Ethanol boat of nightmares
By VICKY SINAGRA
ST. ALBANS — Maurice Lamothe knows engines. Since 1974, he has operated Lamothe’s Repair Shop on Lower Newton Road in St. Albans, and while he’s seen many changes in the past three decades, nothing has been as alarming as recently introduced gasoline additives, which he says are causing problems in the engines and fuel systems of his customer’s cars and boats.
“Three months ago when we opened up the boats from winter, they had bad gas, dirty gas,” he said. Lamothe has also seen the same problem in luxury cars, adding that one BMW owner went through three fuel pumps and gas filters, spending $700 to fix problems Lamothe attributes to gas.
“A BMW will not handle dirty gas,” he said. Lamothe said he believes the problem may have something to do with ethanol.
According to The Boat Owner’s Association of The United States, many states have mandated the replacement of the gasoline additive MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) with ethanol.
This changeover was part of the 2005 Energy Bill, which also eliminated the requirement for oxygenated gas, the main reason MTBE, a suspected carcinogen and groundwater pollutant, was added in the first place.
The bill also required ethanol, made from Midwestern corn, to be gradually added to the nation’s supply of gasoline.
A blend of gasoline with ethanol added, called E-10, contains 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline and is being sold locally.
So what exactly is ethanol? According to the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), ethanol is ethyl alcohol, essentially 200-proof grain alcohol used as a motor fuel. An ethanol plant produces pure fuel-grade ethanol, and then that ethanol is blended in a percentage with gasoline to create a finished motor fuel. A small amount of gasoline is blended into the ethanol at the plant to denature it, or make it unfit for human consumption.
According to The West Advisor, a publication of West Marine, the largest boating-supply retail chain in United States, ethanol acts as a detergent, loosening rust, debris and “other gunk” inside a boat gas tank and fuel lines. This “crud” clogs fuel filters, restricting fuel flow and leading to stalling and hard starting.
The West Advisor’s “Ethanol and Your Boat” states that ethanol is hygroscopic; it absorbs water, and will mix more easily with water than with gasoline. It states that ethanol has a six-week shelf life, and the octane begins to decrease after that time period.
A recent Associated Press inquiry into the situation found that although automobile manufacturers have accepted E10 since the late 1980s, enthanol-related problems have been reported in older cars and trucks. “Auto manufacturers warn that ethanol can corrode fuel lines and damage hoses and seals in cars not made to carry ethanol,” wrote AP writer Glenn Adams.
Lamothe said this shelf-life would probably not be a concern for a car once the gas is pumped in because most people use up a tank of gas within that time frame, but this deterioration is a bigger headache for those who pump ethanol added gasoline into boats and classic cars, especially in Vermont, where boats and classic cars are put up for the winter.
The American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), states on its Web site, www.ethanol.org, that up to a 10 percent blend of ethanol is covered under warranty by every auto manufacturer that sells vehicles in the U.S. for every make and every model of vehicle.
According to ACE, warranty statements of the boat manufacturers from all the major brands, from Bombardier to Yamaha cover use of 10 percent ethanol blends in their inboard or outboard motors.
Lamothe is advising customers to make sure not to leave any gas in a boat as they store it for the winter, but explained, “I do 100 some-odd boats, they (boat owners) will have tears in their eyes to drain out gas at $5 a gallon,” he said.
A recent Associated Press survey of similar problems nationwide showed that the problem is sporadic. However at least one lawsuit has been filed. That was in California where a boat owner claims $35,000 in damage to his Mediterranean sport fisher and alleges several gasoline producers and distrbutors failed to give adequate warning of harm ethanol can cause.
Lamothe, too, believes the public should have been notified about potential problems with ethanol being added to gasoline.
“There is a lot of research to be done, why are we having problems out here?” said Lamothe, noting that ethanol has been used “out West and it worked for them until they changed the formula.”
Lamothe called the ethanol problems a “nightmare” and said he has a few theories as to why locals are having engine problems since ethanol has been added to the gasoline.
“I don’t think they (the underground fuel tanks) were clean to begin with. There was a lack of communication. It has to be clean with no water, “ he said.
He stated that some “mom and pop” gas stations do not turn-over a high enough volume of ethanol added gas before separation problems occur.
“The gas in the tank gets old,” he theorized.
Lamothe has concerns about fuel labeled 10 percent ethanol containing upwards of 30 percent ethanol. “You don’t know what you are buying,” he said.
He said he has a container in his shop of the ethanol added gas and said the separation is visible.
Lamothe said he works on 70 percent of the St. Albans State Police barrack vehicles, and has not seen a problem with those engines, something he attributes to the large amount of gas the cruisers go through, as they are constantly on the road.
According to ACE, in 2006, ethanol was blended into 46 percent of America’s gasoline, most in the form of the E-10 blend. Ethanol-blended fuel is available from nearly Coast to Coast. In 2006, the U.S. produced and consumed about 5 billion gallons of ethanol.
Several states now require the use of ethanol-blended fuel. Minnesota was the first state to do so, enacting a 10 percent ethanol mandate in 1997.
Montana and Hawaii followed suit in 2005, passing requirements for E-10 fuel use; Hawaii’s law went into effect in April 2006, and Montana’s will go into effect 12 months after the state has 40 million gallons of annual ethanol production capacity.
For more tips about dealing with ethanol-related problems, visit www.westmarine.com.