Experimenting With Alcohol

Friday, June 22, 2012

The letter below is a response to John Kolak's article, On Using Ethanol Fuels In Unmodified Vehicles. The letter was written by Marc Rauch, the Executive Vice President and Co-Publisher of The Auto Channel, who, by the way, just launched a television station earlier this month (which you can read about here). Anyway, here is Marc's letter:

Hi John -

I just finished reading your article on the Open Fuel Standard website and I wanted to add my personal experiences to your compendium of information.

For a few years, whenever I would rent a car or get a new vehicle from a manufacturer to test drive and review, I would manually fill the tank with a blend of regular gasoline (e10) and e85, if e85 was available to me. Depending upon how much fuel I needed to fill the tank, sometimes the blend would give me only about 30-40% ethanol, and sometimes I might have 60-80% ethanol. I did this with almost every make and model vehicle you can think of, and almost none of them were "flex-fuel" vehicles. I did this specifically to see what, if anything, would happen.

Other than the "check engine" light illuminating in some instances, I never encountered a starting, driving or acceleration problem. Knowing that the "check engine" light illuminated merely because the cars' sensors detected something different, I knew that there was no problem with the vehicle. Often, if the test drive or rental period was long enough, and I had the need to fill the tank again — and only had access to regular gasoline — the check engine light would go off, confirming that there was no problem with the engine.

Of course, because the test or rental period was of rather short duration, I knew that my experiments were not really conclusive since I wasn't able to witness what ill effects, if any, might occur from longer, more sustained usage.

With this in mind, about a year and a half ago I purchased a used 2002 Ford Taurus non-flex-fuel sedan to be able to go all out on my test of e85. Because I've never had a situation in which my tank was completely empty, I've never had the opportunity to fill the Taurus fully with e85. However, I've run the vehicle on virtually all other blend levels. Similar to the short duration tests, I have run the Taurus on straight e10 gasoline to as high as 65-80%. Keep in mind that because even e85 might contain only about 70% ethanol (according to the label on the pump), it's hard to really get a blend that's much higher than 80%.

When I bought the vehicle, my friend David Blume — perhaps the world's leading expert on ethanol production and use — sent me one of the conversion kits that he endorses and sells for use on non-flex fuel fuel-injector vehicles. The purpose was for me to test the device and to maximize my vehicle's ability to handle e85. To date I have not installed the device. I've been waiting to push the car to the point where it screams "I can't take any more ethanol." That point is nowhere in sight. This isn't to say that the device is not necessary, it's to illustrate just how well an un-modified non-flex fuel vehicle can perform with e85.

Long before I purchased the Taurus, David and his associates alerted me to the need to transition into using a lot of e85, rather than going cold-turkey and make the immediate shift. The reason, they explained, is that the ethanol will loosen (and clean) the deposits left by the gasoline and that the gunk could clog the system. Because of this, I did transition to high ethanol blends through the first 3 or 4 fill-ups. I don't know if I would have experienced any problems if I didn't heed the advice, but I have not had any fuel line clogs.

In the nearly 18 months, I have driven the vehicle a little less than 25,000 miles  —  enough time and enough miles to make a more enlightened evaluation. I can report that the results are what they were in the short-term evaluations: my car runs fine, as good  —  I think  —  as any 10 year-old car should run. And I have noticed no difference in how the vehicle runs regardless of how much ethanol I use.

At an early stage I did have an interesting experience with Meineke. After watching one of their TV commercials about bringing your car in for a free test if the engine light goes on, I brought the Taurus in for the free check-up. After the test was completed the service manager told me that my O2 sensor had gone out and that it needed replacing (for a cost of about $200). I knew the light was on because I was using e85, I just wanted to see if the test system could discern the reason.

I declined the O2 replacement and told the service manager why I thought the engine light was illuminated. He reacted as if I was speaking Martian; not comprehending what I was saying about using ethanol in a gasoline-optimized engine. He argued a bit with me and warned that if I didn't get the O2 sensor replaced that I was driving an illegal vehicle. For the heck of it, I went through a couple of fill-up cycles where I only used e10 gasoline. As expected, the light went off. I brought the vehicle back into the same shop and told them that I had been experiencing an intermittent check-engine light, although the light wasn't on at that moment. They put the test through what I assume was the same computer test and told me that the vehicle was okay (with no mention of an O2 sensor problem).

Incidentally, I have to tell you that I have never experienced the huge mpg reduction that is typically cited by both ethanol critics and advocates. In my experience I lose only 5-10%. Considering that the e85 costs less 15-30% less than regular gasoline I still get a respectable net savings. Earlier today, May 12, 2012, when I drove past one of the Shell stations that I use to get my e85, I noticed that e85 was selling for just under one dollar less than premium gasoline. That represents nearly 25% savings per gallon.

In closing, I will admit that there is one major drawback to using ethanol, but fortunately it's not my problem, it's the oil companies' problem: They make less money!

Thanks for your time. I hope that this case study helps your efforts.

Sincerely yours,

Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher

Watch a video on this same subject: E85 Does Not Harm Non-Flex-Fuel Engines. This ten-minute video shows you a test done on a non-flex-fuel car that burned mostly E85 for over a hundred thousand miles. Not only did it not harm the car, it actually harmed it much less than burning gasoline would have.

Here's an excellent 20-page detailed look at how E85 works in gas-only engines: Ethanol and Internal Combustion Engines (PDF document).

I think these two articles by Robert Zubrin are relevant as well. He discovered that cars are already designed for flex fuel cars, including having the software installed in the onboard computer, but the software is disabled. Check it out:

A Fuel-Efficiency Wager
Methanol Wins

The following paper from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is also interesting: It's about using "intermediate blends" of ethanol. Apparently normal fuel injector computers handle up to half ethanol before the car starts running poorly (if it is going to run poorly at all). What happens is that the injector automatically adds more fuel if the fuel is partly alcohol, and most cars can do up to 50% E85 with no problems. Every little bit makes a difference. Anyway, here's the link to the PDF file: Effects of Intermediate Ethanol Blends


Will Deliver,  June 23, 2012 at 11:05 AM  

When my wife & I visit relatives in North Dakota we always fill up with E-85. Our car is a 1996 Chevy Lumina...Not a flex fuel car. We do not notice any difference in performance or mileage. Our visits don't last long enough to really get much more than 1 or 2 fill ups during those visits, so the alcohol percentage doesn't get up to 85% for very long. It does save us about a dollar per gallon for fuel.

Anonymous,  January 6, 2015 at 1:12 PM  

I bought a car. Was told it was flex fuel so have been using E85 for 2-2 1/2 months. Brought car in for service - engine light, and traction control going off. Told the engine light was b/c I was using E85 and I don't have a flex fuel vehicle. Told that the engine could be damaged. Everything I've found online says it can damage the engine IF there is prolonged use. Is 2-2 1/2 months prolonged use?

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