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What's the real problem?

We got talking about ethanol during a holiday gathering and a longtime family friend, brought up a problem in starting his lawnmower last spring.
By Susanne Retka Schill | December 31, 2012

We got talking about ethanol during a holiday gathering. (Funny, it happens a lot when people ask me what I do.) I said, “oh-oh, here we go,” to myself when George, a longtime family friend, brought up a problem in starting his lawnmower last spring. Someone had finally asked him if he had old gas in it still, which he did. He dumped that out and put in fresh gasoline and it started on one pull. “Now, why’s that?” he asked. “I never used to have that problem.”

Thankfully, the conversation didn’t turn into a trash-ethanol session. Instead, the experienced mechanics and the ethanol writer got to talking. I mentioned that I had been hearing that gasoline refiners have mostly retooled their operations to produce subgrade gasoline, and now rely upon ethanol blending to bring the octane up. In other words, if they’ve got to use ethanol, they make the cheapest gasoline they can by with, and count on the ethanol to bring it up to spec.

One of the mechanics in our conversation reasoned that years ago, if the ethanol in the gasoline evaporated during winter storage, the base gasoline was still adequate to start a lawnmower on the old fuel. Nowadays, with the base gasoline being subgrade, when the ethanol evaporates off, the lawnmower won’t work. The recommendation always has been to drain the old gasoline before long-term storage, and start with fresh gas.

I wonder how many of these “ethanol will ruin your lawnmower” stories come from people not draining their small engine tanks. So, yes, the problem is the fuel, but it isn’t ethanol’s fault, it’s the gasoline.  Fuel techies, ethanol experts, are we on the right track?

An industry fuel expert once pointed out to me that the only such additive with all sorts of restrictions and labeling requirements is ethanol. ASTM carries no other specific limitations on many of the components of gasoline, the exceptions being lead and benzene, which kill people, and sulfur, which is the main culprit in pollution and global warming. ASTM allows ethanol blending up to 10 percent, and includes no label requirement. Many states, however, do, though not all. Thus, if your state doesn’t have a law requiring an ethanol content label, you could be using E10 and never know it.