May 26, 2018
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Ethanol and small engines

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director, Northeast Contact

If you had more trouble starting your lawn mower this year than in the past, you’re not alone. People who deal with small engines say such troubles are becoming more and more common.

For the reason, they point squarely at the fuel. Most gasoline we buy today is 90 percent gas and 10 percent ethanol. That mixture doesn’t winter as well as straight gasoline, for reasons we’ll explore in a minute.

The bottom line is this: When your mower, chain saw or other small-engine tool has sat all winter with some gas-ethanol in it, it likely won’t start easily. This is true even if you put fuel stabilizer in the tank last fall.

Ethanol has been touted as producing a cleaner-burning fuel when it’s added to gasoline. While 10 percent ethanol has been the industry standard, last fall the Environmental Protection Agency drew fire when it approved mixes as high as 15 percent for newer model cars.

In issuing that approval (not mandate), EPA specifically exempted smaller engines. The problem with ethanol is that it settles, creating an uneven mixture as the fuel sits in storage. Also, ethanol blends tend to run leaner and hotter; while newer cars can tolerate that, many smaller engines cannot.

Another troubling aspect of ethanol is that it can degrade fuel lines. That plus more heat creates double trouble: the risk of fuel leaks and fire.

“We have to change our whole mindset on this,” said Reggie Sherburne, owner of Bradstreet Lawn and Garden in Brewer. Sherburne said his technicians routinely test the fuel in power tools that come in for service. They have concentrations of ethanol as high as 18 to 20 percent, way too high for the small engines.

When a tool is under warranty, the first question manufacturers ask is, “What was the ethanol content?” If it’s too high, the warranty may not offer the owner much in the way of compensation. Sherburne says manufacturers are working hard on problems associated with ethanol; in the meantime, he has some suggestions.

• Use a fuel stabilizer that works. The most popular brand is the familiar bright red STA-BIL. It was formulated for straight gasoline, and Sherburne says its track record with ethanol blends is not great. STA-BIL now advertises a new, amber-colored product specifically for ethanol; Sherburne recommends the blue marine blend, which better resists corrosion and fuel clogging.

• Change fuel at least every 60 days. Buy fresh fuel as often as possible. If it’s going to sit unused in a fuel can, just add it to your car or truck; even if it’s mixed with a little oil for use in a two-cycle engine, that amount of oil will be so slight in your vehicle’s fuel tank as to be negligible.

• Slosh the fuel in the storage can before fueling your mower or other power tool. If it’s hand-held, move the tool around to help remix settled ethanol. If it doesn’t run properly, DON’T force it; have it serviced rather than running the risk of a fuel leak or fire.

• When storing mowers, snowblowers and the like, consider a long-lasting fuel mix. Sherburne says technicians add a product called 50 Fuel to all snowblowers Bradstreet services. He says results have been great, and customer complaints about poor starts after storage have virtually ended.

While some may consider a product like 50 Fuel “a little pricey,” Sherburne says the protection it offers is well worth the price. It’s also cheaper than having a new carburetor installed.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to, or email

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