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 word yet as to whether his company has any plans to distribute the new blend anytime soon.
"They're going to have to make adjustments slowly because cars and trucks built before 2005 really don't run well even on E-10 fuel," he said. "I have a 2005 Chevy pickup truck and I've had to replace all the fuel injectors thanks to ethanol in the fuel."
Owners of boats on trailers that fill up at roadside stations need to avoid mistakenly filling up with E-15 when it comes to market.
Roje Gonzalez of Fort Pierce said he has stayed vigilant with fuel line maintenance for his 24-foot center console, but is uncertain how a mistake with E-15 fuel could effect his outboard motor.
"I was fishing offshore when the first time I ran into an ethanol-related engine problem," he said. "My fuel line wasn't maintaining its pressure, and I discovered my filter was clogged. At St. Lucie Outboard, they showed me what the problem was and what to look for."
Gonzalez said the EPA decision is going to require more education on the part of boaters like himself. Because of the problems with E-10, wholesale fuel distributors provide nearly all marinas on the Treasure Coast with ethanol-free gasoline sometimes called Rec 90 for 90 Octane.
Graff said he tells his customers to avoid ethanol-related issues by buying fuel at marinas, if they can.
Butch Bayley, owner of Sailfish Marina in Stuart, said he has a surprising number of gas buyers who carry their cans to the end of his fuel dock for the ethanol-free gas, even though it costs more than E-10 available streetside.
Gearhardt said he doesn't think boaters have anything to worry about.
"The outboard motor manufacturers like Yamaha, Mercury and Evinrude are too powerful to allow for the ethanol-free gas to become discontinued by distributors," he said.
Gonzalez has another alternative that might work.
"It might be time to get myself a diesel-powered boat," he said.
FORMS OF ETHANOL
Ethanol-blended gasoline has many forms:
E-10: This commonly available blend of 90-percent gasoline and 10-percent ethanol represents 75 percent of all the fuel sold in the U.S. Approved for use in any make or model vehicle sold in the U.S.
E-85: This 15-percent gasoline and 85-percent ethanol is usable by more than 8.5 million Flex Fuel Vehicles in the U.S., but pump availability is scarce. FFVs can operate on any gasoline up to 85-percent ethanol.
E-15: This 85 percent gas, 15 percent ethanol fuel could be on the market in the U.S. as soon as September.
Other blends: Pro-ethanol organizations are working on technical and regulatory hurdles to receive clearance for E20, E30 and even E40.
Source: American Coalition for Ethanol
Lessen U.S. dependence upon foreign sources of oil
Higher demand and price for crops used to make ethanol like corn, helping farmers
Construction of ethanol plants creates temporary and permanent jobs
Present U.S. ethanol production capacity of 13 billion gallons could displace one-third of oil dependency
Reduced performance and mileage
Absorbs moisture adding water to gas tank
Solvent properties "clean" films left behind by petroleum fuels, allowing for impurities to clog fuel system
Dissolves some linings and components of some fuel systems found in small motors
An estimated 400 million engines in the U.S. have reduced performance