Avoiding ethanol-related problems

If at all possible, burn ethanol-free gasoline. An Internet search for “ethanol-free gasoline Charleston” directs you to numerous establishments.Gasoline can go bad in as little as 30 days. Using an outboard motor flusher, run the engine on a regular basis. Use a fuel stabilizer such as Star Tron or StaBil, which breaks down fuel sludge so it can be trapped in a fuel filter.Yamaha recommends using a 10-micron water separating fuel filter to catch contaminants before they reach the engine. Mercury recommends not using additional filters beyond the factory-installed filters. Be diligent in checking and replacing them.If your boat is not going to be used for an extended period, keep the gas tank full or close to full with treated gas. This helps cut down on condensation.Outboard engine manufacturers recommend buying gasoline from the same dealer. They also recommend using newer gas stations that should have cleaner storage tanks.

Brad Nettles // The Post and Courier

Mike Murphy with Hanckel Marine works on an outboard boat motor. Below, ethanol-free gasoline tends to cost 30 to 40 cents more per gallon.

Rusty Stuart had no qualms about heading out in his 32-foot boat for a day of offshore fishing. The ocean was beautiful, and the fishing 30 miles out was good. But his mood began to waver when both outboard engines began sputtering.

"I almost didn't get back in," Stuart said. "I took the boat to the shop and it cost me $800 to get it fixed. It was because of ethanol."

Most gas stations today carry a blend of gasoline and 10 percent ethanol (E10), an additive used to increase octane and decrease emissions into the atmosphere. But gasoline blended with ethanol can cause problems for boat owners.

As the owner of Russell's Exxon station in West Ashley, Stuart was in a position to do something that would benefit him as well as other boat owners.

"I thought my motors were messing up. It wasn't bad fuel. It was ethanol," he said.

He began looking around for a fuel supplier that carried ethanol-free gasoline. Today, Stuart is one of a handful of dealers in the area, including most marinas, that sell ethanol-free gasoline.

Marine issues

Ethanol isn't a problem for automobiles because they are used almost daily. It's an entirely different matter for boats, which often sit unused for months at a time and have vented fuel systems that allow moisture to enter the tanks.

Mike Murphy, a service technician at Hanckel Marine, has been working on outboards for more than 30 years. He said problems began to surface almost immediately after gasoline manufacturers began using ethanol. Working on outboard boats with ethanol problems is an almost daily occurrence for him.

"The biggest problem is ethanol is alcohol-based and alcohol absorbs moisture from the atmosphere," Murphy explained. "Over a period of months, it can add up to a half-gallon, maybe as much as a gallon of water."

That water separates from the gas and sinks to the bottom of the fuel tank. When a boat takes off, the bow rises and the fuel rushes to the lowest spot in the tank, which is where the pickup tube is located. Water is sucked into the engine, causing it to misfire.

On his workbench, Murphy has a small glass container of ethanol gasoline that has been taken from a vapor separator tank on an outboard engine.

"You can see the line of water here," he said, pointing to the distinct separation. "The top (clear) is gasoline and the bottom (a milky brown substance) is water and ethanol mixed. It has gone into phase separation. You can shake it up and let it sit for a few minutes and it will go right back. It's like vinegar and oil salad dressing, but I don't think I'd put it on my salad."

When fuel goes bad, it has to be pumped out and the dealer has to dispose of the bad fuel. The disposal fee runs $6.50 per gallon and many modern boats hold 30 gallons or more.

Ethanol is a solvent

In addition to absorbing water, ethanol also is a solvent. It can soften the interior of rubber hoses, and pieces come loose. Pickup tubes in the fuel tank can become brittle and either break off or flake, again sending along particles that can clog the fuel system. Some boats have fiberglass fuel tanks and the ethanol can dissolve the fiberglass resin that holds the material together.

"After a period of time the resins will be dissolved and sucked through the fuel system, leaving nothing but the fiberglass cloth in the fuel tank," Murphy said. He discovered an extreme example in one customer's boat, reaching inside the tank and removing enough fiberglass material to fill four small bags.

"And that wasn't all of it," Murphy said. "That boat had to go back to the manufacturer for a new fuel tank."

A dirty word

Capt. John Irwin of FlyRight Charters fishes about 250 days a year and experienced one minor problem with ethanol fuel several years ago. After shutting off his engine to fish, his outboard became difficult to start. A mechanic suggested ethanol might be the issue. He switched to ethanol-free gasoline and said he hasn't had any more issues.

"It costs me more, maybe $300 a month, but it's worth it," Irwin aid. "All you hear down in Florida is E10. It's a dirty word, a plague. Those guys hate it."

Capt. Chris Chavis of Fin Stalker Charters fishes both inshore and offshore, the latter in a twin-engine 26-foot center console boat. Now, he burns only ethanol-free gasoline. It costs more, but he said it's well worth it.

Not long after purchasing his boat, Chavis was returning from an offshore trip when the engines began to perform poorly. Instead of cruising at 4,200 RPM, he was only able to reach 2,400 RPM, enough to get him home. But there obviously was a problem.

He took the boat in for service and was told the ethanol was causing deterioration inside the fuel lines, which in turned gummed up the fuel system.

"Luckily, it was under warranty," Chavis said. "I saw the bill, and for each one of those motors it was $1,400."

Stay ahead of the game

Although modern outboards are designed to run on E10 gasoline, manufacturers suggest using non-ethanol gasoline if it is available. Most marinas now carry ethanol-free gasoline and a handful of regular gas stations also stock a supply.

Stuart said he has boaters from Mount Pleasant, James Island and North Charleston who will make the extra effort to trailer their boats to his West Ashley business to buy ethanol-free gas.

"They'll call and ask how much we have," he said. "They don't want to haul a boat over here to buy 150 gallons of gas and not have it," he said.

Murphy said the service end of the boating industry has been kept busy because of ethanol-related repairs.

"The down side is that we have customers that aren't happy," he said. "They are paying a lot of money and sometimes it's happening repeatedly."