Virtually all the gasoline sold in the U.S. today has ethanol in it, and it’s use is increasing every year. If you ride a powersports vehicle, getting the right fuel for it is going to become more and more confusing, so check out this article on everything you need to know about ethanol-laden fuel, and what to do about it!
Just last week, the EPA announced an increase in the amount of ethanol that must be added to the fuel supply in the U.S., up to 18 billion gallons in 2016. While ethanol has been used in the nation’s fuel supply for years, it can cause problems for many vehicles, especially powersports vehicles like motorcycles, ATV/UTVs, watercraft, and snowmobiles.
With ethanol concentration in fuel on the rise, you’re going to have to pay more attention than ever to what you’re putting in your gas tank. So in this article, we’ll give you the lowdown on why ethanol is used in gas, what it does to your fuel system, and how to solve the problems it can create. If you ever buy gas for any powersports vehicle, this article is for you!
What is Ethanol and Why Is It In My Gas?
Ethanol is a type of alcohol that comes from fermented corn. It is extremely flammable and has industrial uses as a solvent and antiseptic, but by far what it’s most known for is as an additive in almost all the gasoline sold in the entire United States. Virtually all gasoline sold in the country now is “E10,” or 10% ethanol.
Ethanol started to come about in the last couple decades as a replacement for MTBE, which is a more environmentally harmful anti-knock additive that was used in fuel until the 1990s. It is cleaner burning than gasoline, and helps to reduce emissions. However, these days, vehicles are becoming so efficient, they require the use of additives less than ever to reduce emissions – but ethanol use continues to be on the rise. What’s the reason for this?
An ethanol production facility in the U.S. About 40% of domestically grown corn is used for ethanol production, and this amount will rise each year due to federal regulations.
Well, the simple answer is “because the government says so.” In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, requiring that domestically produced ethanol replace a portion of our gasoline as part of an effort to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
So while ethanol started as a helpful additive in small concentrations to help engines knock less and burn cleaner, now it’s use is actually being required by the government, as a way to help stretch our fuel supply.
Unfortunately, this is not so great for your engine.
What Ethanol Does To Your Vehicle
For the most part, ethanol isn’t too bad for your vehicle in small quantities, like the 10% that is in use now. When gas is fresh, the ethanol blends with the gas uniformly, and burns normally. Ethanol is less energy dense than gasoline (about 30% less), so compared with straight gas, it will rob you of a little power and give you lower fuel mileage (the consensus is about a 5% loss in each.) But for most people, under ideal conditions, E10 works fine as a replacement for pure gas.
But note that I said “under ideal conditions.” In the real world, ethanol has some properties that make it a little problematic, and this is where ethanol use gets a little controversial.
Whether you realize it or not, virtually all gas sold in the U.S. today is E10, or 10% ethanol (whether you see a notification sticker like this or not.)
First of all, ethanol (all alcohols, actually) are hygroscopic, meaning they attract and absorb water. This means that as E10 gas is allowed to sit, it absorbs water molecules – mostly from condensation and moisture in the air. When the ethanol in gasoline absorbs a certain percentage of water, it will actually split apart from the gasoline, and the watered-down alcohol will settle at the bottom of the storage tank (this is a process known as phase separation, but is basically just fuel contamination.)
That is why ethanol-laden fuel needs to be as fresh as possible, because this process is constantly taking place – from the tanker that delivers the fuel, to the in-ground storage tanks at the gas station, to it sitting in your gas tank. Ethanol-laden fuel does not store well at all.
In addition, ethanol is very corrosive, especially to rubber and plastics. Most fuel systems these days are built to handle this, but many older vehicles and some imports aren’t (remember, most of the world does not used ethanol-laden fuel.)
For example, in 2010, Ducati found itself at the center of a class-action lawsuit due to warping of the plastic gas tanks used in several of their models. The consensus later was that the ethanol in our gas caused the problem, which is probably something they hadn’t considering during manufacturing, since most of their export markets do not use ethanol-laden fuel.
So with the problems with moisture contamination and corrosion of fuel system parts that ethanol creates, you’d think they’d be doing something to solve these problems, right? Well, not so much; in fact, there will only be more ethanol in our fuel supply in the future, not less.
Going forward, filling up at the pump is going to become more confusing as more ethanol blends are introduced to the market.
E10 is here, E15 is around the corner
With the government mandating an increasing amount of ethanol that needs to be in our fuel supply each year, fuel companies are responding by upping the percentage of ethanol in our fuel. By 2022, the federally-mandated amount of ethanol used in our fuel supply will be a staggering 36 billion gallons – double the current amount.
In 2011, E15 was approved for use in passenger cars built after 2001, and started being sold in gas stations in several states. But if you own a motorcycle or other powersports vehicle, you should not be using E15 (it’s not just bad for your vehicle, but it’s actually illegal.)
If you own a powersports vehicle, like a motorcycle or other off-road vehicle, you’re going to have to start paying a lot more attention to what you put in the tank.
The trouble for you is that gas is starting to become a confusing business, and you’re going to have to start paying a lot more attention to the fuel you’re putting in your vehicle going forward. Ethanol concentrations will continue to increase, and these ethanol blends are often sold side-by-side. So as the consumer, you’ll have to be more aware of what kind of fuel you’re using in the future.
What Can You Do?
As a powersports vehicle owner, the key here is to practice “fuel awareness.” In other words, you always need to know exactly what you’re putting in your tank.
If your daily driver is a passenger vehicle built after 2001, you should be filling it with whatever comes out of the pump at the local gas station. But when it comes time to gas up the dirt bikes, UTV, or jet-ski for a weekend of fun, you’ll have to pay a lot more attention to what you’re filling up with.
You may have to go out of your way to find a gas station that still sells pure gas, but it will give you best performance and may be worth it for your powersports vehicles.
To prevent the problems that ethanol-laden fuel creates, here are a few more helpful tips:
- Because ethanol-laden fuel degrades quickly, buy the freshest gas possible by frequenting busy gas stations that refill often
- For your powersports vehicles, buy pure gas if you can. It is hard to find (ethanol-free gas is actually considered a “specialty fuel” now) but sites like pure-gas.org can help you find places to get it
- Use fuel additives when storing fuel for more than a few weeks, like Sta-Bil Fuel Stabilizer or Stabil Ethanol Treatment; this is especially important for powersports vehicles, which are usually stored during the off-season.