Bad Mixture? Boat Engines Resisting Switch to Ethanol

With the traditional start of boating season less than a month away, many local boat owners might be in for a big surprise when they hit the water for the first time this year. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, ethanol in gasoline is causing some unique and potentially costly problems for boaters.

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At Acie's Outboards in Dickinson, Alan Robinson has gotten used to taking apart gunked-up carburetors. He's seen a lot of them lately, a direct result he says, of ethanol in gasoline.

"On the older boats, the ethanol in the fuel is acting as a solvent and removing all the built-up varnish and crud on the inside of the tanks, on the inside the fuel lines and if they're lucky enough to have a filter it's stopping up the filters are filling the filters. If not, it's either going in the carbs or in the fuel system."

The ethanol also causes the rubber components in the fuel system to swell and become disfigured. Robinson says heavy duty filters usually fix the sludge problem, but do nothing to combat the effect that alcohol has on sensitive parts.

"As far as all the rubber gaskets, the o-rings and the carburetors and their counterparts in the fuel injection, until we find something or the manufacturers or the people that build the gaskets and the o-rings find something that's more alcohol resistant, it's going to be a problem."

Here's another problem: If it sits long enough, the ethanol in gas will separate and sink to the bottom of a tank, where it absorbs water from the atmosphere. Because the fuel intakes are in the bottom of the tanks, the first thing that gets used when the motor is first started is the water and ethanol mixture.

"You do not want to run your boat if it does not perform like you expect it to the first time you put it in the water. You need to have somebody check it. If it doesn't run the maximum rpm's that you know it will run, put it back on the trailer and have somebody check it, because it will burn-up a motor if you're not getting the proper amount of fuel and oil."

"It sort of has creeped-in unawares. We weren't even aware that it was spreading as fast as it was."

Chuck Fort is with Virginia-based Boat US, in essence the Triple A for the boating industry.

"We can almost tell what state next has ethanol because we start getting calls from those states. People say their boats aren't running right, they won't start, their fuel systems may be leaking, all kinds of problems crop up. You can just see it as each state gets it."

Because there really isn't a choice when it comes to using gas without ethanol, Fort says boaters should do what they can to minimize its effects.

"If you keep your tank about 95-percent full that will pretty much eliminate the problem of condensation in your tank. We also recommend using a fuel stabilizer and not just when the boat is going to be in storage but anytime, even if it's going to be three or four weeks a fuel stabilizer will help."

He also recommends boaters keep an extra supply of fuel filters on hand for emergencies during the early part of boating season when motors are still getting rid of contaminants caused by ethanol. You can find a full report on ethanol's effects on boat motors| through a link on our website, KUHF.org.

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