Confusion at the pump

Gas pump. Photo: ©istock.com/ktsimage
Gas pump. Photo: ©istock.com/ktsimage

iS185543002gas-pumpGasoline blended with more than 10 percent ethanol continues to pose a risk to contractors who aren’t educated about its harmful effects on landscape equipment engines.

When consumers arrive at the gas pump, they have more fuel choices now than ever before. And while these alternatives and biofuels may be fraught with good intentions of being gentler on the environment, Kris Kiser sees a major problem with this abundance of options: It’s putting contractors and their outdoor power equipment at risk.

“Most outdoor power equipment is not built and warrantied to run on fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol, or E10,” says Kiser, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) in Alexandria, Va. “But ethanol proponents want to sell E15 and higher, so they tout the benefits, rarely mentioning its negative impacts on small engine equipment. The challenge is consumers still aren’t being educated to the level required.”

E15 hit the market in 2011, and has since been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use in flex-fuel vehicles and in light-duty conventional vehicles of model year 2001 and newer. E10 remains the limit for older passenger vehicles and for nonroad vehicles and machinery that use gasoline, such as lawn mowers, motorcycles and boats. Industry experts argue these approvals are not common knowledge, particularly among homeowners and green industry laborers. OPEI and other industry experts say this lack of education can result in improper fueling that can damage or destroy small engines.

Ethanol settles out of gasoline, attracts moisture and, in sufficient quantities, corrodes engine parts. This can leave the consumer with costly repairs or replacements that are not covered by warranties—not to mention the lost profits caused by the equipment downtime.

“E15 was put on the market without any warning,” says Kim Rominger, president and CEO of the United Equipment Dealers Association in Dublin, Ohio. “The education wasn’t done upfront to let consumers know that (certain fuels) aren’t going to work in their units, and if they ruin their equipment that way the warranty won’t cover it.”

Manufacturers are also concerned about the effects E15 fuel can have on consumers’ equipment. Laura Timm, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for Briggs & Stratton Corp. in Milwaukee, Wis., says research shows that Americans continue to choose their gasoline based on price and do not pay much attention to the warning labels found on pumps.

“Consumers are ill-equipped to make smart decisions about new gasoline choices entering the marketplace, such as fuel blends greater than 10 percent ethanol,” Timm says, adding Briggs & Stratton recommends contractors use a fuel stabilizer to help mitigate the risks of gasoline blended with ethanol. “When your engine isn’t running properly, that causes downtime, which means less time working. This is a big problem for contractors who are trying to earn a living cutting lawns.”

According to 2016 national polls by Nielsen/Harris and OPEI, consumers remain confused about the changing fuels marketplace. Just 31 percent of poll respondents knew that gasoline blends in excess of E10 are harmful to outdoor power equipment. Five percent knew that gasoline blends in excess of E10 are not approved for use in small engines, and 60 percent of poll respondents assumed that any retail fuel is safe for any type of engine.

“Because outdoor power equipment is so vital to any landscaping business, it’s imperative that contractors talk with their workers about safe fueling,” Kiser says. “You don’t want an expensive repair bill because someone makes a mistake and puts the wrong gas in a mower and damages or destroys it.”

Going forward, OPEI is focusing on educating contractors and consumers on proper fueling for outdoor power equipment through its “Look Before You Pump” program, a free consumer and dealer educational campaign. Launched in 2013 in response to the increased availability of higher ethanol fuel blends at gasoline filling stations, the campaign provides free downloadable resources to help educate consumers about safe and proper fueling and to encourage dealers, suppliers and manufacturers to initiate conversations about proper fueling with consumers.

The campaign is supported by several retail stores such as Lowe’s, Walmart and True Value Co., and is identifiable by a red warning hand symbol indicating “OK” for 10 percent ethanol and “No” for mid-level ethanol blends, like E15, E30 and E85. “Look Before You Pump” reminds consumers that it’s harmful and illegal to use higher than 10 percent ethanol gas in any outdoor power equipment or other nonroad product, such as boats, snowmobiles and motorcycles, with the exception of “flex-fuel” engine products. OPEI supplies additional free materials and videos in English and in Spanish.

“We want to protect our customers to ensure they are getting the best running, highest quality equipment possible,” says Timm. Briggs & Stratton is one manufacturer that has partnered with OPEI on the “Look Before You Pump” initiative. “We have been working very closely with our dealers, retailers and industry associations to educate consumers about the different fuel blends that are available at their local gas stations.”

Organizations and manufacturers are also involved with legislative efforts surrounding the use and availability of E15 and other alternative fuels. OPEI continues to monitor developments at the EPA and other federal organizations and to serve as a voice for the outdoor power equipment industry and its advocates. OPEI has called on the EPA to ensure American consumers are aware of E15’s effects on small engines and submitted comments regarding the agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard Program: Standards for 2017 and Biomass-Based Diesel Volume for 2018. Kiser says OPEI will be watching closely as the new presidential administration takes office. Timm says several bills related to the Renewable Fuel Standard were introduced by the last Congress that could have potentially changed the landscape of ethanol in the fuel marketplace, but these bills will have to be reintroduced in the new Congress in order to move forward.

“It is too early to tell yet whether there will be any legislative efforts that would potentially be able to help the situation,” Timm says. “In the interim, we will continue to work on educating and protecting consumers.”

Rominger says the legislative and educational efforts that have taken place over the past several years have made a “huge difference” in the number of landscape contractors who are aware of E15 and its detrimental effects on their equipment. While manufacturers are researching and developing equipment that will eventually be compatible with E15, there will still be countless pieces of older equipment in the field that will not be up to date. So for now, education continues to be key.

“I wouldn’t say alternative fuels cause more harm than good, but it’s all about education,” Rominger says. “There is good and bad in everything. But the main thing is to allow time for manufacturers to catch up with the new fuel technology and for the end user to be educated about what is out there.”

Photo: ©istock.com/ktsimage

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