To Use or Not to Use: Is it really a question?
Boaters are squaring off on the controversy of having E15 added to the fuel used in their engines.
By Ken Kreisler
According the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) summary of The Clean Air Act of 1970 “ [it] is the comprehensive federal law that regulates air emissions from stationary and mobile sources. Among other things, this law authorizes EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to protect public health and public welfare and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants.” Sounds like a plan to me. I mean, who doesn’t want clean air? But as widely attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux in about 1150, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Fast forward to the 2007 signing of the Energy Independence and Security Act. In essence this tome included, among many other objectives, one that most boaters can relate to: Reducing petroleum use and increasing the utilization of alternative fuels with a stipulation that, according to Forbes contributor Larry Bell in a 9/23/12 Op-Ed article, “…a certain amount of ‘renewable’ fuel must be introduced into the market each year, an amount that will rise to 36 billion gallons in 2022.” In October of 2010, after an almost year- long urging from Growth Energy, a coalition of Ethanol supporters, along with over 50 Ethanol manufacturers, that same EPA decided to allow a bump up in the percentage of Ethanol from 10%, known as E10, to E15 in a selected group of gasoline engines.
Here’s where things get contentious. E15 is a 15% solution of Ethanol; the alcohol fuel made from the sugars found in grains, with the most popular being extracted from corn and, in harmony with marine industry thinking, not a very good thing for internal combustion engines.
Firstly, it is hygroscopic by nature and attracts moisture and will therefore encourage internal engine rusting and other downstream problems. It also tends to dissolve and release destructive engine gunk which plug fuel filers, clog injectors, and play havoc with carburetors. Then there’s possible gasket and rubber hose failure and an issue with the decomposition of fiberglass fuel tanks manufactured prior to 1991. And while there are conditions with being able to use E15 with 2001 model year engines and newer in cars, light trucks, certain SUVs, and FlexFuel vehicles, it seems as if marine warranties are voided should the brew be introduced into the boat’s fuel system.
Case in point, Mercury Marine’s take on using E15: “E10 is considered acceptable but fuels with higher levels can void the warranty.” Mercury’s David Hilbert, a Thermodynamic Development Engineer, in his November 2, 2011, testimony before the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, United States House of Representatives, reported the following paraphrased findings of a 300 hour test performed during 2010 and 2011 on three Mercury outboard products using E15:
Ethanol damage done to engine parts.
“We were able to complete the entire test running E15 in a 9.9 HP engine…results indicated poor running quality, including misfires at the end of the test, an increase in exhaust emissions, increased carbon deposits on the underside of the pistons and the ends of the rods indicating higher engine temperatures. Additionally, deterioration of the fuel pump gasket was evident, likely due to material compatibility issues with the fuel blend. This deterioration of the gasket could lead to fuel pump failure, disabling the engine.
“The 300 HP four-stroke supercharged engine did not complete the test, encountering a valve failure after 285 hours. One valve broke apart and two others developed cracks. Analysis showed the cause of these fractures was deteriorated mechanical strength due to high metal temperature. The 200 HP two-stroke engine also failed a rod bearing at 256 hours of testing, resulting in catastrophic destruction of the engine. There was so much damage to the engine that we could not determine the exact cause of failure. It is important to note that two-stroke engines of this architecture mix the fuel and the oil and use that mixture to distribute the oil to the critical interfaces such as the bearings and cylinder walls. Ethanol may have an effect on the dispersion or lubricity of the oil as it is mixed with the fuel. More testing of such engines is necessary to understand the ramifications of an E15 blend fuel on this type of lubrication system, as it is not well understood at this time.”
To move the information-gathering process forward so as to be able to understand what is at stake here, I went back to the proverbial horses’ mouth—although some would say it was another anatomical region of that most noble breed of equine—and perused more of the aforementioned EPA site. Among the listed factoids and talking points I found, clearly listed under the What Vehicles May Not Use E15 heading, this: “…all off-road vehicles, such as boats and snowmobiles.” But as with those most annoying infomercial pitchmen, there’s more. And this one is a real eye-opener: The E15 Waiver.
In essence, the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to disregard the exclusions on E15 use as long as, “…the prohibited fuel or fuel additive will continue to meet their emission standards over their ‘full useful life.’” Enter some data, such as that from the Biotechnology for Biofuels site, a Euro-based research group, where, in its conclusion of testing in the UK and Sweden—remember, we are not in this alone—pointed out that the large amounts of electricity used during the conversion process may actually increase greenhouse gasses so much so as to diminish any gain in reported exhaust emissions. Then there is the whole land use discussion and how it impacts not only our own economy but that of established and emerging nations as well.
While E15 remains on the EPA’s Do Not Use List, it can find its way into the boating fuel supply. “A majority of boats are pulled on trailers. You get to the pump and fill up your tow vehicle and then fill up your boat. That’s the way people have been doing it for years and will continue to do it,” said Jim Currie, NMMA’s Legislative Director.
Most recently, a D.C. Court of Appeals ruling denied a suit brought forth by the Engine Products Group (EPG), of which our own National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) is a part of, in its opposition to the higher concentrations of Ethanol in gasoline. “The ultimate goal is to get the law changed. Our plan for the 113th Congress is to re-open the Renewable Fuel Standard, the law that requires ever-increasing amounts of renewable fuel—like Ethanol—in the marketplace. We’d like to have the Congress pass legislation that would basically freeze the standard for Ethanol where it is, at about 10% by volume,” Currie added.
And finally this from NMMA president Thom Dammrich: “E15 is a disaster for boaters and the environment. We need to have everyone learn as much as they can and to get in touch with their members of Congress and let them know we need to change the requirement that is driving this process to get more Ethanol into gasoline.”
If you have any thoughts on this subject, please feel free to contact me by using the Leave A Comment feature at the bottom of the page. Future discussions will feature a lengthy interview with the NMMA’s Thom Dammrich.
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