Ethanol, engine woes linked

Duane Leach, owner of All Seasons Equipment in Glenville, said every year around this time, lawn mow
Mechanic Marcus Makuch works on a lawnmower at All Seasons Equipment in Glenville on Wednesday.
Mechanic Marcus Makuch works on a lawnmower at All Seasons Equipment in Glenville on Wednesday.

Duane Leach, owner of All Seasons Equipment in Glenville, said every year around this time, lawn mowers and other devices with small engines begin showing up at his repair shop because they overheat when fueled by gasoline blended with alcohol.

“For years we’ve always had problems with people who use winter gas in the spring of the year during hotter weather,” Leach said.

Gasoline blended for sale during the winter has contained more oxygenates than summer blend gas since 1992, when the federal government mandated oxygen-rich chemicals like MTBE or corn-based ethanol be added to mitigate greater carbon monoxide emissions from car engines made colder by winter weather. Oxygenated gas burns cleaner and it burns hotter than the blend which used to be sold in the summer.

Now some repair shops for small motor equipment and boats are predicting a greater incidence of equipment breakdown this season because virtually all gasoline sold in the Capital Region this spring and summer will contain 9.5 percent corn-based ethanol, the alcohol fuel blend known as E10, which burns hotter than the old winter blend gasoline.

“It’s obviously going to happen because ethanol makes [equipment] run hotter. It’s leaner fuel and it will make the little air-cooled engines [heat up more],” Leach said. “A lot of the older engines that were made for higher compression will definitely be affected.”

The Global Companies LLC terminal at the Port of Albany, which operates that terminal for Exxon Mobil, is the last local gasoline distributor still selling straight gasoline — although many Mobil retail gas stations have already switched to selling E10 purchased from other distributors.

By May 1, the Exxon Mobil terminal is expected to convert to selling gasoline blended with ethanol, said Global Companies Executive Vice President Ed Faneuil.

“The Albany facility will be 10 percent ethanol blend on all gasoline products,” Faneuil said.

After Global Companies completes its switch, Capital Region consumers will have no local options beyond E10.

Mike DellaRocco, owner of Mike’s Outdoor Power Equipment & Small Engine Repair in Albany, said newer small engine equipment is generally designed to “run hotter” than older engines, but that may not always matter.

He said consumers sometimes use devices like lawn tractors at less than full speed, hoping to keep them from overheating, but forgetting that the machine’s engine is cooled by air flow.

“The faster that fly wheel turns the more air is blowing over the hottest part of the engine, which is where the piston goes up and down. It blows the heat off of that,” he said.

He said it remains to be seen what running E10 in small engines will do, but he’s not optimistic.

“What will happen is the ethanol will [increase the heat of the engine and] take the alcohol out of the rubber parts and they will crack,” DellaRocco said. “Heat is the worst enemy of your engine … and if people aren’t going to be changing their oil, yeah, there’s probably going to be a lot of problems down the road.”

David Pimentel, a professor of environmental policy at Cornell University, said he’s been studying biofuels like ethanol for more than 20 years. He said small engines not designed to burn ethanol may experience problems.

“It rusts them out and some of the plastic pieces are dissolved away, if they’ve got plastic, and some of those are used in the carburetor and so forth. It’s a disaster,” Pimentel said.

Pimentel also said ethanol poses dangers to boats. Joseph Michalek, president of Cranberry Cove Marina in Mayfield, said some of his customers have expressed concern about running E10 in their boats.

“The engines aren’t made to run it. When it says right on top of the motor ‘do not run alcohol,’ you’re not supposed to run alcohol and that’s what [ethanol] is,” Michalek said. “There are quite a few boats that have [that warning]. Anything that’s 20 years old has probably got that.”

Steve Hart, service manager at Yankee Boating Center in Colonie, said last year he started seeing more and more boats come into his shop with damage caused by E10.

“It damages fuel lines, fuel pumps, issues like that. It can also damage fiberglass [fuel] tanks, but not too many boats around here have those. They’re mostly toward the coast,” Hart said. “I think [boat owners] are getting more aware of this. Especially when they get a major repair bill because of it.”

Hart said boat owners should be adding fuel stabilizers to the E10 they use and should consider a fuel separator for their fuel lines.

Leach said lawn mower owners should consider using premium gasoline because it burns cooler.

“They should migrate to [premium gasoline]. The best gas they can buy,” he said. “In today’s market … if you’re paying [almost $4 for E10 regular gasoline per] gallon now, you might as well use [premium] because you get better gas mileage and it runs cooler. Premium is a bargain now.”

Faneuil said even premium gas sold out of the Global Companies terminal will contain 10 percent ethanol by May 1.

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