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Ethanol gasoline takes toll on yard equipment

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Homeowners who use equipment powered by small engines — lawn mowers, leaf blowers, snowblowers and the like — now are paying closer attention to stickers at gasoline pumps that read “10 percent ethanol.”

If they don’t, they soon could be taking their machines to the repair shop.

Experts say storing equipment with a full tank of ethanol-added gas is a recipe for disaster. It will gradually corrode the carburetor, slowing down performance along the way, until the machines no longer start.

There are precautions homeowners can take to slow the damage. Additives that are mixed with gasoline, such as K100 and STA-BIL, hinder corrosion by stabilizing the fuel and removing the water the ethanol creates. Running off leftover gas at the end of every season also can help.

But not many homeowners are heeding that advice.

Small-engine repair shops now are busier than ever, because most consumers have ignored the risk of their negligence until it’s too late, said Randy D. Stevens, small-engine mechanic at Stratton Hardware, 1336 Washington St. The shop charges $30 to $40 to rebuild carburetors and anywhere from $40 to $90 to replace them.

Compared with gasoline, “ethanol absorbs moisture out of the air 200 times faster and breaks down twice as fast,”said Mr. Stevens, who’s seen repairs at the shop skyrocket over the past two years. “We used to rebuild carburetors maybe five times a year, and it’s now about 25 to 30.”

The trend mirrors the widespread use of ethanol-blended gasoline across the country, which kicked off in 2005 with the U.S. government’s push for alternative energy and peaked in 2010.

But with ethanol gasoline in the engines of their lawn mowers, snowmobiles and boats, people mostly are still storing the equipment the way they always have, Mr. Stevens said. When the season’s over, they stow away their equipment without thinking twice about it, believing it will start again with another hard tug next year.

Mr. Stevens said leaving a lawn mower with ethanol gas in its engine in a shed for even two weeks in July can cause damage.

Ethanol separates over time and builds up into a gummy jelly lining the inside of the carburetor. When exposed to air, ethanol draws moisture and breaks down faster. Small holes covering the outside of the carburetor — which control the fuel pressure — become larger as the ethanol corrodes the walls. As less gas flows to the engine, users may notice signs that equipment is operating with less power, Mr. Stevens said.

“It takes time to completely wear out the carburetor, but equipment will continue to run rougher and rougher,” he said.

Cheney Tire, 839 State St., has seen a similar uptick in engine repairs since 2010 — "almost double,” said Benjamin W. Zawatski, small-engine manager. He said the summer’s hot conditions have made the problem even worse because the gas evaporates water faster.

“It may be 80 or 90 degrees outside but when they put equipment in a shed with no doors or windows, it’s 110 to 120 degrees,” Mr. Zawatski said.

Customers are advised to mix additive with the gasoline before filling up equipment, he said. After the end of the season, equipment should be emptied and then operated with only additive for 10 to 15 minutes.

Mr. Zawatski contends that today’s small engines aren’t built to withstand ethanol, even when the fuel is mixed with additives. Either the government will need to curb ethanol requirements, he said, or new equipment will need to be designed.

Equipment Rentals Inc., 23150 Route 12, rents demo saws, stone tampers, two-man augers, power trowels and lawn edgers. But, although it fills the equipment with ethanol gasoline, the company hasn’t had any problems because the fuel always is being used up and doesn’t have time to settle.

Mr. Zawatski said that it takes time to explain to customers how ethanol can affect their equipment. Equipment can sit for 15 to 25 days with fuel inside without any harm but after 20 to 25 days, its octane rating — which gauges motor performance — starts to sharply drop. A fuel octane rating of 93, for example, could sink to 87.

“It’s going to affect throttle performance and loss of top RPM,” Mr. Zawatski said.

Old equipment uses rubber O-rings and gaskets that can’t withstand the ethanol, he added, and owners should either replace those parts or use fuel without ethanol.

“The regular Joe homeowner still has no idea about this,” he said. “I tell them they can’t leave their fuel hanging around and it’s like they’re looking at me with a third eye, because they’re used to starting it the same way every year.”

New yard equipment already is being manufactured with fuel injectors instead of carburetors, Mr. Zawatski said, because those better withstand the toll of ethanol.

“They seem to be able to eat up the moisture in the fuel a little bit better, and I think that’s going to be a bonus,” he said. Everyone in the industry “is going to have to make some serious changes.”

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