Another speed bump for ethanol

By Bill Taylor

January 14, 2014

It seems to me that just when we think we’ve heard about the last of the problems associated with ethanol along comes another. The hubbub about raising the percentage of ethanol in our gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent or more appears to have died down a bit.

Then, too, we haven’t heard much about the way ethanol messes up small engines such as those used in lawnmowers and tillers — that may pop up again once the weather warms up and the grass needs mowing and gardening commences again. The well-known headaches involving ethanol appear to have subsided, kinda gone into hibernation for the winter, but a new one has emerged. Understanding this problem makes some background necessary so just stay with me as I explain what’s going on.

Each winter tens of thousands of folks from the northern states and Canada, most of whom are retired, head for Florida to escape the kind of weather seen this year. Interestingly enough, the folks from the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and western Pennsylvania) tend to go to the Gulf of Mexico side of the state while those from the New York, New Jersey, and New England wind up on the Atlantic side.

Anyway, most of these seasonal residents own their own small homes instead of renting. (By the way, these folks are sometimes referred to as “snowbirds” which is a demeaning, derogatory term primarily used by thoughtless people who don’t recognize the slur for what it is.) Furthermore, a surprising number of these winter residents keep a car year-round at their Florida homes so they don’t have to make the multiple-day drive south. And that’s where the newest ethanol-related complication arises.

According to an investigative-type report in the Ft. Myers News-Press newspaper, returning seasonal residents have been having serious problems with their cars left at their Florida homes over the summer. Specifically, the cars won’t start even if the battery is fully charged. The reason? Fuel pump failure.

This kinda roused my curiosity because my sister was a part-time Florida resident who kept a car at her home there year round. She parked it, covered, in her car port and made arrangements with a year-round resident neighbor to start and drive the car periodically both to keep the battery charged and to keep the tires from developing flat spots from sitting too long in one place. She never had any fuel pump problems. So what’s the deal?

The reporter covering this story checked with a local auto service center owner who has been responding to many calls about the failure-to-start problem. He blames the high ethanol content in gasoline. After three to six months sitting in a gas tank, ethanol “… turns the color and consistency of maple syrup. In modern cars the fuel pump is in the gas tank where it stews in this ethanol concoction … that will destroy the fuel pump.”

Solutions? There are two. First, according to the auto repair expert, “You can make sure the car is driven at least five miles every week while you are gone … [S]tarting the car up and letting it run isn’t’t the answer; the fuel needs to slosh around which it won’t do unless it’s driven”That’s the remedy my sister inadvertently hit upon for entirely different reasons.

The second resolution of the problem is a commercial product which, when added to a full tank of gas, protects the fuel system from ethanol damage for four or five months. I doubt we folks hereabouts will have to worry about this particular ethanol problem with our cars- unless we leave our vehicles parked for a long time without driving them.

On the other hand it does raise the question about allowing that ethanol/gasoline mixture remain for long periods in the gas tanks of those small engines - mowers, tillers and such. For years we were told the way to store these machines was with either an empty tank or a full one - the idea being to avoid moisture condensation polluting the fuel. Now it looks as if we have another concern - the goop that can come from ethanol left sitting for a while.

Well, there you have it, folks, another speed bump on the trip to utopia fueled by ethanol - and you know what speed bumps signal - slow down! Yep, the more we learn about the side effects of ethanol being used as a fuel, the more we should realize there’s a lot more to be uncovered. At least that’s how it seems to me.

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at solie1@juno.com.