Be wary of ethanol in small engines


If ethanol wasn’t enough of a headache for boat owners and ATV riders, it’s about to get even worse.

In November, the Environmental Protection Agency approved gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol for use in motor vehicles. Previously, fuel couldn’t contain more than 10 percent ethanol. The increase was a boost to corn growers and the ethanol manufacturing industry, but it was bad news for the marine industry and other recreational markets that use small engines in their products. That’s because fuel containing more than 10 percent ethanol can cause catastrophic failure in small, two-cycle engines.

To be fair, the EPA warns that 15-percent ethanol is not for use in marine engines, motorcycle engines and motorized lawn and garden tools. However, retailers will not be required to label E15 fuel. To be safe, you’ll just have to assume that all ethanol will contain the higher concentration.

Larry Morris, a marine technician at H2O Sports in Sherwood, AR, said that 15-percent ethanol poses two major problems to boat motors. One, ethanol is a less efficient fuel than pure gasoline, so it doesn’t create as much energy per unit. Since 15-percent ethanol is less efficient than 10-percent ethanol, it requires more E15 to create the same amount of energy that you currently get from E85 (10-percent ethanol). Therefore, the fuel-oil-air mixture in E85 will probably be too lean.

The bigger problem is that 10-percent ethanol deteriorates fuel lines. It breaks down their inner lining, which releases solid particles into the fuel and can clog carburetor jets, fuel injectors and fuel pumps. E15 will be even more destructive.

“Then you’ve got problems,” Morris said. “It could be catastrophic problems, like taking out a power head, or leaning out an engine to the point that it melts the pistons, but the main thing we’ve been seeing is problems with rubber components.”

Also, a weakened section of fuel line loses its rigidity and collapses, which starves the engine of fuel. I’ve seen this happen on the water, most recently in October while crappie fishing on Lake Hamilton. In a worst case, a fuel line can break, which will not only disable your engine but also cause a fire hazard.

“We started seeing it about two years ago. It’s out there,” Morris said. “When older boats come in, one of the first things we look at are the fuel lines from the tank to the engine. The percentage [of line failures] is growing every day. I’ve seen engines a year old that start up and run fine, but then you get halfway across the lake, and it dies. It’s already made the liner come loose in the fuel line. After it runs awhile, the line collapses and starves the engine.”

Fortunately, the marine and recreational engine market has been proactive in trying to get ahead of E85 problems, but there’s probably no way to outpace E15 mischief. The best thing boat owners and ATV riders can do is not run their machines on ethanol. That means you’ll have to find a gas station that sells pure gas. We have a number of those in central Arkansas, including five in Little Rock, six in North Little Rock and one in Sherwood. A comprehensive, statewide list is available online at:

You can also buy fuel additives that stabilize ethanol, including Star Tron Enzyme Fuel Treatment and StaBil Marine Formula. I use the StaBil in my 25 horsepower Yamaha outboard and the Star Tron in my ATV. Both perform satisfactorily, and I haven’t seen enough difference to recommend one over the other except price. Star Tron is more expensive.

Also, fuel line manufacturers are making new generations of line with materials that are more resistant to ethanol deterioration.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when fuel makers quit putting lead in their gasoline, the automotive press lamented that older engines, particularly those in vintage muscle cars, wouldn’t run on unleaded gas. They ran just fine, however, and I wonder if these alarms about ethanol are false prophesies.

Morris said no. Ethanol can and does damage small motors, and E15 will probably cost you a lot of money if you use it in your boat or ATV. Since there’s no way of knowing if the gas you buy is E15 or E85, just avoid it altogether and hope the feds don’t outlaw pure gasoline.


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