and are designed to be portable, rugged and unaffected by environmental changes," said Wilks Enterprise President Sandra Rintoul. "They are simple. You just put a sample on the sample area, press a button and get the result."

The analyzers can be used to test fuel blends that contain between 0 percent and 98 percent ethanol, and are accurate to +/- 0.2 percent for blends of E0 through E20, and +/- 1 percent for blends ranging from E20 to E98.

According to Rintoul, the analyzers are most often used by terminal operators and those working in regulatory agencies. At terminals, the analyzers are typically located in the field. "They load the trucks and take a sample from the truck, and test it right there at the loading rack," she said. "We also have several weights and measures people using them to test at pumps."