By Jeff Hemmel
While $4 gasoline has been replaced by a tanking economy as the key problem affecting the powersports market, another less talked about subject continues to percolate under the radar — ethanol, and the effect it might have on PWC, as well as all small engines.
“Ethanol may play out to be one of the big issues for 2009,” suggested veteran industry insider John Donaldson, a former PWIA head and current PR rep with Freeman McCue. “There are two very strong arguments to support and oppose the increased ethanol content in gasoline. People who stand to make money selling ethanol… and the people who are concerned that increased ethanol in gasoline could damage their engines.”
Thirty-Six Billion Gallons
The government wants the U.S. to produce 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by the year 2022. And whether you agree or disagree, much of that fuel will be based around ethanol, better known as the stuff that makes for happy hours nationwide. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, can be made from corn, a concept that seems at first like a great solution to our nation’s fuel problems, until you consider the possibility that it might take more energy to produce the fuel than is saved in the long run. The use of corn also takes the vegetable off our dinner tables, resulting in increased prices that might not actually help consumers. Newer technologies, some using manure, show promise, but the problem is more complex than simple production. Many believe that increased use of ethanol will be the death of many aging small engines, precisely like those used in PWC.
To be certain, ethanol has its strengths, as well as its problems. It makes engines run much hotter than they were originally intended, dangerously hot according to some experts. It also can melt rubber components, and make parts more brittle and prone to earlier failure. Most experts contend that 10 percent is the breaking point on most existing small engines; any higher ratio and parts will corrode.
So why are cars immune? They have computers, which regulate the fuel mixture. Most existing PWC engines do not. Neither do motorcycles, ATVs or lawnmowers. But with 9 billion gallons of renewable fuel ordered up for 2009, and 26 billion by 2019, the prospect of avoiding ethanol is becoming nil. And the blends, now 10 percent ethanol on average, are getting higher.
“What we’re concerned about are mid-level blends entering into the marketplace in advance of consumers being educated about their use and what their effects will be,” Kris Kiser of AllSafe, an advocate group representing small-engine manufacturers, recently told National Public Radio. As Kiser explains, many consumers are unaware that the E-20, E-30 and even E-40 blends could do serious long-term damage to their engines.
“If they are selling it at the pump, I think there is the assumption that it’s okay, that it’s going to work whatever I put it in.”
Get With The Times?
Naturally, ethanol proponents disagree. They argue that consumers should be aware of the different products available at the pump…and that engine manufacturers need to simply improve their products. In the same NPR piece, Ron Lamberty, with the American Coalition of Ethanol, suggested, “if we always listened to the naysayers, we would still be sitting here with leaded regular gasoline in the United States. We’ve got to move forward and the small engine guys have to come along.”
The problem, however, is that there is a vast installed base of product already on the market that might suffer the consequences. As Kiser states, manufacturers are not opposed to designing new product, but instead are concerned for their existing customer.
And as history has shown, pushing forward a new fuel standard without fully educating the public on its pluses and minuses can have negative consequences. “We’re happy to build new equipment for new fuels with increased ethanol,” continued Kiser, “but we’ll not sit idly by and put our customer’s safety and economic interests at risk.
“We fully support and are cooperatively working with the Department of Energy on testing equipment with ethanol blend fuels to better understand the effects and the challenges in transitioning them to market. Sadly, we are portrayed by some commentators as anti-ethanol. We are not. We fully support the government’s efforts to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil. Outdoor power equipment makers are consumer product companies that value their customers’ safety and their products performance in their hands and are able and willing to design and build new equipment to meet government fuel requirements. We are just mindful of history’s lessons.”
Jan. 19, 2009 – A key issue for small engines
By Jeff Hemmel