In the 1990s, the federal government changed the Clean Air Act to require the addition of oxygenates to gasoline in order to generate higher octane ratings. This allowed fuel to burn more efficiently, producing cleaner emissions. The original fuel additive chosen to oxygenate gas tanks was Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE). Unfortunately, MTBE was found to be contaminating ground water supplies, creating a wide array of health and environmental concerns. Ethanol was chosen as a safer replacement and has been used almost exclusively since MTBE was discontinued in 2003.
Experts have argued for years over the positive and negative effects of ethanol in gasoline, unfortunately, after years of scientific study, a majority of these stories have been proven true. Many groups, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have even publicly released reports, warning the public about the negative effects of ethanol in gasoline. Marv Klowak, vice president of research and development for Briggs & Stratton, has even publicly stated that, "Ethanol has inherent properties that can cause corrosion of metal parts, including carburetors, degradation of plastic and rubber components, harder starting, and reduced engine life”.
As consumers, we have all heard whispers of these reports and also the multitude of horror stories about how ethanol in gasoline is destroying small engines, including snowmobiles. Given the sizeable investment many of us make in the purchasing and upkeep of our snowmobiles, how can we continue to enjoy our sport without worrying about costly repairs?
The key to dealing with ethanol in gasoline is knowledge and prevention. As consumers, we need to understand what makes ethanol bad and take the steps needed to make sure these issues do not negatively affect our snowmobile engines. Snowmobiles are more susceptible to ethanol “enhanced” fuels than almost any other small engine due to the environment and conditions in which snowmobiles operate.
Challenges inherent with ethanol fuels in snowmobiles include:
1. Ethanol has more difficulty absorbing water than straight gasoline, meaning any water accidentally introduced to the fuel mixture tends to collect at the bottom of the gas tank. Water is then pulled into the snowmobile engine, causing it to run rough and stall. Continued operation of the machine, under these conditions, can eventually lead to catastrophic engine damage.
2. In extremely cold temperatures, ethanol stays in a liquid form rather than the gaseous state needed for effective combustion to occur. This issue hampers the ability of a snowmobile engine to start in temperatures below 0F.
3. Ethanol is an alcohol which over time works to dry out and degrade plastic and rubber components, including fuel lines and gaskets. Consequently, snowmobiles built in the 1980s and earlier typically require heavy upgrading to stay running on today's “enriched” gasoline.
4. Alcohol is a solvent that will scour out older fuel systems, eventually clogging filters and choking off the engine's fuel supply.
5. Over time, ethanol ¬oxidizes in fuel tanks leaving behind a thick residue that gums up engine components, leading to engine failure.
Given all of the apparent issues with ethanol enhanced fuels, what can consumers do to protect their equipment for the negative effects?
1. Obviously, the best thing that consumers can do is to buy ethanol free fuels. Sears, Home Depot, Lowes and many retailers sell ethanol-free fuel, though at a premium price. While this is a very viable option for the individual looking to occasionally operate a chainsaw, lawnmower or leaf blower, for the snowmobile enthusiast, the costs and availability of these fuels likely do not warrant their use.
2. Always use Sta-Bil, StarTron or other similar enzyme products designed to treat blended gasoline. These products work by dispensing water equally throughout the gasoline/ethanol mixture instead of allowing the water to collect at the bottom of the gas tank. These products also work to help keep engines running more effectively by cleaning existing gum and varnish out of the engine.
3. Never store blended gasoline for longer than three months. If only needing smaller amounts of fuel, use a small 2 gallon plastic gas storage tank rather than a larger 5 gallon tank. This will encourage more trips to the gas station to refill; ensuring fresh fuel is delivered to equipment.
4. Use a good quality synthetic snowmobile oil with detergents and lubricants such as AMSOil and LUCAS oil. These further help keep engines clean and combat the effects of ethanol based fuels.
5. At the conclusion of the snowmobiling season, drain the fuel tank and run the engine until it quits.
This draws all of the ethanol gasoline out of the tank and fuel lines, avoiding many of the problems outlined above.
Armed with this knowledge and prevention tips, snowmobile riders should find themselves more equipped this season to better understand ethanol based fuels, avoid potential problems and prolong the life of their machine. Drive safe, wear a helmet and enjoy this snowmobile season!