Originally posted at http://www2.highlandstoday.com/content/2008/jun/22/problem-ethanol/
By Gary Pinnell | Highlands Today
Published: June 22, 2008
SEBRING — Imagine, they said back in the 1970s, when an Arab oil embargo sent gasoline prices skyrocketing from 25 to 50 cents per gallon.
Imagine. We could grow our own fuel. We could make alcohol from corn and potatoes and soybeans, and our cars could run on it.
It burns cleaner. It's cheaper. It's renewable. It's made in America.
But it turns out, ethanol isn't the miracle fuel it's cracked up to be.
Ethanol Retains Water
"I just purchased a fuel additive made by Sta-Bil to disperse the water that ethanol causes," says Tom Moeller, a Highlands County man who was boating in Georgia last week.
Why does Moeller's boat have water in the fuel tank?
"Alcohol attracts water," said Bobby Willis of Central Florida Yamaha in Lake Placid. "It creates a water problem in your fuel."
Now there's an irony. Ethanol attracts water, and watercraft like WaveRunners and boat motors are constantly in the water.
Yamaha, says Willis, suggests installing a 10-micron filter. "It costs about $50. You can install it yourself. Just cut your fuel line and put it in the line."
"Ten percent ethanol is tolerable for use by WaveRunners," Willis said. "It can get more drastic, especially if you're using E85."
With the exception of BP, all major brand gas stations in Highlands County sell 10 percent ethanol. Only unbranded stations, like 7 Days, Hendricks Corner, An Foodstore and Mystik, sell gasoline without ethanol.
Ethanol Dissolves Plastic
"Ethanol can dissolve some solid materials," says a June 2006 Yamaha advisory to dealers. That includes varnish and rust on steel and corrosion on aluminum tanks. The result is contaminated fuel.
"In some cases, ethanol has been known to dissolve components of the fuel system itself," said Willis.
"Some fuel tanks and fuel lines are made of plastic, and ethanol is eating away at the plastic," said Jimmi Fredricks, service manager at Freedom Marine in Lake Placid. "It turns into a jelly, and when you get to the bottom of the fuel tank, it starts sucking it in."
Larson Boats, which Fredricks sells, recommends using no ethanol at all.
"Fiberglass is the worst. If you have a fiberglass tank, you need to replace the tank. Get it out of there," Fredricks says. Engineers, who have been dealing with the ethanol problem for two years, are now starting to retrofit fuel systems with plastic that can't be dissolved by alcohol.
According to an April 9 story carried on the Dow Jones newswires, a federal class action lawsuit filed in a Los Angeles has charged ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell and other oil companies with manufacturing and selling ethanol blended gasoline that damages marine fuel tanks, engines and other components.
"The oil companies know this fuel is corrosive, but they're keeping consumers in the dark to pump up their profits," said Brian Kabateck, lead attorney on the case. "The cost to the consumer is thousands of dollars in repairs."
The suit seeks to represent owners of boats with fiberglass tanks who fueled their tanks with ethanol blended gasoline from a California retailer.
Ethanol Dissolves Gum
At the Shell convenience store on Main Street and CR 17 in Avon Park, owner Mohammed Shamim said filters on the pumps must be changed several times a week.
"They're always clogging up," said Shamim.
Ask any painter: alcohol is a good paint stripper. It breaks off old varnish, gums, and resin deposited by years of gasoline sitting around in tanks. Then it turns into sticky goo, plugs filters, sticks up carburetors and fuel injectors, and causes everything from mild drops in performance to complete engine shutdown, says Matthew A. Cohen, writing for teamrsm.com.
"The ethanol found in those states' gasoline supply can cause thousands of dollars in damage to the boats," Cohen says. "Ethanol eventually pulls gums, resins and debris out of the tanks and into the engine."
Ethanol Gets Poor Gas Mileage
Another downside: ethanol is more expensive than gasoline. Since alcohol produces less energy than petroleum gasoline when burned, gas mileage is reduced by 10 to 30 percent, according to Consumer Reports, October 2006.
"To see how E85 ethanol stacks up against gasoline, Consumer Reports put one of its test vehicles, a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe Flexible-Fuel Vehicle, through an array of fuel economy, acceleration, and emissions tests," said a Consumer Reports article. "Overall fuel economy on the Tahoe dropped from an already low 14 mpg overall to 10. In highway driving, gas mileage decreased from 21 to 15 mpg; in city driving, it dropped from 9 mpg to 7."
When Consumer Reports calculated the Tahoe's driving range, it decreased to about 300 miles on a full tank of E85 compared with about 440 miles on gasoline. So, motorists using E85 have to fill up more often.
Joe Rutigliano of Joe's Service Center in Avon Park has seen increased complaints about "check engine" lights. Most involve the car's sensors not being able to measure oxygen correctly, which he says has to do with how rapidly ethanol burns.
The sensor works with a computer that controls the ratio of air to gasoline that's inside the engine. What might be happening, Rutigliano said, is that unburned gasoline is being emitted from the engine because of the sensor malfunction.
"If you start dumping unburned gas, you're talking about damaging the catalytic converter," he said. That's at least a $150 repair job. On some cars, it's $1,100.
This is especially true for cars built in 2003 or earlier, he said.
One customer brought in a Toyota Prius that was averaging 51 mpg. Now it's down to 40 mpg. Rutigliano is convinced it's the ethanol.
But Kelly Payne, who owns a tree care service in Sebring, believes his older car fleet can handle it just fine. He owns a 2005 Sea Pro, a 2006 pickup truck, and operates 1980s and 1990s trucks, all using unleaded gasoline. None had a noticeable drop in fuel efficiency or problems he thought were caused by ethanol.
Good And Bad News
This is from Forbes magazine: "Ethanol, once heralded as the homegrown Nicorette gum of America's oil addiction, is getting a second look from lawmakers ..."
Distilling ethanol is an energy-intensive process that often uses water, electricity generated from coal, another source of greenhouse emissions.
Which leads to an old joke about a farmer who buys land. After the closing, when it's way too late to back out, the seller says to the farmer: "Oh. By the way. You'll need water."
It takes three gallons of water to make one gallon of ethanol, according to domesticfuel.com. That's interesting news in drought-stricken Florida, where manufacturers are popping up to make ethanol.
Here's a true story, repeated in February 2007 by Tampa newspapers: Florida's first ethanol plant, U.S. EnviroFuels LCC, will need 390,000 gallons of fresh water every day to run its ethanol plant at Tampa's port. That's enough for nearly 1,500 homes, which are under once-a-day watering restrictions.
ONLINE: A History Of Ethanol
Is Your Vehicle E85 Compatible?
Check the 8th digit in the Vehicle Identification Number.
Go to www.e85fuel.com/information/vin.php
In Fords with certain engines, for instance, if the eighth digit of the VIN shows a "V" on a Ford Crown Victoria, an F-150 or Ranger pickup truck, a Lincoln Town Car, a Mazda B3000 pickup or a Mercury Grand Marquis, the car can be fueled with 15 percent ethanol.
ETHANOL DOS AND DON'TS
• Replace pre-1985 fiberglass tanks.
• Replace fuel lines, o-rings and gaskets that aren't built for ethanol.
• Inspect hose clamps and metal fittings in the fuel system for corrosion.
• Refill the fuel tank often to reduce airspace in the tank, which reduces water condensation.
• Install a fuel line water separator to eliminate water that collects in the tank.
• Use fuel additives to stop fuel from aging and oxidizing.
• Use de-emulsifying or hydrophobic additives to prevent water from homogenizing with fuel.
Never use a fuel additive that emulsifies water.
Never buy fuel that isn't clear and bright.
Do not use E10 contaminated with water without a combustion-enhancing additive.
Do not leave a near-empty fuel tank sitting for long periods of time.
Source: Matthew Cohen, teamrsm.com