At Home in the Adirondacks 2011

Gumming Up the Works

The truth about ethanol and what it does to small engines

In 2005 Congress decided that gasoline sold at roadside pumps should be blended with ethanol, a biofuel that in the United States is usually made from corn. The decision has had indirect consequences: Ethanol is renewable and burns cleaner than fossil fuels, but it also takes a lot of energy to produce. Competition for corn has caused food prices to rise around the world, and grasslands and rain forests are being cleared as far away as the Amazon basin to make more space to grow crops. A study published in the journal Science concluded that food-based ethanol creates a net increase in greenhouse gases, the opposite of what was intended.

In the Adirondacks, E10, a 10-percent ethanol blend, has had consequences of another sort. Arriving at the pump about two years ago, it literally brought things to a halt: chain saws, boat motors, snowmobiles, snowblowers, ATVs, tractors, power mowers, weed whackers, ice augers, generators. All are getting gunked up or just failing to start because of the new gas. Ethanol reminds us—at frustrating and inconvenient moments—how much North Country life depends on small engines.

“It’s almost a daily ritual for me now, cleaning carburetors,” says David Whitty, who owns a small-engine sales and service shop just outside of Schroon Lake. An alcohol, ethanol absorbs moisture from the air. The 10-percent blend doesn’t cause much damage to large fuel-injection engines, like those in cars. But as small motors sit idle between uses, the water gradually separates from the gas. “You can’t burn it. It will settle right in the bottom of the carburetor or right in the bottom of the tanks and all of the sudden they just won’t run,” says Skip Emmons, owner of Ampersand Garden Boat Shop, in Saranac Lake.

The alcohol also eats tubing, float needles and other rubber parts, clogging the little spaces inside carburetors. “We’re seeing more carburetor problems. In the beginning of the season they need to be cleaned, they need to be taken apart and rebuilt, where in years past carburetors would go 10 years and you really had to do little to them as long as you maintained them,” says Nick La­mando, general manager of Hall’s Boat Corporation, on Lake George. Lamando has also no­ticed that plastic gas tanks are not lasting as long as they once did; ethanol tends to make plastic brittle.
So, what’s a boater or landscaper to do? Some coping strategies:

Buy gas at the marina: most boat liveries sell a marine-grade gas treated with an additive that reduces the risk of eth­anol side-effects.

Add gas treatments: water-absorbing, corrosion-resisting prod­ucts, such as Star Tron Enzyme Fuel Treatment and Sta-Bil Fuel Stabilizer, for two- and four-cycle engines, are widely available at yard-, auto- and boat-supply stores.

Switch materials: Skip Emmons re­places rubber tubing with clear blue urethane hose. He says the alcohol doesn’t degrade it, and he likes the advantage of being able to see gas in the line.

Buy ethanol-free gas: Stihl’s MotoMix is a high-oc­tane oil-and-fuel blend for small engines. It’s pricey but saves on re­pairs in the long run. (Some tool owners recommend aviation fuel; it’s ethanol-free and cheaper.)

Drain the gas: recommended if your chain saw or other small engine has been sitting for up to two months.

Repairs or alternatives—all the fixes are inconvenient and expensive. “It’s a head­ache for everybody, really,” says Whitty. “I think they should just go back to regular gas.” But the federal government is heading in the opposite direction. Midwestern lawmakers are guarding ethanol subsidies, arguing that they will lead the country away from dependence on foreign oil. And the Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps toward ap­proving a gasoline mixture with up to 15 percent ethanol. “That’s just going to cause more trouble,” Whitty says.

The small-motor owner ultimately pays the price, says Nick Lamando. “It’s unfair to the consumer. If somebody ran the figures on it, the cost has got to be in the millions of dollars.”

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