Fishermen beware: ethanol fuel is deadly for outboard motors
Bob McNally 06.25.13
Be forewarned, because it’s coming to a gasoline service station near you, and it will have an enormous impact on your boating recreation, fishing, and most assuredly your wallet.
Just when you believe government regulations can’t get any more bizarre, intrusive, or anti-business, along comes the EPA opening the way for E15 gasoline.
Last fall EPA approved for national sale gasoline containing up to 15 percent ethanol, which up until now had been limited to 10 percent ethanol, or E-10. E15 has 50 percent more alcohol than E10, and E10 has been devastating throughout the outboard marine industry since it hit the market place, making the outlook for E15 very ominous indeed.
On almost every level ethanol-added gasoline has been devastating for marine use. Ethanol is a solvent, according to outboard engine mechanics, and it dissolves seals, gaskets, hoses and even fiberglass boat fuel tanks. It scours gunk from fuel tank walls and it all ends up clogging fuel lines, carburetors and fuel injectors, which results in poor engine performance, stalling, loss of power, and eventually big bucks spent at a repair shop.
Although all major manufacturers of outboard motors reports their engines run just fine on E10 fuel (E15 support is doubtful, and, in fact, may void warrantees), spokespersons for those same companies know that in the real world of fishing and boating, ethanol-added fuel has been a disaster.
Here’s why ethanol contributes to boat fuel system problems, according to a marine retail bulletin:
- Ethanol is hygroscopic, meaning it has a strong attraction to moisture.
- Ethanol increases the amount of water accumulating in fuel tanks.
- Ethanol produces less energy (BTUs) than an equivalent unit of gasoline.
- Ethanol fuel’s usable life span may be less than the normal length of off-season boat storage.
One of the biggest reasons why ethanol fuel and boats don’t go together is that ethanol has the unhappy ability to attract water. And as almost everyone knows, water in gas engines is a serious problem. To help stem that flow into your outboard, be sure to have a high-quality (25-micron minimum) marine fuel-water separator (filter) installed in the gas line, and check it and replace it often. This filter prevents not only water from getting to the engine, but also debris that may result from ethanol degrading a boat fuel tank and gas lines.
“When checking a boat fuel-water separator, pour the gas out of it into a clear container and see if there is water and/or debris in it,” says Danny Patrick, a marine dealer and boating authority in Jacksonville, Florida. “If the fuel you pour out of the separator is milky or cloudy, you’ve got a problem. Completely draining gas from a tank may be necessary. Sometimes an entire fuel line system must be changed. Fiberglass tanks are a real problem with ethanol, and should be replaced with metal tanks.
“Outboard fuel injectors commonly foul, and must be replaced if contaminated with water or debris from ethanol fuel.
“Once you have an ethanol-fuel problem in a motor or boat, it can be very difficult solving it for good. It’s very common during the warm-weather fishing season to spend many weeks getting a boat and motor back to running to peak efficiency once ethanol problems have occurred.”
Regular changing of a fuel separator is recommended by Patrick and by many outboard companies. Installing a new separator for every 50 hours of running time is a good idea; more often if you have on-going problems.
Another recommended procedure to thwart the wrath of ethanol-laced fuel is to regularly use a commercial fuel additive designed specifically for ethanol. Many outboard companies produce such additives. Mercury offers “Marine Dri-fuel” and “Marine Fuel System Treatment and Stabilizer.” Star Brite’s “StarTron Enzyme Fuel Treatment,” and Sta-Bil’s “Ethanol Treatment” also are among industry leaders.
Experts recommend keeping boat fuel tanks completely full of gas at all times. This reduces the air gap at the top of a tank, so there is less chance for water condensation to form and contaminate fuel. Full tanks are especially important during hot weather, particularly in the South.
Because ethanol fuel degrades rapidly, it’s not a good idea to leave it in a motor tank for long duration, which in the real outboard world is common even during the height of the fishing and boating season. For winter storage, draining a fuel tank is worthwhile.
More than just a maritime menace
Recently ethanol fuel has been getting bad press, at least on the internet, for destroying small engines of the type used for lawn and garden maintenance. So ethanol is taking an even bigger toll than on just outboard motors.
The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research states, “Contrary to popular belief, ethanol fuel will do little or nothing to increase our energy security or stabilize fuel prices. Instead, it will increase greenhouse gas emissions, local air pollutant emissions, fresh water scarcity, water pollution, land and ecosystem consumption and food prices.”
Government agencies pressing ethanol use have recognized the problem the fuel has in outboards and RVs (not cars, so far), so in some places regular old gasoline without ethanol is available. Some marinas sell it, and while it’s about $1 more per gallon, it’s cost effective to use in order to avoid ethanol-fuel headaches. But non-ethanol fuel can be difficult to locate, especially if you have a trailered boat with a built-in fuel tank, since most standard service stations do not offer non-ethanol fuel — only marinas typically offer it, and usually only at the waterfront.
Even environmentalists are having grave doubts about ethanol fuel, which is touted in some political and environmental circles as a “conservation” procedure. Yet producing a gallon of ethanol from corn requires about 35 gallons of water during refining. Gasoline requires only 1.25 gallons of water.
Agri-businesses, ethanol refiners, and their political allies tout the value of this “bio-fuel” for America’s “green” and environmental well-being. However, hundreds of thousands of acres of land throughout America that had been in the “Conservation Reserve Program” (CRP) are now being put under the plow for growing corn, since farmers can make more from ethanol production than leaving land idle in CRP. Land planted in CRP wild grassland habitats for years have been a boom to wild game like pheasants, quail, rabbits, as well as song birds, deer, and a host of other species. But that is changing fast, and this greatly reduced prime wildlife habitat has caused severe declines in game, non-game, and bird populations in many regions.
And in case you haven’t noticed, chicken, pork and beef prices have jumped significantly in recent times. People in the know say that’s so because surplus corn for chicken, hog and cattle feed isn’t as cheap as it once was, since there’s no excess due to ethanol production.
Although E15 is aimed primarily at newer automobiles, and fuel containing the additive will be clearly marked at service stations (says the EPA), confusion about the new product is sure to arise, according to many marine industry insiders.
Engine manufacturer Mercury Marine says it’s inevitable that higher ethanol blends mistakenly will find their way into older cars and boats. “We join other industry groups in the belief that the level of testing performed to support the EPA decision was inadequate and that the processes designed to prevent the unintended use of this [E15] fuel blend in non-highway applications or older vehicles are inadequate,” Mercury says.
“Fuel containing higher proportions of ethanol is not compatible with many fuel system and engine components and, if mistakenly used, will cause irreversible damage … that will lead to engine failure and potential safety risks,” the company adds.