Last fall, Todd Teske was driving through northern Wisconsin to take his son to a basketball game. As he passed a gas station, he glanced over to see how much unleaded was selling for. Call it professional interest and a diversion on a long country drive. But Teske noticed something.
Along with its various unleaded varieties, the station was advertising E15 gasoline – a newly approved fuel that contains (depending on who you ask and where you are) up to 15 percent ethanol.
That wouldn’t have been a problem or all that shocking to most people. But Todd Teske happens to be the CEO of Briggs and Stratton, which happens to be the world’s largest maker of small engines. He’s also the chairman of OPEI.
And E15 is very bad news for Todd Teske, the OPEI board and anyone else who makes a living with a lawn mower, string trimmer or leaf blower.
“I thought, ‘I can’t believe it’s here already. We really need to get our act together on this,’” Teske says. “That was two years ago. That was me, then, bringing it back to the board with more urgency than we were feeling.”
That urgency comes from research that shows high-ethanol blends of gasoline can damage or destroy small engines not designed to handle it. E15 and misfueling will lead to equipment failure, which means upset customers for dealers and lost revenue for contractors.
To help combat that misfueling, OPEI has launched the Look Before You Pump campaign, an initiative designed to educate first dealers and landscape contractors, and later homeowners and other users of small engine equipment, about the changing nature of their fuel supply. It’s a first for OPEI – which hasn’t before undertaken this type of massive consumer education effort – but is in keeping with the organization’s recent efforts to become a more proactive advocate for the green industry.
“It’s incumbent on us as an industry to start something. We don’t know that E15 will become a genuine marketplace fuel … (but) the board felt it was incumbent on us to start a dialogue,” says Kris Kiser, OPEI’s president and CEO .
The main part of the dialogue focuses on changing the prevailing attitude that the same fuel a landscaper puts in his pickup can also go in the mowers and blowers on his trailer. “That paradigm is shifting and it’s a big one. It’s 150 million households. It’s a big, big deal,” Kiser says.
PROGRAM DETAILS. The campaign, which will be officially unveiled at GIE+EXPO, aims to educate dealers, contractors and consumers about the fuel they’re using in their outdoor power equipment.
Through equipment hangtags, point-of-purchase materials, packaging and an open catalogue of digital media, the program warns equipment operators that use of fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol is both illegal and unsafe.
Laura Timm, a spokeswoman at Briggs and Stratton, led an OPEI committee that crafted the campaign’s messages. Other manufacturers in the fuels education task group were Ariens, Echo, Honda, John Deere, Kohler, MTD, Stihl and Toro.
“We met several times and honestly, it was more a shock and awe campaign,” Timm says. “We got excited about it, but we talked with other members and decided that the last thing we want to do is scare people. We want to inform people.”
WHY IT’S NECESSARY. According to a Harris Poll commissioned by OPEI, almost three-quarters of Americans are not sure if it’s legal to put high-ethanol blends of gasoline in outdoor equipment. (It’s not.)
Sixty-four percent say they assume any gas sold is safe for cars and equipment. Seven out of 10 said they buy the cheapest gas they can every time.
“They are looking at price at the pump, not ethanol content,” Kiser says. “We are realistic that we can’t reach 300 million consumers. However, we have a vested interest in protecting our customers from what we envision will be a high likelihood for misfueling.”
FUTURE FUELS. By design, the campaign does not take direct issue with E15, which might not even be legal in a year. Ultimately, EPA could revoke the Renewable Fuel Standard targets for ethanol in the mainstream fuel supply, or Congress could make the RFS part of debt ceiling negotiations.
But those are big unknowns, Kiser says, which means the program has to remain broad.
“Is this a huge mid-ethanol problem right now? Do we know where this is going to go? No. But we did not want to play catch up,” Kiser says. “Our board wanted to be proactive. It’s not designed to be anti-ethanol, it’s not designed to vilify. It’s designed to educate.”
CONCLUSION. What OPEI is unveiling this week in Louisville is the first phase of the program. Ultimately, Kiser says, the campaign would be rolled out by associations representing other equipment like boats and snowmobiles, then through OPEI members to big box retailers.
But what form it takes in those platforms is still to be determined.
“We’re trying to create a campaign that can go in these ways,” Kiser says.
For his part as an engine producer and head of OPEI, Teske says the industry has to do something to educate people running equipment.
“I’ve had people say to me this could be the biggest replacement cycle known to man,” Teske says. “But when people buy a piece of equipment … they’re expecting a value. We have to advocate on behalf of the user, whether it be a commercial cutter or somebody cutting their lawn on a Saturday morning at their house.”
The author is editor and associate publisher at Lawn & Landscape.
Where to find more information:
For manufacturers, dealers and landscape contractors: The LookBeforeYouPump web portal has resources to educate themselves and their customers. It’s at tinyurl.com/EthanolEducation.
For consumers, the main avenue for more information will be OPEI’s LookBeforeYouPump.com Web site where they will find background information, key messages and resources for printing, viewing and sharing.
The campaign at a glance
The program will provide, through a web portal, a series of resources for OPEI members, dealers and contractors, including:
- The Look Before You Pump Campaign hand, which can be used on labels, packaging, fact sheets, in brochures and ads
- Fact sheets for dealers and for consumers
- TV and radio public service announcements/video that can be placed on websites or used in-store
- Hangtags for products
- A Look Before You Pump website for dealers, contractors and consumers