Gasoline blended with ethanol can cause damage to small engines, including those in lawnmowers. THINKSTOCK PHOTO

Ethanol blends cause “tremendous” damage to small engines

ELLSWORTH — The announcement last month that President Donald Trump is supporting year-round production of E15 gasoline — motor fuel containing 15 percent ethanol — got the boating community up in arms.

It isn’t just boaters who have to worry. Homeowners, too, may find themselves making frequent, and expensive, trips to the repair shop if they put the blended fuel into their gas-powered lawnmowers, chainsaws, weed whackers or other engine-powered tools.

For the past several years most gasoline available at the pump has contained 10 percent ethanol — E10, although unblended gas is available at a handful of marinas and fuel suppliers.

Boatyards and marine engine dealers warn that gas blended with ethanol can cause motors to stop working, ruin rubber components in the engine’s fuel system and damage engine parts. Marine engine manufacturers warn that damage resulting from the use of E15 gas may not be covered by warranty.

The same risks and warnings apply to many engines used far from the water.

“Probably 75 percent of our service work is fuel-related,” Roger MacDowell, service manager at Ellsworth Chainsaw on the Bar Harbor Road, said last week. “We see a tremendous amount of damage.”

MacDowell explained that ethanol — alcohol distilled primarily from corn in the United States — pulls moisture out of the air which condenses in fuel systems and “damages components” in the engine.

The issue isn’t too serious in automobiles with large fuel tanks, but in a lawnmower with a small engine and a tank that holds perhaps a pint or two of gasoline, MacDowell said, “even one teaspoon is not good.”

E10 gas has been on the market since 2005 and its impact on the small engines MacDowell sees every day has been significant. The gas softens rubber components in the engine, some of which may dissolve and gum up the system. Fuel lines may soften and swell up like balloons.

“We used to sell one or two carburetors a month,” MacDowell said. “Now, we sell six a day.”

As bad as the problem is with E10 gas, using E15 is likely to make it worse.

“Some of our manufacturers say nothing will run on E15,” MacDowell said.

On its website, Husqvarna, a Swedish manufacturer of a wide range of professional and homeowner outdoor power tools, says, in boldface type, that none of its products are designed to run on fuel containing more than 10 percent alcohol, adding that  E15 gas “will cause major engine failure” that is not covered by warranty.

Stihl, another manufacturer of outdoor power tools, says it only authorizes the use of fuel containing up to a 10 percent blend of ethanol. “The use of any higher will cause catastrophic damage to the engine.”

Toro, another large manufacturer of outdoor power equipment says that using E15 gas “may lead to engine damage” that “may not be covered by the engine manufacturer’s or Toro’s warranty.”

Gasoline blended with alcohol has a bigger impact on smaller engines, but motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles aren’t immune to fuel issues.

Jordan Cyr, who works in the service department of the Ellsworth motorsports dealer Friend & Friend, said recently that many problems begin when owners put their motorcycles or ATVs in storage for the winter and don’t put some kind of fuel stabilizer in the gas tank.

E10 “eats up rubber fuel lines,” he said. “The carbs (carburetors) get gummed up when they’re sitting.” Newer machines that have fuel-injected engines have “no problems,” though.

With the impact that blended gas can have on a small engine, it’s worth looking for a source of gasoline that is free of ethanol.

MacDowell said Ellsworth Chainsaw sells cans of the pure stuff to customers and that it buys ethanol-free gasoline at Coastal Energy, located in the Ellsworth Industrial Park, which has a pump for the product.

Two stations on Deer Isle also sell ethanol-free gas — Heanssler Oil Co. in Deer Isle village and Millpond Service on Route 15 at the intersection with the Sunshine Road.

It may well be worth the travel time to fill up a container or two with “E0.”

Thanks to E10, MacDowell said, “I have a lot of customers I’ll see next year, and the year after, and the year after.”

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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