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Ethanol alert- US shows Ethanol spells havoc for older boat engines

by Jeni Bone on 14 Apr 2009
Ethanol - causing division among the boating community and even experts over its benefits and pitfalls. MIAA
In the US two years ago a mixture of 10 percent ethanol was added to gasoline at the pump, as well as at most marine fueling stations. Now, despite innumerable reports of trouble with older engines, the EPA is seeking to up the level to 15 per cent and the marine industry is calling for a rethink.

It seems many boats, mostly older models, are not suited to use the new fuel blend. In older boats with fiberglass fuel tanks, fuel hoses and seals are being damaged by the alcohol in the blend. The tank's reaction creates a sludge that fouls fuel systems and carburetors choke and die.

The fuel also creates more water separation problems.

Most newer boats don't have the problem. Their fuel tanks, hoses and rubber rings are made to withstand a 10 percent concentration of ethanol.

A tank conversion on an older, larger boat can cost US$6,000, or more; a carburetor job, around US$300.

Companies making ethanol want the EPA to boost levels from 10 percent to 15 percent. As the ethanol industry grapples with stifled demand, it wants to enhance its future by getting more of its product into regular gasoline.

Last month an ethanol trade association petitioned the EPA to boost the amount of ethanol. But, a coalition of groups affected by current E-10 changes called on the EPA to base its decision on science.

Among the groups was the National Marine Manufacturers Association and Boat Owners Association of the United States.

The US EPA has nine months to review the issue, seek comments and make a decision.

Locally, BIA Victoria has warned Victorian boat owners not to use ethanol fuels in their boats to avoid potentially costly damage to engines and fuel systems.

The warning comes after it was determined by government officials that the shelf life of ethanol fuel can be as little as two to three weeks. With many boat owners not using their boats every weekend, the fuel can start separating and cause engine damage once it reaches its expiry date.

BIA General Manger Robert Coco said BIA Victoria was committed to alerting boat owners of the damage that ethanol fuel could do to boats that were not in regular use.

'Whilst many engines are fine with a 10% ethanol blend, the shelf life of ethanol puts boat motors in danger of damage,' he said.

'Boaters should check that the petrol they are using is ethanol free, by looking at the labels at service stations before filling up.

'Ethanol can eat into fiberglass fuel tanks and other parts of the fuel system, which in turn can lead to harmful deposits in the engine.'

Non-ethanol fuel is still readily available in Victoria, although not in New South Wales, which can be an issue for boaters on the Murray and other northern waterways.

Regular unleaded fuel in New South Wales had 2% ethanol, which is set to increase to 4% by 2010 and 6% by 2011.

Premium unleaded is the only ethanol-free fuel in NSW, which has prompted many marinas to stock only premium to avoid the risks associated with ethanol.

All pumps in Victoria that dispense ethanol blend petrol should have the percentage of ethanol in the petrol clearly displayed. If not, it can be reported by phoning 1800 803 772.

NSW Maritime advises all boat owners to check with a local dealer about the suitability of ethanol mix fuels for their marine petrol engine.

NSW Maritime General Manager Recreational Boating and Regional Services, Brett Moore said there was growing concern among boat operators about using ethanol mix fuels in their boats.

A number of risks have been identified including:
• Ethanol can affect some fiberglass fuel tanks because of its potential to act as a solvent;
• Ethanol can affect older fuel lines, seals and gaskets; and
• The fuel can separate into the petrol and ethanol components if condensation forms in the tank or where the fuel is stored for extended periods.

'Use of an inappropriate fuel can result in damage to the engine and boat components that may require repair or replacement,' Mr Moore said.

'Fuels with ethanol can attack some fuel-system components, such as tanks and lines if they are not made from acceptable ethanol-acceptable materials.

'The ethanol can soften some fiberglass or rubber components or can leach resins from other materials from rubber components which can foul filters, carburettors or injectors.

'Whilst some boat owners have tried to do the right thing in their quest to reduce their carbon footprint by choosing the greener option, NSW Maritime advises boat owners to check with their engine and boat dealer about the appropriate fuel choice,' Mr Moore said.

While use of ethanol is not mandatory, there is significant lobbying afoot to summarily dismiss its flaws in experiments so far and expand its usage at a higher percentage, based largely on its less harmful impact on the environment.
But critics say using ethanol will not lower emissions to the extents its proponents claim. It takes about a litre of fuel to grow, harvest and transport the crops to make ethanol. It will lower emissions in crowded cities but the real beneficiaries will be those involved in production and sales of ethanol.

There is a chance it will push up grain and sugar prices, leading to a rise in food prices across the board.

The NSW State Government mandate for the inclusion of ethanol in transport fuel is likely to cost the Australian taxpayer $200 million per year. The result will be no net gain in transport fuel, a massive increase in pollution and a huge demand on our critically scarce water supplies, according to experts. The CSIRO, back on 2004 in its ECOS magazine, reported that: 'A recent assessment report on the viability of the biofuels industry has suggested that while ethanol's addition to fuel is a positive step forward toward renewable fuel use, its viability is currently negated by high production and sugar industry subsidy costs, for only mild net environmental benefits'.

And there’s another aspect to this tale. Back in January, The Australian pointed out that the Manildra group of companies – manufacturers of ethanol ( will be the biggest beneficiary from the mandate – coincidentally, the largest single donor to the NSW Labor Party in the last election ($461,500).

FAQs (Source:

What is ethanol?
Ethanol is a renewable, clear and colourless liquid fuel that mixes with petrol. It is currently produced from Australian grain and sugar cane.

What are +e fuels (ethanol blended fuels)?
Ethanol blended fuels are unleaded fuels with the benefit of added renewable ethanol.

What is the +e campaign?
The +e campaign is an initiative of the Queensland Government to educate motorists about the benefits of using ethanol blended fuels.

How do I know if I can use a +e fuel in my vehicle?
Most cars on Queensland's roads manufactured after 1986 are compatible with ethanol blended fuels. Simply check your vehicle handbook or contact your manufacturer. An online list of compatible vehicles is available from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries at

Can I switch back and forth between unleaded and +e fuels?
Yes, you can interchange either fuel when you top up your tank because +e is unleaded fuel with added renewable ethanol.

Will a +e fuel improve my car's performance?
+e fuels are a plus for your car's performance. The addition of renewable ethanol increases the oxygen content of the fuel so that it will burn cleaner in your car's engine and may give your car more power. Ethanol fuels have been used successfully in the US, Canada and Brazil for many years.

Will a +e fuel impact my car's fuel economy?
Fuel economy can be influenced by many factors including driving conditions and tyre pressure. While there may be slightly less energy because the oxygen in the fuel burns better, the combustion efficiency of the fuel is increased.

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