Ethanol Gas Problems

Posted on Tuesday 27 June 2006 at 11:45 pm

As you know last week I was towed back from MINIsOnTop because my fuel pump died. What you might not know was that it was killed by the 10% ethanol gas that has become common. And I am very much not alone.

Massachusetts started adding 10% ethanol (E10) to its gasoline this summer. As soon as we saw those stickers show up on the gas tanks, many of us also noticed our MINIs having many problems starting and running until the engine warms up. For me, the first start never worked, it just “harleys” for a few seconds and dies. But then it starts perfectly on the second start. Many others are experiencing this, and also some hesitation for a minute or so before the engine warms up.

It was just a small annoyance, just a quirky personality trait. At least until It destroyed my fuel pump and left me stranded. We have no stations that give us a choice of non-ethanol fuel (which will hopefully go away again in the winter), so we can’t do anything about it really. So I started pressing on what is really going on, and I got a bit of a scoop.

This is a BIG problem. Where there was never any fuel pump issues before, as soon as the E10 gas was released, several minis per day have been coming in with dead pumps. Upon investigating the fuel inside the tank, it is almost always an orange-brown color, possibly from the corroded pump. In some rare cases, it is black from sludge that has been cleaned off of old tanks. Furthermore, if the tank is not cleaned out, a new pump will seize soon after. This issue is not just affecting MINIs in vast quantities, but many other brands as well…BMW, Porsche, and others.

Here’s the kicker: Officially, MINI’s warranty does not cover “bad gas.” Of course we have no way to know how bad it is, and if it is present in every pump in the state, it can hardly be considered bad. As a result, service is forced to word things differently to blame the pump itself, and the repair paperwork cannot say ethanol, in order to have it covered by warranty. (In other words, if this happens to you, maybe “forget” some brownies and beer in your car when you turn it in!)

What’s really going on here? First let’s have a look at Ethanol Gasoline. Ethanol is an alcohol usually derived from corn. Its use is mainly political, to support U.S. Farmers. It does not save money or reduce foreign oil dependency, as it doesn’t offset the additional costs to refine and transport. For example, it cannot be transferred through pipelines as it will corrode them, instead it must be transported by truck and added to local fuel depot batches. Ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline, and therefore you get less power and miles per gallon using it. Ethanol alone is slightly corrosive, mainly to seals in fuel systems not designed to use them (This is where the new E85 vehicles are updated), but should be harmless at low percentages. However the property that concerns us most is that while water does not combine with normal gasoline, ethanol absorbs it. Furthermore the ethanol can separate from the gasoline at low temperatures and create a much higher concentration than if they were mixed evenly.

So although 10% Ethanol is mixed in at the fuel depot, it may separate while sitting in the tanks there, or in the trucks, or more in the gas station’s tank. Gas station’s tanks may not be completely sealed, and heavy rains may get water into the tank–and we all know New England has had record rainfalls this spring. In fact it is normal for stations to have water at the bottom of their tanks, but remember gas won’t combine with it so it doesn’t get pumped, until ethanol is added and absorbs that water. The only way to avoid this is at the beginning of each summer when the switch is made to E10, the station must flush and clean out its tanks. You know most stations won’t bother doing that. As a result of all of this, the actual concentration of ethanol going into your tank may be much higher than ten percent–you have no way to tell–and you have no idea how much water is absorbed in it as well. It should be worse at the beginning of the season or after a lot of rain, then slowly improve.

The quality of the fuel is not related to the station brand. There are “Top Tier” brands (note this does not include Mobil), but that refers to cleaning agents added to the gas above the required standard and has no effect on ethanol. It simply comes down to how well a station cares for its gas tanks, and the rate at which it is refilled with cleaner gas. You really have no idea if one station is better than another. The best you can do is go to stations that get more volume of customers so they are refilled more often; if there is water in their tanks it has a better chance of being absorbed and pumped out quicker.

There’s not much else we can do. Gas stations will slowly adapt to the new stricter water requirements. MINI and other car companies may need to develop an additive to reduce the corrosiveness of the water and ethanol in the fuel. Really the only answer is to redesign the fuel pump to better handle ethanol and water, and then recall and replace each fuel pump out there. As you can imagine, that would be a daunting task.

If you think your MINI has been affected by ethanol gas, we are sharing our experiences in this thread on MINI2. There are a few suggestions on getting your engine to run better, but there’s really not much you can do to protect your fuel pump. As for mine, the car has been running better since the install of the new pump, but despite being in the middle of a tank, when the rain came back over the weekend so did my double-start issue. That may mean the humidity in the air may also be a factor in this whole equation!

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  1.  
    June 28, 2006 | 12:04 am
     

    Yikes, this is not good news at all. Thanks for the info.

  2.  
    June 28, 2006 | 8:11 am
     

    This is an excellent, if somewhat disturbing article that could impact many mini owners. There is an ethanol advocacy site worth visiting indicating that the use of ethanol is increasing in nearly all states. There is a booklet on their site
    http://www.ethanol.org/EthanolHandbook2006.pdf.pdf
    that shows current ethanol consumption by state and potential future use in E10.
    Well done Josh for bringing this to the community’s attention.

  3.  
    Brian
    June 29, 2006 | 11:44 am
     

    Great write-up. Very scary though.

  4.  
    marc
    July 4, 2006 | 1:28 pm
     

    I’ve been using E10 gasoline forever here in Chicago, it might be that the inventory cycles faster here in the city, because I’ve never had a problem with the MINI or any other car. Neither have I heard of anyone with such an issue.
    I give you an “amen ” on the efficacy and cost/benefit analysis of ethanol.

    Thanks for the info

  5.  
    Mike
    July 14, 2006 | 9:27 am
     

    Great job!! Although I don’t own a mini, I have had all the same problems in (New Hampshire).
    My Dodge van crapped out upon the switch over, had to be towed, couldn’t get to work, $400.00 later it was found the tank was full of white milky substance called E10. Still doesn’t run right and am always concerned about being dead on the side of the road. I find it funny that all the Gov. web sites will admit that E10 will loosen sediment, but this is a good thing because it will keep your fuel system clean. All that may be required is a simple fuel filter change and is a small price to pay for “cleaner” air. What they don’t know is that my fuel filter is part of the pump and can not be changed. This will cost $288.99 at auto zone, the cost to replace it, and the tow in to the garage. This is all for not, of course, because the next time moisture ridden fuel is pumped in the tank, there goes the pump and filter again.
    On a lighter note: A good freind bought himself a new generator (Briggs & Stratton) in the manual it states a fuel stablizer is required. Go on Briggs’s web site and you will find “E10 fuel is not recomened” but if it must be used, empty the tank after use. GO FIGURE!!!
    Thanks
    Mike

  6.  
    Joel
    July 15, 2006 | 6:48 pm
     

    A simple test I’ve seen to determine the percent of ethanol in the fuel uses water and a measuring device. Pour a quantity of the fuel sample in the measuring device and add a measured quantity of water. Shake well and allow to settle. The water and alcohol will settle to the bottom and the amount of alcohol in the fuel will be equal to the bottom layer minus the measured amount of water.

  7.  
    Tom
    July 21, 2006 | 6:01 pm
     

    This article seems to imply that the reason for the ethanol is to stretch the gasoline. The actual reason for the ethanol is as an oxygenate as required by the clean air statutes. Previously, most states had used MTBE as an oxygenate, but, it pollutes the ground water! So, while the oxygenates MAY help prevent a minute amount of smog, they are destroying millions of dollars worth of equipment that ends up in landfills or it pollutes our drinking water. I can live with a tad more smog.

  8.  
    osnofla
    August 1, 2006 | 12:51 pm
     

    i took a road trip from miami florida to chicago and i noticed there that the pumps had the 10% ethanol stickers. i just thought what kinda dumbass would allow ethanol to be mixed in with gasoline knowing the potentially damaging effects water and high concentrations of ethanol can have on cars. i whole-heartedly agree that ethanol is just a political tool that currently cannot have any realistic impact of reducing dependency on oil. thank god florida doesn’t put that crap in the pumps

  9.  
    Chris
    August 8, 2006 | 12:07 pm
     

    About 2 months ago, my Z4 wouldn’t start and when everything finally settled with the Dealer/Warranty issue, it turned out to be a fuel pump issue. I had to have it replaced and the Service Rep said that there were some problems with ethanol contents being too strong from all of the water this Spring in Boston. Well, this morning, I had to tow it once again to the dealer as the car would not start. Almost one month to the date Sounds exactly the same as last time and expecting the fuel pump to be an issue. This issue needs to be circulated out there as it has been a BIG problem for myself and others I would suspect.

  10.  
    Tom
    August 9, 2006 | 5:53 pm
     

    Here’s the best explanation of the whole MTBE / ethanol debacle.

    http://www.businessweek.com/autos/content/apr2006/bw20060427_493909.htm

  11.  
    Andy
    August 21, 2006 | 10:39 am
     

    I was searching the web to see if anyone was having problems with ethanol. I don’t have a mini but I have 2 volvo wagons and they both have died with fuel pump failure at the same time. The problem was they both would just cut out while driving. What can explain this other than something wrong with the fuel. It’s like water in the tank. I am in Houston and we have recently been seeing ethanol here. I have other friends wondering what’s going on with their cars/ trucks running poorly. Best advice is to stay away from ethanol if you can, especially older cars that are not designed to eat corn…

  12.  
    Tim Booth
    September 6, 2006 | 3:47 pm
     

    Was looking thru your blog about ethanol. We have seen a huge problem among boaters on the East Coast this season. Of course boaters have a bigger problem with moisture contamination than most car owners- constant sweating in the tanks.

    Many boaters have tried K 100-MG fuel treatment as a way of neutralizing the moisture contamination. See k100 fueltreatment.com. Look at the Marine FAQ-ethanol on the waterfront.

    In the interest of fair disclosure I am the president of Kinetic Laboratories, the manufacturer of K 100.

  13.  
    Herb Dawrs
    February 11, 2007 | 5:22 am
     

    On the island of Hawaii, boat owners are having problems like Tim Booth says, plus resins used in fiberglass tanks are being dissolved. Small engine shops report a surge in carb problems sinc 4/06 when all gas on this island went E10. Motorcycle engine fuel system problems climbed also. And we have lotsa humidty! We try to keep metal tanks full to help prevent condensation.

    Bent valves and piston problems are occurring in fishing boat engines even during careful break-in running. And the Volvo warranties state they are void if running ethanol mixes. And you can’t just pull over and park with your flashers on.

    My ’99 Toyota RAV4 developed a leak in the high pressure plastic fuel line from the tank to the steel line system. We don’t know if it was fuel-related or mechanical, but dealer says this was the first ever replaced by them.. And the synthetic float needle tip seal on my riding mower went away, dumping a full tank of fuel through the intake valve into the crankcase and the rest onto the ground through the exhaust system. I was happy to not have piston or rod damage.

    Aloha,
    Herb

  14.  
    reg gaudette
    August 10, 2007 | 5:55 pm
     

    I am now starting to buy Citgo gas again because I know it has no ethanol added. Chavez is against ethanol & will not allow his company to use it.
    I hope we will SOON see some truth in advertising at the pump to warn consumers when ethanol is added to gas.

  15.  
    Chad Spooner
    December 16, 2007 | 4:28 pm
     

    Just so you know, ethanol is a good thing. Reason? It is a solvent and a good one at that. It dissolves all the polar soluble elements that normally remained in the gas tank and clogs the filter. Your fuel pumps are dying due to their inability to pump fuel through the filter. Change your filters and after two or three changes (once a year at least) you should have no trouble. Ignore the mileage when you change the filter. Need to change depends on more conditions than just miles.
    Did anyone ask him why he didn’t change filters when he got his new pump? :)

  16.  
    Robert Huntington
    April 22, 2008 | 12:41 pm
     

    My Dodge van would not start, and upon inspection I found that the rubber grommet and the rubber hose where the gas fill goes into the fuel tank has disolved. This is shortly after Oregon mandated 10% ethanol in all gas sold in Oregon. The hose disolved as if melted, leaving a huge hole and drained all the gas onto the ground. The rubber grommet was soft, and could be spread like peanut butter. I hate to think what my fuel lines and fuel pump look like inside. Today I will begin the task of investigating what will be involved in rebuilding the carbuerator to survive ethanol. And I don’t even know if it will be possible to get the unique grommet (that seals the metal filler tube to the fuel tank) made from a material that will withstand ethanol. I may just take some 50 gallon drums to the nearby state of Washington, and bootleg as much as I can haul back to store in my yard, secretly of course, as there is undoubtedly a law against hauling and storing.

  17.  
    November 24, 2008 | 3:58 pm
     

    Do they make ethonol blends with a 91 or higher octane as required by MINI and other car makers? If you’re putting less than 91 octane in your MINI you’re sure to have problems.

  18.  
    gavin
    December 28, 2008 | 12:05 am
     

    spot on josh. i had the same problem too. our last govt heavily pushed for so-called biofuel. so being a environmentally friendly model citizen that i am, i gave the e10 fuel a go. yup, first start, nadda – zero ignition. tried a couple of times – she’s alive. bloody annoying if u ask me.

    real problem began while i was driving. the engine suddenly stalled for no good reason. doesn’t matter if i was on a highway or in the process of overtaking, the car just went dead and ended up cruising to the side of the road (a heavily electronic optioned car like alfa does not allow re-start without a complete stop). after 2 days of this i realised it must be the new fuel.

    floored my baby into the next petrol station and diluted the shit with good old standard 98 octane fuel.

    after a week of dilution and reverting back to the crude fuel, the problem disappeared as swiftly as it came. when i looked it up on the net, it dawned on me that ethanol sucks up water like c*ck sucking blonde in a prom and will clog fuel lines, thereby stalling the engine. christ almighty what a dangerous fuel. imagine yr steering locks up while the car starts to veer into the opposite lane at 100km/hr…

    and now, i wonder if my fuel pump has been damaged…bummer.

    thanks for the heads up josh. u r alright. keep sharing with car afficionado like us! :)

  19.  
    Buffy M.
    January 10, 2009 | 2:18 pm
     

    I own a 2009 Mini Cooper S….and live in N. Georgia in a very small town/area.
    Name brand fuel stations are not abundant and I have experienced bad fuel…my engine indicator light flashes. It’s scary to know that the percentage of ethanol in the fuel can kill my car’s engine if I don’t stay conscious of where I buy fuel. I went on your website to find out what exactly is ethanol…and you presented far more information to me. Thanx and keep it going..pardon the pun.

  20.  
    August 12, 2009 | 4:42 pm
     

    you may want to check buyrealgas.com for a no ethanol station near you

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