Manufacturers of lawn mowers, snowblowers, chainsaws, and other small-engine equipment continue fueling a debate over the supposed dangers of ethanol, but the ethanol industry argues that they are merely looking for a scapegoat to mask operator error.
Gasoline blended with ethanol has become commonplace for American drivers, especially since Congress enacted the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard and began mandating increasing amounts of the fuel at gas pumps across the country.
Critics argue that while such blends — including the most common, E10, which combines 10 percent ethanol with regular gasoline — pose no problems for automobiles, they can often wreak havoc on small engines.
Those problems become even worse, they say, with higher ethanol blends such as E15.
“You’re putting alcohol into the fuel. They’re different atoms. They don’t like to stay married,” said Kris Kiser, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, the leading trade group for power equipment and utility vehicle manufacturers. “This is a big deal, and everybody wants to downplay it. But we’re pretty sensitive to it.”
One of the key issues, Mr. Kiser and others argue, is how rarely much of the small-engine equipment is used. While automobiles run through tanks of gas relatively quickly, lawnmowers and other small machinery often contain the same gasoline for weeks or months.
Over time, the ethanol attracts moisture, separates from the fuel, and causes serious engine problems, steering car owners to repair shops.
“Sometimes a customer will have an issue and it’s not covered under warranty because it’s a fuel storage issue,” said Terry Ditsch, vice president of product service at Echo USA, one of the nation’s leading small-engine products manufacturers.
Like a host of other companies, Echo has produced a guide sheet warning customers to avoid any ethanol blend higher than E10 and urging them to take extra precautions when using gasoline blended with ethanol.
Some companies even offer specially designed fuel that is entirely free of ethanol.
Both sides of the debate point to studies that seem to prove their points, though anecdotal reports of engine problems have skyrocketed since ethanol has become more prominent, Mr. Kiser and others say.