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February 7, 2011-A costly step forward?

February 8, 2011
Filed under Features

In late January, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broadened its approval for ethanol blends of 15 percent in gasoline, giving the nod to use the fuel in cars and light trucks manufactured as early as 2001.
Previously, an October ruling had approved the fuel for use in cars and light trucks manufactured since 2007.
The latest decision will make E15 fuel even more readily available across the country, a move that has the PWC and boating industries nervous.
Bad Blend
Though the EPA has continued to exclude marine engines, as they did in the fall ruling, the broader availability of higher ethanol blends, and the concern over whether those blends will be clearly labeled, continues to draw the ire of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA).
“NMMA is very disappointed that EPA has decided to move forward with E15 without mechanisms in place to protect consumers from confusion at the gas pump, as well as the product failures that could be a likely result of misfueling with E15,” noted NMMA President Thom Dammrich in a statement released almost immediately following the announcement.
Since the beginning, the NMMA has voiced its concern over the inclusion of ethanol in fuels. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, has been far from a corn-based savior in the boating industry, industry officials assert. Instead, it has been blamed for wreaking havoc on fuel systems.
Much of the problems stem from the fact that ethanol is a solvent. That allows it to loosen various residue that may have sat at the bottom of fuel tanks and pass it through the system, where it has been blamed for clogging fuel filters or “gumming up” carburetors. Various maintenance problems ensue, from something as simple as frequent stalling to more costly cases, like carburetor rebuilds.
Opponents argue ethanol is also simply a bad match in a damp, moist marine environment. It can easily absorb water, a trait that can lead to water contamination of the fuel supply. Compounding the problem is that PWC and boats are typically not run as frequently as a car, meaning that fuel supply isn’t turned over as often. Older model craft also have been prone to failure of plastic and rubber components, including fuel hoses, as ethanol can dry out the material and make it more brittle.
As water is soluble in ethanol, it’s also able to blend with the fuel in a consumer’s tank. That means water can then make its way into the engine. The fuel also may be lower in octane, resulting in not only performance problems, but also long-term damage.
Mixing older fuel supplies containing MTBE with ethanol fuels also will produce a gel that will clog carburetors.
Labeling A Concern
Why the concern, particularly if the fuel will be clearly labeled? Mistakes happen. Consumers, already watching their budgets, also will be tempted to purchase the cheapest fuel. While the EPA says it is developing requirements to guarantee E15 is properly labeled at the pump, there remains concern how effective that labeling will be.
“The risk of misfueling is uniquely high in the recreational marine sector for a variety of reasons,” explained the NMMA. “For example, the overwhelming majority of recreational boats are towable and refueled at regular automotive gas stations — 95 percent of recreational boats are less than 26 feet in length. Boaters typically avoid fueling at marinas or on-water fuel docks because the premium paid for fueling at a marina can run between 75 cents and $1.50.”
The NMMA also has rejected current labeling standards, stating they don’t conform to ANSI standards, don’t identify the specific nature of the hazard, don’t indicate clear or sufficient preventative action by the operator, aren’t strongly enough worded, and suggest that using E15 fuel “might” damage vehicles and engines, when it appears clear that E15 will damage marine engines in particular.
Even more problematic? Opponents also note existing cases where fuel companies have been accused of accidentally, or even knowingly, mixing higher concentrations of ethanol into the fuel supply. In one publicized test, the Virginia State Agriculture Department investigated gas stations and found a wide range of ethanol in samples, one with as much as 50 percent ethanol.
Recommendations
While the easiest recommendations may be to buy from busy filling stations that have the freshest fuel, and turning over your own supplies every two-to-four weeks, the reality is that PWC dealers may want to start recommending their customers buy fuel stabilizers.
Numerous boating organizations, including BoatU.S., are recommending the use of non-alcohol fuel conditioners and stabilizers as the only real solution to combat the problem.
PWC manufacturers also do not recommend the use of ethanol-blended fuels in their engines. Yamaha currently produces Yamalube Fuel Stabilizer & Conditioner, which is recommended to be mixed into every tank of fuel.
Another inconvenience … and another cost? Absolutely. The NMMA says it will continue legal action. PSB

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