Ethanol Assault

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Remember those ’80s-era PSAs that warned, “this is your brain on drugs” – cue video of an egg frying in a pan? Well, here’s your old car’s engine on ethanol. debris1

I don’t have a video – just these pictures – which show what ethanol-blend fuel did to a plastic component inside the carburetor that feeds fuel to my classic muscle car (1976 Trans-Am). It disintegrated the plastic – chunks of which then migrated to the carburetor’s primary jets, which have tiny orifices through which the fuel is supposed to flow into the intake manifold and from there to the engine’s cylinders via the intake ports. But not much fuel flows when the tiny orifice is clogged with a piece of debris. My car ran not unlike a mechanical version of a human with advanced COPD – or coronary artery disease.

I discovered the pictured pieces of debris upon disassembly of the carburetor. They were chips off a fuel filler bock that Rochester – manufacturer of the Quadrajet carburetor – had installed circa Fall of ’75, when my Trans-Am was made. It was made at a time when gasoline was in fact gasoline – not a blend of gasoline and alcohol. It – and other such fuel system parts – was not made to withstand immersion in alcohol-laced fuel, which is corrosive to such parts.debris2

If you own a car made before the 1990s, you should be concerned. Here is a partial but by no means necessarily all-inclusive list of the parts at risk if exposed to ethanol-laced “gas”:

* Carburetor needle and seat; accelerator pump, float, all gaskets.

* Fuel pump (diaphragm).

* Fuel lines (if steel) and fuel hoses (rubber).

* Gas tank.

Ethanol hardens (or eats away) rubber not made to withstand it. This can cause problems from the minor and mildly  annoying – such as sputtering acceleration because of an inoperative or failing accelerator pump – to the downright dangerous, such as a fire caused by a fuel leak. The latter is a particular concern for “modern” – that is, fuel-injected – cars that were built before the Ethanol Era. These cars – which include cars built from (roughly) the mid-late 1980s, when fuel-injection began to replace carburetion, through the early ’90s – the era before ethanol-laced “gas” became commonplace.

After the early ’90s, as ethanol-laced “gas” became the default standard fuel, the car companies built their cars to be ethanol compatible. Or at least, compatible with “gas” that contained 10 percent ethanol (E10, the fuel commonly sold today as regular unleaded). E15 – “gas” that’s 15 percent ethanol is another story – and another article.ethanol 1

Anyhow, the danger of fire is real – and serious – in an older, pre-ethanol-compatible, fuel-injected car. Or rather, much more serious than in a car fed by a carburetor. Reason? Orders of magnitude more fuel pressure. A carbureted car’s fuel system typically operates at 3-6 PSI or thereabouts. But fuel injection routinely runs at 35-40 PSI or more. It’s the difference between a fuel drip or sip – and a high-pressure arterial spray. There were more than a few ethanol-related engine fires back in the late ’90s and early 2000s involving older, FI cars from the mid-late ’80s and early ’90s. If you own one of these cars today, you’d be smart to have the entire fuel system closely checked – and any pre-ethanol rubber fuel lines, o-rings (and so on) replaced.

Steel fuel lines – and gas tanks – are another problem. Alcohol-laced fuels tend to attract moisture, which leads to rust. . . . from the inside out. (Here’s a very comprehensive technical article on the properties of ethanol-laced fuels.) As the rust develops, bits and pieces flake off – and enter the fuel stream. Inevitably, some of these small bits of debris will get past the fuel filter (especially if the lines rust ahead of the filter) and make their way to the small passages inside the fuel delivery system, where they will cause you endless headaches. Endless, because cleaning out one piece of debris won’t permanently fix the problem. Unless you replace all the fuel lines (and the metal gas tank) with stainless, it’s inevitable that another bit of rust will make its way through the pipes to clog a small passage and cause the car to run like scheisse – if it runs at all.ethanol 2

And if the car is carbureted – like my classic Trans-Am – then the carburetor must be torn down and all internal parts that were not originally made to be ethanol-compatible must be replaced with ethanol compatible parts. Same goes for the mechanical fuel pump. If you don’t do it, it’s inevitable you’ll have problems. Your choice is wait for them to develop – and deal with them then. Or deal with them now, before they cause you headaches. But deal with them you will.

The good news, if you can call it that, is you can readily buy ethanol-compatible replacements for the parts described above. The bad news is it’s another expense imposed on you be federal fiat (and for the rent-seeking benefit of the corporate AG cartels that make billions off the ethanol mandate, a mandate that has the additional noxious side-effect of making your food cost more, too).

And the really scary news is the very real possibility that the Feds will mandate E15. Even modern cars (stuff built as recently as this model year) will have issues with “gas” that’s really 15 percent ethanol. That’s not merely my wild-eyed Libertarian Car Guy assertion, either. Read the owner’s manual (or warranty booklet) of almost any recent-model car and you’ll find BLOCK LETTER warnings about using E15 (let alone E85, just 15 percent gasoline) in the vehicle.

What this stuff will do to classic cars is anyone’s guess, but it’s not likely to be an improvement over what E10 is known to do.ethanol 3

Owners of older cars may end up having to buy their fuel (non-ethanol) by the drum – kind of like race teams buy Sunoco 260 leaded premium. It’ll be expensive as hell, for sure. And it’ll mean most of us have to stop driving our older cars except on very special occasions.

Which may be exactly the point of this exercise.

Throw it in the Woods?      


Eric Peters is a veteran car/bike journalist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs.

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  1. Great article. I’ve written before about my previous ride, a 65 Chevy van.
    R.I.P. partly due to ethanol. First the fuel pump, then the carb. Gone are the days of getting a used carb from the junkyard for $5. I wound up ordering a rebuilt carb from Kragen’s… Three times! Each one worst than the last, rebuilt in China by trained chimps, I presume. The last one wouldn’t even seat properly, gas poured out of the base… nice. Got a refund and lucked onto http://www.recarbco,com. Their website seems under construction atm, here’s the contact info:
    661 Garcia Avenue
    Pittsburg, CA 94565
    (925) 439-7030 | 1-800-282-CARB (2272)

    They had one in stock for my model, reasonably priced, and best of all, IT WORKED perfectly. I think I haven’t been in a Kragen’s since, what a hassle.
    Car continued to develop problems though, and then some idjit punched the windshield – 65, so just a flat slab of safety glass, but they don’t make them any more – replacement cost was more than the car was worth, so farewell, old friend.

  2. About the avgas – 100LL. Firstly, the green tint was for a lower octane aviation gas that I have personally never seen sold (going back > 20 years). Along with the green stuff in the past, there used to be 4 types, as I recall, from my reading. Right now, it’s 100 LL or Jet fuel (totally different stuff, kerosene – tinted yellow).

    As far at the 100 LL, the blue-tinted stuff, if you have a catalytic converter, which even an early 80’s car with a carb would have, the lead will ruin it right quick. I’m sure Eric would know the changeover period to the CC’s better than I do. Lastly, you can get 100LL for under $5/gal for right now, if you shop around. Then again, shopping around for aviation gas might mean looking 100 miles away, in which case, you’d better have a big tank to make it worth going to get it for the lower price.

    This has been posted before, on this site, but I’m sure it will help to post it again: Remember it’s .org not .com. It’s a very simple web-site, and you can add your own station that has a no-alcohol pump to it, or update locations that have quit selling it. I think any medium-sized city will have the stuff, but you indeed, as a commenter above wrote, have to pay a premium for it now – 25 to 40 cents for me, anyway.

    Keep up the good work, Eric.

    • The stations listed near me sell only ethanol-free 91 octane premium as I mentioned in a previous post. Ethanol-free regular is history, at least around here. Most cars and small motors won’t derive any benefit from higher octane so your choices boil down to paying a hell of a lot more for what you can’t use or risking damage. Either way you’re getting screwed.

  3. My 2004 SUV has big warnings about not using E15 on the gas cap. Toyota knew *10 years ago* that it was going to be a problem.

    My worry is that the gas station will switch to E15 from E10 and not update the signs on the pump to let me know (to change to another vendor). Of course, if the EPA mandates the change, there will be no where to change *to*.

    • Your worries are definitely based on fact Chiph. Here in Australia, the leaded fuel disappeared slowly from the pumps, long before they were ever marked “unleaded”.

  4. I tell my students that future generations will look back on this era with disbelief. There are human beings suffering from a lack of food and others who pervert the food supply and then shove it in their gas tanks.

    Marc’s comment about food prices are also very interesting. One of my coworkers complained about her husband complained about how she spent so much money on groceries yet there was no food in the house.

    Things are getting interesting.

    • Hi Brittany,

      Food prices are, indeed, skyrocketing. And ethanol rent-seeking is a significant contributor. A huge swath of farm land is devoted to the production of corn, not for food – but for ethanol. Who benefits? Agri-business cartels. It’s despicable.

      Now, to be clear, ethanol can be a viable fuel (assuming engines and so on made to run on it). The issue is how it’s produced… by what means. If it’s done as they do it in Brazil and some other countries – using sugar can, IIRC – it can be economically sensible.

      But making it out of corn – in this country – has been nothing but another continental-sized con.

      • You are correct in that if suppliers can produce ethanol at a profit and if engines are designed to process the stuff efficiently, then it could be economically sensible.

        Simply, I have a problem with subsidies, especially corn, given that most of it is GMO and that it is not the best for your engine.

        I can’t stand the big Ag cartel. I look forward to the day that price discovery is realized in all markets. It’s sad how distorted our economy has become that this seems like a reasonable way to use our nation’s productive land.

        I wonder, is GM corn used to make ethanol? If the GM corn produces bigger corn, then it would seem like the ethanol producers would prefer to use it. Just wondering as the production of GM corn would be even greater than I initially thought.

          • Instead of being alarmed by the following, I look at it as further motivation to find a way to live under voluntarily chosen circumstances rather than force:

            Up to 85% of U.S. corn, 91% of soybeans, and 88% of cotton (cottonseed oil is often used in food products) are genetically engineered.

            It has been estimated that as much as 75% of processed foods on supermarket shelves – from soda to soup, crackers to condiments – contain genetically engineered ingredients.

            By removing the genetic material from one organism and inserting it into the permanent genetic code of another, the biotech industry has created an astounding number of organisms that are not produced by nature and have never been seen on the plate.

            These include potatoes with bacteria genes, “super” pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes, tomatoes with flounder genes, corn with bacteria genes, and thousands of other altered and engineered plants, animals and insects increasingly being patented and released into the environment and food supply.


          • On a side note of “Big AG” rent-seeking, another unnecessary use of corn is High Fructose Corn Syrup, economical only because of subsidies to the sugar growers.

  5. Eric. Always follow the money. From what I have learned VIA internet “Ethanol” costs more to produce than energy it delivers. Always follow the money. Our politicians are personally heavily invested in “Ethanol” stocks. Always follow the money. Would any sane rational person toss heavy investments down the drain who have the political power to earn $$$$$. Always follow the money. Insider trading would land the average “Joe” behind bars but government exempted themselves from this same law. Always follow the money.

  6. “Read the owner’s manual (or warranty booklet) of almost any recent-model car and you’ll find BLOCK LETTER warnings about using E15 (let alone E85, just 15 percent gasoline) in the vehicle.”

    ERIC – I always thought E85 means 15% Ethanol and 85% gasoline – not 15% gasoline as you stated above.

    Please clarify….

  7. Until as recently as last summer one could still buy ethanol free regular unleaded here for about ten cents per gallon more than ethanol gas. Now the local stations only offer ethanol free premium unleaded and it sells for a whopping forty cents per gallon more than ethanol gas.

    This is a little off the topic and I don’t want to get the conversation sidetracked. Having run low on food I made a trip to the grocery store today and discovered that almost everything that you need to survive is now twenty to thirty percent more expensive than it was only two weeks ago. Milk and a few specials were the only exceptions but I don’t expect that to last. I lived through this type of thing once before in the mid 1970s just before interest rates spiked to more than twenty percent. This time around, however, there will be no increase in interest rates. That’s no longer allowed anymore. Madness.

    • Here in Maryland the only places selling real gas (as opposed to “gasohol”) are in and around the Chesapeake Bay marinas. Those commercial fishing boats don’t want no stinking ethanol.

    • Ethanol based fuels attract a subsidy (meaning we all pay for it anyway). It’s a no win situation based on green ideology that was never designed to work in anyone’s favour, except for some farmers and the ethanol industry.

  8. 100 octane low lead aviation gas. Great stuff at $5.80/ gallon. Airplanes crashing would be a bad thing so there is no ethanol mandate for them, just real gasoline with green tinting.

  9. “Here is a partial but by no means necessarily all-inclusive list of the parts at risk if exposed to ethanol-laced “gas”:

    * Carburetor needle and seat; accelerator pump, float, all gaskets.

    * Fuel pump (diaphragm).

    * Fuel lines (if steel) and fuel hoses (rubber).

    * Gas tank.”

    Them’s some real money makers for auto shops.
    Heck, I can’t even count the number of accelerator pumps I’ve replaced, probably due to the shit gas.

    This was kind of freakin’ spooky:

    “Owners of older cars may end up having to buy their fuel (non-ethanol) by the drum”

    Donkey path Valley is lookin’ better and better every day.

    Also, RE: “Steel fuel lines” – For years and years those were supposed to be one of the coolest mods a hot rodder could do to a muscle car or street sleeper. I’ll bet there are boatloads of people paying the price for that, and they have no idea what it was that hit them square in the wallet.

  10. A few years ago the mechanical fuel pump on my old but well maintained Dodge van sprang a leak and began spraying a mist of gas over the alternator. Since I didn’t catch the problem until the growing odor caused concern, the engine compartment could have easily erupted in flames. Even though I always carry an extinguisher, a sudden conflagration under the hood can quickly cause major damage and even personal injury. When I installed a new pump I noticed that all the rubber fuel lines were in an advanced state of deterioration so I replaced them as well. I’ve always wondered why the fuel delivery system seemed to be prematurely rotting until I read this article:

    • Yup –

      I’ve seen it in several vehicles, including some of my own. It’s another thing it;s important to get ahead of – before it (per Forrest Gump) bites you on the buttocks.


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