An outboard motor that won't start during an offshore fishing trip could end in tragedy. Thousands of dollars worth of a small business owner's lawn equipment could be sent to the junk pile. More drivers of older vehicles might wind up stalled in the middle of busy roads.
Worst-case scenarios, perhaps, but possible outcomes say opponents of a federal decision to approve an increase in the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline.
E-15 Fuel — gasoline containing a 15 percent blend of ethanol in it — is on its way to gas stations if an October 2010 ruling by the Environmental Protection Agency withstands several legal challenges.
Florida business owners, fuel suppliers, boaters and marine interests are keeping tabs on E-15's likely arrival, estimated to occur as soon as September, according to one national pro-ethanol trade organization.
Small business owners like Dan Graff and Dave Artigas already are seeing the damaging effects of ethanol in gasoline even though it is just the E-10 formulation containing 10 percent ethanol.In Stuart, Graff's team of service technicians at Crump's Lawn Equipment Center work on maintenance and repairs for a wide variety of lawn care equipment ranging from mowers to string trimmers to edgers and more. In Vero Beach, Artigas' staff at Boats 'N Motors tends to all major manufacturers of outboard motors for boats.
Service technicians for both businesses work daily with machinery that has been damaged by E-10 fuel.
Since the late 1970s, gasoline containing a small percentage of ethanol has been available to consumers. In the past few years, the government has attempted to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, which has meant a shift toward alternative fuels.
However, the regular use of E-10 gasoline has resulted in increased maintenance and repair frequency, increased repair costs and decreased performance.
"We've measured decreases in power and fuel mileage and increases in fuel consumption since E-10 became about the only gas you can get on the street," said Artigas, who has owned Boat 'N Motors since it opened in 1983. "Because of lost power, we've had to install new (propellers) on a few boats in the minimum power range."
Graff is even more concerned because the simple act of "misfueling" — mistakenly using E-15 fuel in a lawn mower or chain saw — could completely ruin the machine's engine.
"All the information we're being sent from manufacturers like Briggs and Stratton, Kawasaki, Honda and Echo, say their equipment simply won't run on E-15 fuel," Graff said.
The EPA's decision, labeled a partial waiver, only approves the use of E-15 fuel in 2007 model year or newer cars and light trucks. No other engines are approved for use by E-15, including outboard motors on boats, small 2-cycle and 4-cycle engines like those used in lawn equipment, off-road vehicles like ATV's, motorcycles and older model year vehicles.
Trade groups that represent engine manufacturers and fuel retailers have filed legal challenges. They argue marketing circumstances could result in retailers choosing not to carry E-10 fuel anymore and instead offering only E-15. They also warn there might be a misfueling rate as high as 15 percent.
Groups that support ethanol production maintain that an increase in ethanol production and use will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support local economies where ethanol plants are constructed, provide demand for farmers' crops such as corn, which most ethanol is made from, and reduce the nation's dependence upon foreign oil.
After reviewing all sides of arguments for and against the decision, the EPA is expected to make its final ruling early next year. The only thing protecting a consumer will be a small warning label affixed to the side of the pump.
Earlier this month, the White House signed off on the label design and language. As a result, and despite the challenges, the pro-ethanol trade group Growth Energy has announced E-15 fuel could be sold at the corner gas station by summer's end.
Graff said lawn maintenance business owners and homeowners who care for their own lawns have seen their repair needs double in recent years thanks to E-10 fuel.
Part of the problem with ethanol-blended gasoline, Graff said, is it only has a shelf life of about 30-45 days. Ethanol also absorbs moisture, even through a gas tank. What's left in the tank are a layer of water topped by a layer of ethanol with the gas floating on top.
"It causes the fuel to go stale," Graff said. "It's even worse when equipment or gas tanks are stored in a hot equipment trailer, storage shed or even one's garage that can get up to 125 degrees in the day and cool down to 80 degrees at night."
Coming out of this season's cool, dry winter Graff said an estimated 90 percent of his business was addressing fuel system issues on equipment.
Mike Gearhardt, operations manager for Port Consolidated in Fort Pierce, a fuel distributor that delivers to dozens of area gas stations and marinas, said he has received no