Outboard Expert: Ethanol Alert!

How you can help stop the E15 fuel petition...and why you should!

1st May 2009.
By Charles Plueddeman

Marine service managers have an ethanol-induced headache. And it could get a lot worse, if corn ethanol producers prevail in a petition to the federal EPA. We’ve discussed the impact ethanol-blend fuel has had on marine engines, and as the prevalence of ethanol-blend motor fuel has spread across the country, fuel-related problems have become a plague for owners of both outboard and inboard marine engines. Carburetors and fuel filters are clogged with deposits, fuel tanks are contaminated with water, fiberglass fuel tanks are dissolving, and engines are being ruined from running too lean on pure ethanol that “phase separates” out of water-laden fuel.

The outboard motor intake valve on the left has been completely fouled with fiberglass resin dissolved in E10 ethanol-blend fuel. Once the stem could no longer pass through the valve guide, the cylinder lost compression. A normal valve is on the right for comparison.

The outboard motor intake valve on the left has been completely fouled with fiberglass resin dissolved in E10 ethanol-blend fuel. Once the stem could no longer pass through the valve guide, the cylinder lost compression. A normal valve is on the right for comparison.

Federal rules currently limit the ethanol content in motor fuel to 10 percent, so-called E10 fuel. All marine engines manufactured in the past 30 years (and cars, motorcycles, lawn mowers, snowmobiles, ATVs, garden equipment and just about anything that burns gasoline) have been designed to operate on up to 10 percent ethanol, and if you read your owner’s manual you’ll find that using fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol is not recommended and may void the warranty. But last month a biofuels trade organization called Growth Energy and 51 ethanol producers petitioned the EPA to allow ethanol fuel blends of up to 15 percent in the motor fuel supply. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), there are 18 million boats currently in operation in the U.S., and none of them has been designed or certified to run on anything above E10. So this is an obvious problem.

A Shameless Energy Racket

Recall that the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) requires refiners to mix 13 billion gallons of ethanol into the gasoline supply in 2010, and 36 billion gallons by 2022. It’s an ambitious plan and great for the ethanol industry, which is already receiving a generous Federal subsidy for each gallon of ethanol it produces. Except that with the recession, gasoline consumption in the U.S. fell seven percent last year and may fall another two percent this year as drivers cut back on travel, according to the Energy Information Administration. So we are buying less gasoline, which is good for our nation’s energy independence. But at this rate, we’ll never be able to consume all of the ethanol the law mandates. And I should point out that higher corn prices – which may have been caused by the mandate to use more ethanol – have reduced the profitability of ethanol producers. One in my Wisconsin neighborhood is in receivership, like many other ethanol plants across the country. But, if the EPA raises the content cap to 15 percent, producers can sell 50 percent more ethanol.

A remote fuel filter with 10-micron filtration will separate water from fuel and screen out gunk that can clog up your outboard. This compact Yamaha filter is easy to install in smaller boats.

A remote fuel filter with 10-micron filtration will separate water from fuel and screen out gunk that can clog up your outboard. This compact Yamaha filter is easy to install in smaller boats.

The petition action by Growth Energy has outraged not just the marine industry, but dozens of other trade and environmental organizations, from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers to the Sierra Club. Even the usually pro-business Wall Street Journal has lambasted the move, stating in a March 16 editorial that “Ethanol is one of the most shameless energy rackets going, in a field with no shortage of competitors.” Read article

You Have a Voice

The final decision will be up to the EPA and the Obama administration, not Congress. But boaters can have a voice in the process. A 30-day public comment period on this petition opened on April 21 and runs through May 21. [Eds note: The comment deadline was subsequently extended until July 21.] Those comments can be directed to James Caldwell in the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality at caldwell.jim@epa.gov. You can contact Mr. Caldwell directly, or link to this handy template set up by the NMMA http://capwiz.com/nmma/home/, which will direct your comments to the EPA docket. This site also has links to more-detailed information on the petition and the issue in general.

We could debate the politics behind the government-subsidized ethanol industry and this bit of misguided energy policy until the cows come home, but there is no question that a shift to E15 motor fuel would be a disaster.

In the meantime, with a new boating season upon us, here are a few things you can do protect your outboard engine from ethanol-related trouble:

  • If possible, avoid ethanol-blend fuels. In many states, ethanol-blend fuel must be labeled at the pump, but that is not always the case. E10 fuel is mandatory in six states: Minnesota, Missouri, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Florida.
  • Install a 10-micron/water-separating remote fuel filter between your boat fuel tank and the engine. Change the filter every 100 hours, or every 50 hours if ethanol-related problems are common in your area. Carry a spare on board.
  • Use a fuel stabilizer (Sea Foam, StaBil, Yamaha Fuel Stabilizer, etc.) in every tank of fuel. This is especially important if you will not use that fuel within two weeks of purchase.
  • Buy fresh gas by shopping at a fuel station that does a high volume of business.

Please consider sending a comment to the EPA. Your voice could make a difference.


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About the author:

Charles Plueddeman

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Charles Plueddeman is Boats.com's outboard, trailer, and PWC expert. He is a former editor at Boating Magazine and contributor to many national publications since 1986.

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