YAKIMA, Wash. -- It's intended to benefit the environment but can become insidious for the uninformed.
Brent Beaulaurier had seen its effect before he had even really noticed evidence of the cause: the CONTAINS 10 PERCENT ETHANOL sign at a service station.
"I saw that the other day on the gas pump, that little 10 percent ethanol thing, and I thought oh maaan," said Beaulaurier, who operates a small-engine repair shop in Yakima that at this time of year is brimming with lawn mowers being fine-tuned for the summer.
"This was the first time I've noticed that on the pumps. We've noticed it (at the shop) by visually looking and observing the fuel that's coming out of these units."
Beaulaurier already has had to replace dozens of fuel lines in lawn mowers and weed trimmers whose owners left E10—gasoline blended with up to 10 percent ethyl alcohol—in them over the winter.
"It literally softens up everything," he said. "It turns gas lines into Jell-O."
Over the last year, E10 virtually replaced basic, ethanol-free unleaded gasoline in Washington after being slowly phased in across the country following passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The measure called for an increased use of biofuel, which—derived from agricultural crops—is intended to be a more renewable, cleaner fuel while hopefully reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
For many Central Washington residents, though, E10 poses a new dilemma.
Although its effect on automobiles and four-stroke motorcycle engines is usually minimal, E10 can mean pricey repair bills for people who let gasoline sit in small motors that were unused over the winter.
Like older boat motors, for example. It's not unusual in Central Washington, with its dry climate and fresh-water fishing reservoirs, for boat motors to last 30 years or more. But because alcohol is a solvent, E10 can over a single winter peel otherwise harmless residue off the walls of a fuel tank and clog up the works.
"That's the biggest thing I'm seeing now—fuel systems contaminated with the normal residue," said Max Rutger, service manager at Valley Marine in Yakima.
While more modern fuel tanks made of plastic polymers such as polypropylene are rated for alcohol-infused fuel, E10 can render old-style fiberglass tanks useless. And E10 left for any length of time in any two- or four-stroke engine with plastic or rubber parts—like the flexible rim of a weed trimmer's carburetor diaphragm, for example—can ruin them.
"We're starting to see more and more of the fuel starting to gum up the carburetors," said Rich Gamache, service manager at Barnett Implement in Yakima. "In the past, we've seen it once in a while. It's more prevalent this year."
When engine debris loosened by E10 clogs the fuel filter of a boat motor, Rutger said, the engine will continue trying to produce the same power on leaner fuel—essentially working itself to death.
Rutger uses the analogy of a marathon runner breathing through what amounts to the equivalent of a fire hose and then having to try to produce the same result while breathing through an espresso straw.
"Is the motor going to run? It's not," he said.
"It's a silent killer. Most of the time you don't even know the damage is happening until something literally fails."
Ed Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, said even older, pre-polypropylene-era snowmobiles shouldn't be as affected by E10 as boat motors.
"The gas seems to sit in the boats for a longer period of time," Klim said. "The ethanol sitting in that 90-degree temperature, it just causes a different chemical reaction we don't see in snowmobiles. Maybe you would have a problem if you parked your snowmobile out in the Yakima desert when it's 110 degrees."
Users of high-performance snowmobiles, though, should be wary of E10, said Jerry Mathews, operations manager at Starting Line Products in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
"As long as you know what you're getting, you can deal with it," he said. "Where you can't deal with it is where you pull up to a station and think you're getting non-E10 or you don't know what to do when you're getting ethanol.
"Every dealer has had a guy who has bought a sled, put ethanol in it without even realizing what he was doing or not knowing what it would do, and he's burned up his engine."
Many local customers are going out of their way to find non-E10 fuel, but they don't have a lot of options, said Tony Christensen, vice president of Grandview-based R.E. Powell Distributing, one of the region's largest fuel distributors.
"With Exxon and Conoco, we're still able to get the regular unleaded from those two companies. Shell and Chevron have phased it out," Christensen said, noting that only the Conoco stations in Yakima are continuing to order it.
"Conoco has both varieties of fuel available, the ethanol and nonethanol, and the stations were allowed to choose which products they were going to go with. Most of them elected not to make the change.
"There are quite a few customers that don't want the ethanol product."
They may have no choice soon, as more stations go to E10-only fuel. Or, perhaps, Washington will follow Idaho's lead and resist the mandate.
"In Idaho, it went full circle," said Mathews, from Idaho Falls. "All of our stations were going to ethanol, and they all of a sudden started going back. A lot of the stations have gone back to nonethanol."
Brad Sharp, a professional snowmobile hillclimb racer who owns a Conoco station in Moxee, would like to see that trend here.
"With E10, it's like you're spending $1 and losing $1.10," he said. "They won't say that in the advertisements. They won't tell you (that) you might not get the same gas mileage or you may burn out your two-stroke engine, but they'll tell you you're helping the environment."
Not everybody is even convinced of that.
"The alcohol burns cleaner because it's better for the environment, but you're not getting as much mileage," said Valley Marine's Rutger. "But if it takes more gasoline to do the same job, is it really cleaner?
"It's a Catch-22. It really is."
Scott Sandsberry can be reached at 509-577-7689 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What to do with your engine
Here's what you can do to minimize problems with E10 in your two- and four-stroke engines:
* Because ethanol has a shorter shelf life than regular gasoline, use fresh, high-quality gas and replace it often. (Consider buying gas from busy stations, where the fuel turnover is fast and the fuel will likely be fresher.)
* Don't let gas sit in the tank of your lawn mower or similar small engine for longer than 90 days. If you're not going to use it for a long period—over the winter, for example—leave the fuel tank empty.
* Use a fuel stabilizer/conditioner rated for E10. Most name brand manufacturers have their own conditioners; because they're protecting their warranties, the engine manufacturer's products are often the best bet.
* If your marine or power-sport motor sits unused for a long period, add an E10-rated fuel stabilizer and fill the fuel tank completely, thereby minimizing the air space and the potential for moisture the alcohol can then absorb.
* Make sure your boat water-separating fuel filter (E10 tends to absorb water) and check the filter for contaminants and clogging on a regular basis. Replace the filter every 50 to 100 hours of motor use.
* If your boat engine has an old, fiberglass gas tank, replace it. Newer double-lined fiberglass tanks can handle E10.