Burning questions

Features - Strategies

If you’re confused about E15, you aren’t alone. Find out some solutions for what can become a sticky situation.

October 4, 2013
Matt LaWell

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case that might have thwarted the sales of E15 fuel around the country. More often than not, a rejection by those nine familiar justices leads to the end of conversations. But not long after John Roberts and the rest of the court stopped talking about ethanol, just about everybody else started.

Stories about E15 and its effects on engines, already a regular department in trade publications for the better part of a year, started to show up in local newspapers like the Columbus Dispatch and the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News. In late August, after a senator from Minnesota and one from Iowa wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, which found its way to reporters, the conversation spread to the Wall Street Journal.

In that story, which claimed that oil companies had blocked some gas stations from accessing fuel blended with a higher percentage of ethanol, an American Petroleum Institute spokesperson said such allegations were “a distraction from the fact that the (Renewable Fuel Standard) is broken.”

Broken or not, there are more options than whatever might be available at the nearest Marathon or Shell or local independent station. Whether just an additive or a different type of fuel altogether, any option more exclusive than the one pumped in for the public by tanker trucks will be more expensive and might lead to an adaptive engine overhaul, but could be worth the cost in the long term. The short list of your best bets is included below.

Additives. The quickest fix for any engine, additives can clean and protect against past, present or future damage. Most major manufacturers recommend additives, or supply them outright with new equipment purchases. One of the more popular options on the market designed to counter ethanol and other alcohols is VP Racing Fuels Fix-It Fuel, which cleans the fuel system without the removal of carburetors or injectors. Some of shop managers and mechanics – among them Leo Hernandez, management lead mechanic at Earthworks DFW just outside Dallas – also say they use Seafoam, a Minnesota-based company that produces additives for both gas and diesel engines.


Back at the pump

So, are all these other fuels and additives necessary for your trucks and equipment? They are, for certain, if your engines were manufactured before 2001 if you want to make sure those engines run as long as they should. Your best option might still be to fill up with ethanol-free fuel at the pumps, though that feels like a more difficult challenge with every passing day.

“When you talk in terms of a panacea, obviously, you’ll get different answers from different manufacturers,” says Steve Scheidker, director of marketing for VP Racing Fuels and VP Consumer Products.

“What’s the best solution to this problem? The answers are all over the map, but the best option for anybody is to just go and find ethanol-free street gas. There are pockets out there, but they are few and far between. Probably 95 percent of consumers have no access to it.”

That is the frustration. Of the almost two dozen landscape and fuel industry professionals interviewed for this story, more than three-quarters said they would prefer to fill up with old-fashioned, ethanol-free at the pump. And they can’t.

Propane. A more thorough fix for the potential damages ethanol and E15 can wreak on your engines is to just not use the stuff. That requires a switch, though – usually to propane – that might not provide a full return on investment for two or three (or more) years. Among the industry professionals interviewed for this story, three had recently switched to propane, including Dave Rykbost, who founded Dave’s Landscape Management Co. in Massachusetts before he started middle school and operated on gasoline for decades.

He switched earlier this year in his trucks and a handful of mowers because “you save money on the cost of fuel ... and you have a cleaner-burning fuel, which is supposed to help the life of your engines.” Though his mileage per gallon has dropped about 20 percent, Rykbost says he expects to reach a cost realization by early 2015.

Diesel. Though not as popular a switch as propane, diesel still provides a more efficient burn – most estimates say somewhere around a half-gallon to a gallon per hour less than gasoline – and does have a place at the proverbial table for E15 alternatives.

Keith Mayo, owner of City Wide Recycling in Paducah, Ky., switched to a smaller diesel engine and managed to cut his fuel costs in half without sacrificing much power and efficiency, if any at all. Diesel might not be a perfect fit for larger contractors, but it remains viable, especially with the latest round of news at the pump.

No matter what you use, the best might still be to come. “There are many alternative fuels that are currently being tested,” says Laura Timm, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for Briggs & Stratton and the head of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute’s working group on E15. They just “haven’t been properly certified and introduced into the marketplace.”