Common Tread

Fuck ethanol: The rant

Jul 30, 2015

I know, I know, I lobbed a Molotov cocktail with the title. But ethanol really sucks.

To learn more about the basics of ethanol, see "Why is there ethanol in my gas?"

I’ve had it with ethanol-laced gas. I’m sick of what it does to motorcycles. I’m not going to get into the political or environmental ramifications of using or not using it. That’s beyond the scope of this article and not germane to my most favoritest of topics, which is motorcycles. Instead, I want to present every mechanical reason I know why you should write your state legislators and members of Congress and politely request that the government extricate itself from our gas tanks.

Ethanol fuel in the United States is a blended fuel. What this means is that when you buy a gallon of gasoline, you’re actually buying about nine tenths of a gallon of gas and one tenth of a gallon of ethanol, according to the scoundrels at the Energy Information Administration. Now, normally I love ethanol. It’s great stuff for rotting your liver and helping one make questionable decisions with respect to smooching. As a fuel additive, however, I detest it.

ethanol damage
That used to be a fuel tank liner. Photo by Tom Cotten.
In my college days, I pulled plenty of old bikes out of Missouri barns and fired them up on whatever gas sloshed around in them. Ah, the good old days. When men were men and gas didn’t have water in it.

From a business standpoint, ethanol is great stuff for those of us in the motorcycle repair biz. I’ve put more money in my pocket from rebuilding carburetors than nearly all my other work combined. I remember when ethanol-free gas was not nearly so difficult to locate, and these problems seemed to be much fewer and farther between. Storing a bike was really the only time fuel could go bad.

That’s not the case today. Gas goes bad in a matter of weeks, not years. I needed some science to make this article sound legit, so I interviewed a chemical engineer. My source wished to remain anonymous, due to a conflict of interest with his employer. He had quite a bit to say that supported my ethanol-sourced rage.

“Ethanol acts as an emulsifier,” he explained. “Ethanol, being hydrophilic, permits water and fuel to blend together, which they ordinarily will not do. Ethanol’s water-loving nature means it also has the nasty side effect of corroding the vessel it’s contained in, like a fuel tank or carburetor body. In addition, pulling in water dilutes the fuel and lowers the BTU content of the fuel. This is why many older motorcycles need larger pilot jets, even when stock, to run correctly.”

Did I mention this chemical engineer also has a garage full of motorcycles? Because he does.

corrosion from ethanol
All the green corrosion you see on this float needle is courtesy of the moisture that gets into your fuel system because of ethanol. Photo by Tom Cotten.
Emulsifications have this nasty habit of pulling apart. Have you ever made — and broken — a hollandaise sauce? The same thing happens with ethanol. The ethanol-and-water mix eventually settles to the bottom of the tank. This process accelerates when the mixture is not agitated. (That’s a fancy way of saying “not shaken or disturbed.”) Imagine, say, an old bike parked in a barn, now with a layer of water underneath the gas, rusting the snot out of the tank. It makes me angry just thinking about it, because this is all avoidable.

Tom Cotten, proprietor of Liberty Motorcycle Specialties, has another viewpoint on ethanol.

”I love bad gas!" Tom says. "The worse the gas, the better for my business."

The replacement floats Tom makes for Linkert carburetors have become the favored option for antique bike owners.

“The whole problem with ethanol is how it reacts with the other 149 mandated additives in U.S. fuels, such as injector cleaners, intake valve deposit inhibitors as well as their effect when brands are mixed,” Tom said.

carburetor deposits
Tom is unable to identify this deposit. The entire contents of that bottle were found in one single carburetor, and are not the product of any of the fuel system components. Tom thinks this is the chemical product of some of the other additives that are a part of modern gasoline. Photo by Tom Cotten.
I might add that there are also proprietary additives to fuel which make the goo that much more complicated. Tom feels that there was also some change to the fuel mixtures around 2006, or so. Apparently, that was a particularly dark time for the carburetor parts in the antique machines he is intimately familiar with.

“I’m wishing things would get back to as bad as 2006, when gas ate powdercoating, and seasoned tank liners turned to pork liver. The ethanol content in the fuel was the same, but I still wonder what changed,” he said with a laugh.

I’m not saying ethanol should be outlawed. I’d just like the opportunity to buy my dino juice old-timey and unaltered. Ethanol is making my life inconvenient and expensive, and that’s not just an allusion to my mounting bar tabs. All joking aside, ethanol fuel just presents a list of problems that are very, very real: Reduced fuel mileage, increased potential for corrosion damage, no-start situations, and — if the government gets its way and E15 (gasoline with 15 percent ethanol) becomes widely available — a severely elevated possibility of having to drain and refill your fuel tank due to mis-blended fuel.

Fuck ethanol.