The Fechino Files: Ethanol- What is it all About?

Words: Steven Fechino

Steven Fechino

Ethanol. What do you know about the chemical that has been mixed with the fuel you put into your trucks and small engines? Ethanol, in a pure form, is alcohol: an organic composition typically made from either wood mill waste or corn. Sound like moonshine? Well, it basically is. From the beginning of combustion engines, gasoline, ethanol, distillate, or even clear alcohol could combust with a proper flash to power your engine of the 20’s all the way until the late ’80s. During the early years of automobile production in the United States, gasoline was not always available. Therefore, alternate fuels were investigated and found to be successful replacements for powering domestic and agricultural equipment.  Farmers could obtain plans (an actual still) from the US government to make distillate on their property legally as a way to continue the war and post-war effort to farm and grow agriculture.  

Ethanol by itself, when used for fuel during hard times, is a product that was never in such abundance that it would typically remain in a fuel tank for months on end. Today, the addition of ethanol is a different story when the discussion is about small engines.   

Ethanol is added to gasoline to enhance octane ratings, lower carbon emissions, and keep the gasoline more stable while you operate tools. It allows gasoline to achieve a higher-octane level while allowing the gasoline to burn (and not explode) in the piston chamber.   

How you need to manage your fuel with ethanol on your own jobsite depends on your geographical location and state requirements. Surplus-owned equipment that is stored on our yards are not typically operated on a daily basis. Therefore, they tend to remain placed in a trailer or shop for extended periods of time. This is the problem that we must manage.  As an equipment owner, you have two choices: start them daily or manage the fuel within your tank.  

The fuel in the tank will separate. This is called phase separation, or just phasing. The ethanol in the fuel begins to absorb water and begins separating the gasoline, with the ethanol and water falling to the bottom of the tank. This is an irreversible effect that cannot be fixed with anything other than a tank drop and flush. If the phasing has occurred and remained for a long period of time, a tank replacement may be easier than a tank flush as the added ethanol can create more rapid corrosion, leading to tank cracking and leaks. Carburetor internal parts, such as diaphragms and gaskets, also tend to become brittle at a rapid rate, making them candidates for a rebuild every 2 or 3 months when used intermittently. 

What steps can you take? Well, there is a still legally available non-ethanol gasoline that may be available in the area where you live- if you can get it, buy it! Otherwise, you should use an additive with every tank of gas that you fill into the tank. Yes, every tank. It is also critical that you keep the tanks full (or nearly full) as this will limit the ability for the fuel to absorb water. Run the tools as much as possible. If you can start them once a week, you can start them twice a week. It does not need to be 20 minutes each time, but a start is better than a non-start.  

When repairing small engines, replacement parts may not be entirely compatible with the ethanol that is in the fuel, and it is important to purchase products like fuel line and tank patch that are compatible with ethanol-based fuels for a longer service life when operating the tool.  

There are many additives available for fuel. In addition to using non-ethanol fuels, select products wisely as some of the available products perform different things. It is not one product that does it all anymore. 

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