Home Improvement

Owners of outdoor power gear suffer ethanol defeat

Owners of outdoor power equipment—mowers, blowers and such—were handed another defeat this past week when an appeals court rejected a suit by a number of industry stakeholders to limit the amount of ethanol in gasoline and require stricter labeling. Ethanol can damage the small engines in outdoor power equipment.

Ethanol, made from corn, has been combined with gasoline for years in a mixture of roughly 10 percent, called E10. The larger engines in cars can tolerate this ratio. But in smaller engines, it can corrode metal parts, stiffen plastic and rubber in seals and tubing, and make starting harder. Ethanol is an alcohol that can draw water into the engine and compounds any potential for trouble.

The Environmental Protection Agency has approved gasoline with 15 percent ethanol for use in cars year 2001 or newer. But while the agency prohibits its use in mowers and other power equipment, the EPA’s warning label on so-called blender pumps (carrying mixtures of 15 percent ethanol, E15, or higher), is easy to miss amid all the advertising and other labeling on the pump.

At press time, 78 stations in 20 states offered E15 or higher mixtures in addition to conventional E10 gasoline. Another issue, according to Kris Kiser, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, is that a mixture with more ethanol may seem like a better buy. “Gas tends to get cheaper as the ethanol content goes up, which is the problem for us and our customers,” he says. “People are used to buying the cheap gas for their lawns.”

What’s more, the number of stations is increasing rapidly since a number of corn-growing states, often with private groups such as corn-farmer associations, are subsidizing blender-pump upgrades that allow for blends from E15 to E85, a level only flex-fuel autos can handle.

The coalition of trade groups involved in the latest lawsuit against the EPA, filed in U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, hoped to reverse the EPA’s ruling that permitted ethanol mixtures higher than E10 in the first place—or at least make the EPA improve the tiny, 3 5/8- x 3 1/8-inch pump label. But in its ruling, the court said that the plaintiffs “cannot show members have suffered or are suffering with an injury that is traceable to the misfueling regulations.”

The plaintiffs, in other words, would have needed to clear a high hurdle, for example, provide video evidence that someone gassed up a car and, with the same nozzle, filled a can with E15 gas, fueled an outdoor-gear engine, and then was injured. This may only be a matter of time, since engines run hotter with more ethanol. Here's how to get the right gas for your gear:

  • If you live near a marina, which typically sells ethanol-free gas for boats, consider spending more for the few gallons you use a year—if not for a lawn tractor (which could get costly), then for anything smaller.
  • You can also buy ethanol-free gasoline for $5 to $8 a quart from home centers, Sears, and numerous dealers.
  • Canned, ethanol-free fuel already contains stabilizer. But for everything else, mix in a stabilizer to help your gas last longer. Sta-Bil is one that comes in a form specifically formulated to counter the effects of ethanol in gas.
  • If you're storing your gear for an extended period, such as a snow blower over the summer, siphon out the excess gas (you can put it into your car) and run the engine dry. Be sure to clear out the carburetor bowl once the engine has cooled.
  • When at the pump, make sure that the gas you’re pumping is appropriate for what you’re fueling.

If you need to replace any outdoor equipment that’s run its course, see our Ratings of snow blowers, generators, leaf blowers, and other products.

—Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

Copyright © 2005-2014 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.