The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 26, 2013

New fuel causes concern

Justin Dennis

JOHNSTOWN — Fueling up your vehicle could soon become a bit more confusing.

One type of gas has been in use for years at gas stations everywhere. The other will allegedly void your warranty and doom your car to an early death, if auto industry buzz is to be believed.

The EPA in October granted a waiver under the Clean Air Act that allows the sale of E15, a gasoline blend with 5 percent more ethanol than today’s standard, E10.

Automakers, dealers and even the AAA are now taking shots at E15’s market viability, citing concerns about ethanol’s potentially damaging effect on engines and consumer awareness about the product.

According to the EPA’s list of frequently asked questions about E15, any car with a model year of 2001 or later is able to burn E15 with no ill effects.

Local mechanics are skeptical, although most admitted that E15’s underexposure has limited their range of knowledge about what it actually does to a car over time.

But they do know that too much ethanol can be a bad thing.

“It pulls moisture out of the air,” said Craig Fry, manager at Ferndale Service Station along Ferndale Avenue. “To me, it doesn’t hold up as well as other fuels.”

Any motorist who has left a car unattended for the winter months feels this pain. The condensation that forms on the inside of the gas tank during the freeze and thaw drips into the fuel supply, making it much harder (or impossible) to start a car with the diluted fuel.

Ethanol also burns hotter.

“The higher the octane, the harder it is on the motor,” said Christopher Mazzarese, owner of Mazz Auto along East Second Street in Conemaugh.

“That’s why you don’t spray ether, which is in starting fluid. It could destroy the motor. ... It’s just too highly combustible.”

Unsurprisingly, the organizations on either side of the argument have vested interests in standing their ground.

The EPA and biofuel advocacy groups accuse detractors of trumping up E15’s bad reputation to keep Big Oil on the energy throne, while detractors hammer the EPA for pushing this green alternative with little consideration for motorists and their vehicles.

Nissan, Chrysler, Toyota, BMW and Volkswagen will not cover E15 damage under warranties and Honda, Mazda, Kia, Hyundai, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Ford have stated that use of E15 could void the warranty altogether, according to a statement made by AAA in November to environmental blog E2 Wire.

What everyone can agree on, however, is that most motorists simply have never heard of E15.

The first E15 pump was installed in Kansas last summer. Although it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as E10 – yet – a Misfueling Mitigation Plan is in place to help keep drivers from using the wrong fuel. It requires colored pumps with warning labels to designate which is E15.

But what if it’s too late and the damage is already done? That remains to be seen.

“Of course they’re not going to put something down on black and white,” said Mazzarese. “It’s a billion-dollar industry.”

But after a recent request for a rehearing on the E15 ruling was denied in federal court, it seems the biofuel is gaining ground.

There’s still one surefire way to make the right decision for your car, according to Laurel Auto Group co-owner Matt Smith: Read the manual.

“Our manufacturers spend a lot of time and money through their engineering departments,” he said. “I would strongly encourage owners to be sure that any fuel or lubricant product is compatible with their vehicle before using.”

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