I’m sure most of you are aware by now that the fuel we get at the gas pumps has ethanol mixed in with it. There are a few reasons why they have switched to mixing with ethanol and we’ll get to that later. The real reason for this article is to hopefully educate some people about the why, what, and how parts of ethanol and ethanol related fuel problems. If you haven’t experienced any problems, you will eventually unless you take the necessary precautions. I have personally fallen victim to some of these problems and I work in an environment where I see this type of problem ALOT! I think that most people are still uneducated about Ethanol in our fuel and can really benefit from some basic knowledge. I’m going to arm you with the basics to protect your investment, whether it be your motorcycle or your lawn mower.
What is Ethanol and why is it in our gasoline?
Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, essentially 200-proof grain alcohol made for use in combustion engines. Most of the ethanol produced in the United States is made from corn. Ethanol is made by taking the corn starch and fermenting it. The fermented starch is then distilled into alcohol and excess water is removed which results in very pure ethyl alcohol (ethanol). The ethanol is mixed with gas and sold in a couple of different forms. The most common is E10 which is 10% ethanol and 90% unleaded gasoline. About 99% of the ethanol mixed fuel in the US is sold as E10 and is commonly referred to as gasohol. There is also a much more ethanol rich blend of fuel called E85. As you might have guessed, E85 is 85% ethanol and 15% unleaded gas. This fuel is less popular and can only be used in vehicles specially made for it. You may have seen a badge on the back of a car or truck as you head down the road that says “Flex Fuel”. Those vehicles can burn E85 safely as they are designed for it.
Before E10 became popular most gas was mixed with MTBE or methyl tertiary butyl ether. This was a gasoline additive which Like ethanol is a fuel oxygenate. That means it adds oxygen to the gasoline to help it burn more cleanly. MTBE is a toxic substance and even small spills of the product have been found to contaminate ground water. The use of MTBE has been banned in more than 25 states and may be nationwide very soon. While many people have come to believe that ethanol is being used because the fuel companies can make more profit, or because the government has some ulterior motive, the biggest reason is simply that MTBE was found to be hazardous to our water supplies. I hate the gas companies as much as the next guy, but we can’t really pin this one on them.
What are the problems with Ethanol and how can it hurt your bike?
Ethanol is evil. Ok that’s a little bold, but it is a real pain the rear end. The problems are related to a couple of major properties of ethanol. The first is that ethanol is an excellent solvent. What this means is that the longer the fuel sits, especially without being used, it will start to eat away at things such as seals, gaskets, fuel lines, and more! What it also means is that if it is introduced to an engine it will loosen carbon deposits and any sludge that exists in the fuel system. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that it’s then going to send all that carbon and sludge into the combustion chamber of your engine, and that IS a bad thing. Another problem with ethanol is that it is hygroscopic, which means it absorbs water. It doesn’t take long for water to collect once the ethanol starts to attract it. The water molecules (H2O) are pulled out of the environment and start sticking together to form what we can actually see as water droplets. The water will enter your engine with the fuel and greatly reduce the flame temperature and create an incomplete burn which will increase carbon build up in the engine, especially on the piston and spark plug. Ethanol fuel blends expire rather quickly as well. I read a source that says it expires in 90 days, but by the time you get the gas out of the pump and into your gas can or motorcycle it’s much closer to 2 weeks till expiration. This is the point where it will really start to collect water, and the fuel itself will go stale causing hard starts, incomplete burns, and other engine problems.
Aside from my experience with motorcycles (and rebuilding a couple of engines) I’ve been in the outdoor power equipment business for 5 years now. I’m here to tell you that 90% of peoples problems with their engine is due to the ethanol in the fuel. The story is the same nearly every time, a customer brings in a piece of equipment either to return it or have it repaired and I ask them if they treat their fuel, to which they reply NO. Sometimes they’ll say, “well I never had to do that before” and that is somewhat true. It really hasn’t been a problem until recent years. After the repair company fixes the unit, they almost always come back saying something to the effect of “did tune up, had bad gas” or “ethanol related issues, performed tune up”. It’s uncanny the number of repairs that could be avoided if people just listened when I told them to treat their fuel.
What can you do to help with Ethanol fuel problems?
The easy answer would be not to use E10, but that is nearly impossible for most of us. You might even think you are getting ethanol free gas because there’s no sticker on the pump stating that it contains ethanol. However, there are still several states that don’t require the pumps to be marked if the fuel contains ethanol. I feel it is better to assume that if you are getting fuel from a gas station, it has ethanol in it. Because of the corrosive properties of a solvent, such as ethyl alcohol (ethanol) your seals, gaskets, and fuel lines are going to take a beating. If your bike is more than 10 years old or has not been rebuilt or restored for the past 10 to 15 years it would be a good idea to go through the following items.
- Replace all gaskets, seals and rubber fuel lines.
- Replace fuel filters and/or screens or at the very least clean them.
- Pull the fuel tank, drain it and clean it out to remove dirt and sludge before the ethanol can loosen it up.
- To combat corrosion you can use a gas tank sealer impervious to ethanol fuel.
The other thing you can do that I HIGHLY recommend is use some sort of ethanol treatment in your fuel. I’ve taken to using something in ALL the fuel I get that goes into my motorcycle, ATV, and outdoor power equipment. If you fill up using gas cans this is really easy, just add the appropriate amount of the treatment to the gas can, fill the gas can and enjoy. Everything you fill up using that gas can will now have treated gas in it. This is especially useful for your outdoor power equipment such as mowers, weed trimmers, chainsaws, etc. I ruined a $200 weed trimmer a couple of years ago because I was not treating my fuel. The ethanol in the fuel ate the diaphragm in the carburetor and gummed up the fuel lines. I cut my losses and bought a new one. Unfortunately those smaller items are cheaper to replace than to repair these days.
How do you treat your fuel?
There are a number of products on the market that you can add to your gas to help stabilize the effects of ethanol. One misconception is that the product Sta-Bil is what you should be adding. This couldn’t be further from the truth. That product was, and is designed to keep fuel from going stale while it is stored. Traditionally you would add this to your fuel if you were going to store it, or when putting your bike or other equipment away for the winter. However, Sta-Bil does make a specific Ethanol Treatment product that is designed for the ethanol related problems we’ve been talking about. I was recently contacted by Sta-Bil and had the opportunity to ask a few questions about the product. One of the first questions I asked was about the active ingredient or ingredients but alas, it is a closely held trade secret. They did however elude to the fact that there is more than one active ingredient. I also asked for a generalized explanation of how Sta-Bil Ethanol Treatment works and I got an informative response from their director of marketing, check it out:
STA-BIL Ethanol Treatment handles this water the right way, limiting the amount of water your engine ingests by allowing the fuel filter to do its job. Untreated ethanol fuel breaks up water into small bits that pass right thought the filter causing corrosion and rough running. 2) Enhanced corrosion control – the increased water in the fuel can combine with ethanol forming acids that attack metal. Our ethanol treatment chemistry prevents this damage. 3) Fuel system cleaner – ethanol is an excellent solvent/cleaner that can wash old deposits off of the fuel system. These deposits need to be liquefied to safely move through the fuel system. So in summary, you should use STA-BIL Ethanol Treatment with every fill up.
There are a number of other brands that offer something similar for ethanol treatment. I’ve taken to using a product called StarTron. It is different in how it deals with the ethanol problem because it uses enzymes to treat the fuel. I could write something here about how it works but I think it’s better said by the company themselves. Here’s a snippet taken from their website -
Star Tron® can help prevent phase separation that occurs from daily condensation. By neutralizing the electrical charges between water molecules in a process called de-ionization, Star Tron® prevents the water molecules from forming huge clusters large enough to form drops and settle.Star Tron®’s various enzymes will actually de-emulsify water, which is the correct way to treat contaminated fuel
I’m not saying you have to use StarTron, just that it is my recommendation based on my experience. I think ANY ethanol treatment is better than no ethanol treatment. One more thing I like about the StarTron enzyme treatment is it is not harmful to your engine in anyway. This means you can’t over treat with it! I like this because I’m not a measure and pour kind of guy, I’m more of an EH! that looks good, kinda of guy. Bottom line here is protect your investments with some type of ethanol treatment! It’s cheap insurance really, for around $8 you can treat 50 or so gallons of fuel depending on the product you go with.