Marine engines, fuel systems and ethanol (alcohol) do not mix. A boat owner found the cylinders and valves in his engine were damaged by a mysterious black goo. He had the engines replaced and the same problem occurred a short time after. The culprit was the boats fiberglass fuel tanks, which were being dissolved by ethanol. In another case, a Virginia fuel distributor sold a blend of gasoline with more than 35% ethanol to a marina in Hopewell, VA. The higher levels of ethanol dissolved the in-ground tank’s polyvinyl liner. This resulted in several of the marina’s gas customers having expensive fuel system and engine problems. There has also been a large number of boats which have lost power while under way, leaving them stranded without power and in harm’s way. These are just a few of many problems related to ethanol in the marine environment. While preparing for a court case involving ethanol greater than 20% that caused major damage, I contacted eight marine repair shops between Gloucester and Chesapeake, VA. They stated that between 75% and 85% of their work in the past two months had been fuel related due to ethanol.
Why is this happening?
These are only a few of the problems related to ethanol in marine use fuel. There are more. Why don’t we have these problems with our cars? We use our cars usually on a daily basis. In comparison our cars have a closed fuel system while boats have an open system with a tank vent close to the boats water line. The boat’s fuel tank, if in the engine room, is exposed to high heat. Changing temperatures in a high humidity environment causes condensation. If the fuel tank is in the bilge, it is also in an environment that promotes condensation. What will help? Test your fuel for ethanol percentage. You can purchase an ethanol test kit for less than $10.00. Always keep your fuel tank as full as possible. If you are not going to use the boat for more than 30 days, top off the tank and use a fuel additive stabilizer. Run the engine for at least 15 minutes after adding the additive to ensure the entire system is treated. Use a 10 micron fuel filter and water separator and always carry extra filters.
Check your fuel lines each time you go boating. If they are soft, feel gummy or have cracks in the outer surface replace them before using the boat or you could end up with a bilge full of fuel. The damage to rubber fuel lines starts with the intemal liner dissolving. This dissolved rubber will cause engine damage.
Why do other areas of the country not have the same problems with higher than 10% ethanol in their fuel? I believe it is the humidity. Have you ever been to Nevada, New Mexico or Arizona? The ambient temperature might be 110°, but its a dry heat with very, very low humidity, and not many boats.
What we know about ethanol is it is not solving the problems it was intended to. It costs more to produce. It has not reduced carbon emission as promised. The production of ethanol causes more pollution than it helps in cleaning or protectors the environment and we get less gas mileage with ethanol in our fuel.
Now that we have almost figured out how to cope with E-10 for marine use, the lobbyists are in D. C. trying to increase E-10 to E-15 or higher. It’s hard to believe our government would mandate that we use a product that is causing these problems. Ethanol and the marine environment just don’t mix well. There has not been any scientific testing conducted to determine what effect E-15 will have when placed in the marine environment. What we do know is marine engine manufacturers have tooled for the use of E-10 and state so in their warranty agreement. Does this mean if we go to E-15 or higher and have engine problems the warranty on that new $20,000 outboard or inboard engine will be void? It could. Will the gàvernment pick up the bill? Most likely not. Mercury marine is working with the Department of Energy on a proposed contractual basis that would test outboards for 300 continuous hours at full power and 150 hours on stern drive engines to determine the effect of E-15. The EPA has until December 1, 2009 to deny or grant the funding. Other marine engine manufacturers are requesting similar tests and more scientific research, however congress could still approve E-15 without proper testing as they did with E-10.
Who is pushing for more ethanol and why? I have heard people say it’s the EPA. The truth is the EPA has become a very small player in this big theater. The congressional leaders in the big corn growing states are pushing for more ethanol production. It is good for their economy. The Growth Energy Group, a lobbyist group representing the National Ethanol Producers, seem to have plenty of money for their lobbying efforts. This could be because the federal government subsidizes ethanol producers 51 cents per gallon of fuel ethanol. The National Corn Growers Association, who also get federal farm subsidies are also big players in the lobbying efforts to produce more ethanol. Yes America, they are using our tax money to lobby for more of our tax money to produce a product that will cost us more money.
The next culprit would be this thing called “The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” signed by President George W. Bush. This act requires refiners to mix more and more ethanol into the fuel they sell. In six years 15 billion gallons of ethanol must be used in gasoline and 36 billion gallons by 2022. Because fuel can only be sold with a cap of 10% ethanol, the ethanol industry has conceded not enough gas can be sold to meet the mandate set two years ago by theE I & S Act of 2007. Not meeting this mandate will mean they won’t get their grant money and subsidies (your and my tax dollars). Is this another government bugaboo or what?
Is non-ethanol fuel available? After about 15 minutes of research I was able to find two places advertising non-ethanol fuel. One in the Smithfield area and the other is Sailfish Marina in Stuart, Florida. Refineries refine non-ethanol fuel for uses approved by the federal government. Ethanol is an additive that replaces MBTE (octane). So why can’t we have non-ethanol fuel for marine use? Less than 1% of the fuel manufactured is used by boaters, which means those of us who use it seem to be the only ones who care.
I would encourage all boaters and those in the marine industry to write, call or e-mail their congressmen and senators and askthem to please not approve the increase to E-15. At the same time, ask them to allow non-ethanol fuel for marine use.
The Author: Earl Joyner is a marine surveyor and cert Wed marine investigator. He is the owner of Lighthouse Marine Surveying and Consulting, Inc. with offices in York County and Louisiana. He can be reached at 757-870-1111 or at marinesurveying.com.