I like the occasional nip of a fine barrel-aged Kentucky bourbon. I take it neat because I enjoy its aroma as much or perhaps even more than its taste. I’m fine with just a little of the spirit as I don’t enjoy the aftereffects.

What’s not so bad for me personally (just a tad of alcohol) is also not so bad for our “experienced” small-engine equipment, either. But obviously, more than a little is bad for me (in fact bad for anybody), and it’s also harmful for the many small gasoline-powered units that we rely upon to provide our landscape and snow management services.

These older small engines that we rely upon cannot withstand the effects of too much alcohol in the fuel. Over time the alcohol will cause their plastics and rubber components, such as hoses, to crack and fail. And yes, we’re talking about ethanol (ethyl alcohol), the same stuff that, if abused, will give you a terrific headache the following morning.

Even so, the government seems intent on ramming ethanol into our motor fuels and down our throats regardless of whether it’s beneficial for the majority of us or not. (By the way, ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline. For example, flex-fuel vehicles operating on 85 percent ethanol, (E85), experience a 25 to 30 percent drop in miles per gallon.)

In 2007, Congress enacted the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which directed refiners to significantly increase the amount of ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply. That action seemed reasonable at the time given rising gasoline prices and people driving more. That hasn’t happened. No matter. It appears that motor fuel blended with ethanol, including fuels containing E85, is here to stay.

STIHL President Fred Whyte was one of several industry leaders warning equipment users about the risk of using high-ethanol fuels.
Photo by Ron Hall.

When Congress passes a law to benefit one group of constituents, in this case bio-fuel refiners and the corn growers that provide feed stock for ethanol production, the law invariably harms another group of constituents. Political considerations trump sound economic policy. Imagine that.

As originally conceived, the RFS called for the country to blend 36 billion gallons of ethanol into motor fuel by 2022. Thankfully, that process might be slowed, at least in the short term. The U.S. EPA is calling for reductions in ethanol production from 2014’s originally mandated 18.15 billion gallons to a new target of 15 billion gallons. That’s welcome news and a small step in the right direction.

Nevertheless, the high levels of ethanol at our nation’s gas pumps constitute a real and present danger to tens of millions of our small gas-powered units.

Manufacturers tell us that our outdoor power equipment will work fine with gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol (E10). However, we’ll probably be seeing more gas containing higher blends of ethanol for sale, such as E15 or E85. These blends may even be cheaper at the pump than the gasoline that we’re used to buying.

Don’t risk putting E15 (or higher) fuel into your older equipment. These fuels are not meant for and can damage small engines such as mowers, garden tractors, chain saws, snow throwers, trimmers, generators, power washers, blowers and more.

Pay attention to what you are pumping into your gear when you pull up to a gas pump. Using any fuel that contains more than 10 percent ethanol is harmful and illegal to use in outdoor power equipment.

To that point, a small group of the leaders of Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) kicked off the recent GIE+ EXPO with the launch of “Look Before You Pump,” an ambitious national ethanol education and consumer protection campaign.

Three OPEI leaders – Kris Kiser, president and CEO of OPEI; Todd Teske, president and CEO of Briggs & Stratton Corporation; and Fred Whyte, president of STIHL, Inc. – all strongly cautioned equipment dealers and small-engine end users to pay attention to the fuel that they are putting into their equipment’s gas tanks.

Pay attention to what they say. They know small engines and are committed to making sure you are satisfied for their performance.

Ron Hall
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