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Is ethanol plaguing your small engines?

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Greg Peck
August 15, 2013

Critics suggest ethanol can pose problems for the small engines we use to run our boats, mow our lawns, blow leaves and go four-wheeling and snowmobiling.

Perhaps those issues came home to roost on our mower the past few trips around the lawn. My wife, Cheryl, mows most often, and while I was fishing in Canada, she reported the mower was acting funny, revving and fading as if it were running out of gas, though it had plenty of fuel.

I was trimming the lawn last week when Cheryl started mowing, and sure enough, the problem was quite audible. I told her to stop, and I checked the air filter. It didn't seem too dirty.

She started again, and I went to find my bottle of gas stabilizer. The label read that it helps with ethanol-related problems, so I again told Cheryl to shut off the mower and dumped a little stabilizer in the mower's gas tank.

Still, the mower was sputtering and finally died before Cheryl finished. I got it started again, but it died within seconds. We borrowed a neighbor's mower to finish up.

Ethanol, I was thinking.

Andrew P. Morriss wrote in a column on ethanol that we published in 2009. Not only can ethanol corrode metal, rubber and plastic surfaces with which the fuel comes into contact, he wrote, but ethanol also attracts water as it passes through the refining and fuel distribution network—an additional source of potential damage.

“Moreover, some contaminants that settle out in storage tanks over time are soluble in ethanol and can be carried into engines.”

I called a buddy who knows more than I do about engines and mechanical stuff. He wondered if the gas filter was plugged because it sounded like the mower wasn't getting gas. I thought that plausible but said I'd never done any work on a mower's gas filter and wouldn't know where to start.

So he stopped over. First he disassembled the choke, behind the air filter. It didn't appear stuck, so he started taking apart the gas bulb. Gas was in it, and the gas line appeared open. The bulb had a bit of dirt in it, which we cleaned out. My buddy started putting things back together, a bit perplexed. I figured he was going to tell me to take it to a repair shop to have the gas filter changed or search for other problems.

But when he told me to start it, it seemed to run smoothly. We stopped it, and he asked if I was using gas with ethanol. I said I was, suggesting I didn't know any station in town still sold gas without ethanol.

Go to Kwik Trip on Memorial Drive, he suggested. We drained the mower tank of the leftover gas and cleaned out a bit more dirt evident in the bottom. He told me to buy fresh gas without ethanol, along with a bottle of carburetor cleaner. Dump some of the cleaner in the mower tank, too, he said.

I did that. Cheryl had it die twice soon after starting to mow Wednesday. I got home and saw the mower in the yard while Cheryl was gone. I thought “oh, no,” but the mower started and I finished cutting the lawn without a hiccup. I'm not sure why it ran for me but not Cheryl, but maybe the problem has passed. It leaves me to wonder: Was it dirt causing the problem, or ethanol? I don't know. But as long as Kwik Trip offers gas (Premium) without ethanol, I'll be buying it there for my mower and snow blower. Life throws enough problems my way without these headaches.

What about you? Have you experienced any problems with small engines that you suspect might have been caused by ethanol?

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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