By Rick Barrett,Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)
Briggs & Stratton Co. has never liked ethanol because it can make a mess of things at the worst possible time - like when you need to cut the grass and your lawn mower spits, sputters and just won’t start.
Often, water in the gasoline is the culprit, according to Briggs, the world’s largest manufacturer of small gasoline engines.
And the company says the biofuel additive ethanol, which is contained in most of the gasoline people buy today, can attract moisture out of the air like steel sticks to a magnet.
Moisture in gasoline is a big problem for boats, lawn mowers, generators and other equipment powered by gasoline engines, said Scott Wesenberg, manager of Briggs’ fuel systems group.
But since petroleum companies use a 10 percent blend of ethanol in gasoline to comply with the federal government’s Renewable Fuels Standard, Briggs has created its own fuel additive that it says offsets some of the negative side effects, including the dreaded moisture problem.
The additive doesn’t eliminate ethanol in gasoline, but it displaces water and keeps ethanol from gumming up an engine’s fuel system, according to Wesenberg.
Ethanol, he said, leaves residues that ânever stick in a nice place.
There are other fuel additives that displace water and keep gasoline fresh in storage, but Briggs says it’s the first engine maker to develop its own formula that does those things and more.
After a gradual introduction, the additive is now available at thousands of locations where outdoor power equipment with Briggs & Stratton engines is sold, including Home Depot and Wal-Mart. A container that treats up to 40 gallons of gas sells for about $7.
The additive wasn’t created on a whim, according to the company, which says that the millions of gasoline engines it builds a year are designed to run on a 10 percent blend of ethanol but that damage from poor fuel or water is not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.
In consumer research, Briggs said it learned the No. 1 problem people had with their engines was contaminated gasoline.
“We tell people that every time they mow the lawn they should use fresh fuel, and every time they fill their gas can they should put in a fuel treatment and stabilizer,” said Carissa Gingras, director of marketing for Briggs’ North American consumer engine and service division.
Backers of ethanol, which is made from corn, say the problems Briggs cites are exaggerated. They also say that engine manufacturers have resisted higher ethanol blends because it could force them to design engines that cost more and are less profitable.
âWe sat across the table from (Briggs) executives a couple of years ago and they said, “If you guys never made another gallon of ethanol, it wouldn’t be too soon for us,” said Josh Morby, executive director of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance, which represents ethanol producers.
Don’t blame ethanol for water in gasoline, said Kristy Moore, vice president of technical services for the Renewable Fuels Association.
Most of the problems stem from careless handling of fuel, such as leaving the cap off a gasoline can and failing to use a fuel stabilizer when outdoor power equipment is put in storage for months, according to Moore.
“We call these housekeeping issues,” she said. “If someone doesn’t take care of equipment to keep water out of the fuel, they’re going to have a hard time starting that engine.
The small-engine industry has lagged behind automakers in keeping up with changing fuel standards, according to Moore. “They think they need fuel additives that probably arenât really necessary,” she said.
Briggs’ fuel additive was designed to offset some of the problems with a 10 percent ethanol blend in gasoline engines but wasnât meant to address the new 15 percent blend, known as E15, that has begun to creep into the marketplace.
Raising the amount of the biofuel in gasoline could reduce the nationâs dependence on foreign oil, lower fuel prices, and aid the environment because the ethanol blend burns cleaner, ethanol advocates say.
By law, E15 isn’t supposed to be used in small gasoline engines and older automobiles. But critics say accidental use of the blend could damage or ruin engines that were not designed to run on fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol in it.
Engine makers say they expect mis-fueling based on their past experience with fuel changes. Most people don’t even know there’s up to 10 percent ethanol in the fuel they use now, said Briggs spokeswoman Laura Timm.
It’s potentially disastrous for boat owners if they put E15 in their boat’s fuel tank while they are also filling up the tank of a late-model car or truck thatâs allowed to use the fuel, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
A 300-horsepower Mercury Marine outboard, one of the companyâs biggest engines, sustained valve damage after 280 hours of testing on the 15 percent blend, while an identical engine powered by gasoline without ethanol was not damaged, the trade association said.
Briggs and other engine makers lost court challenges aimed at blocking the implementation of E15, yet say they’re not against biofuels. They’ve tested isobutanol as an alternative to E15. Like ethanol, it can be made from corn and other organic feedstock.
“We are fully supportive of more biofuels coming into the industry. It’s just that we don’t think ethanol, per se, is necessarily the best one,” Timm said.