Ethanol’s Worst Enemy

Alcohol has the power to ruin lives if you let it. It also has the power to wreak havoc on a boat’s fuel system.

If you need a bit of background, ethanol is used to “oxygenate”  fuel to help reduce hydrocarbon emissions that cause air pollution. Of course, the best alcohol is derived from malted barley and comes in a bottle marked “Product of Scotland,” but alcohol used for ethanol can be made from cellulosic materials such as corn stalks, grain straw, paper, pulp, wood chips, municipal waste, switchgrass, and other sources.

Volvo-Penta's new treatment should be a potent ally in the war against water in marine fuel.
Volvo-Penta’s new treatment should be a potent ally in the war against water in marine fuel.

The major problem with ethanol, particularly for marine engines that sit long between uses, is that ethanol oxidizes and can absorb water. That can cause corrosion. For example, E10 can hold approximately one half of one percent water at 60° Fahrenheit. At lower temperatures, such as 20 degrees Fahrenheit, E10 can hold less, about 0.35% water, which still means 0.45 ounces in a gallon.

So when I learned that Volvo Penta had introduced a new fuel additive to protect marine engines from the harmful effects of ethanol, I took notice. Suitable for any outboard or sterndrive system, Volvo Penta recommends using it every time you fill up with ethanol-blended gas to protect your engine from damage.

“Ethanol-blended fuels such as E10 and E15 are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the automotive market, but ethanol damages marine engines and fuel systems due to the corrosive properties of alcohol,” explained David Kennedy, director of parts and accessory operations for Volvo Penta of the Americas. “Unlike automobiles, most marine engines are only operated intermittently. Today’s oxygenated and ethanol-blended fuels can begin to oxidize in as little as 30 days if left untreated in the boat’s tank, resulting in corrosion inside the engine and fuel system.”

Formulated with antioxidants to combat fuel breakdown, the new fuel treatment also contains chemical corrosion inhibitors that form a protective barrier on fuel system components. For some reason, Volvo Penta points out that it contains no alcohol. Well, duh. What caught my eye is that 12 ounces treats up to 60 gallons of fuel and keeps fuel fresh for up to one year.

If I were to take delivery of a used boat, this new fuel treatment likely would be one of the first things I would put on my shopping list.

How to Get Rid of Bad Boat Fuel

Good filters and water-separators like the combination unit shown here are essential, especially after a bad-fuel episode and a fuel system reboot.
Good filters and water-separators like the combination unit shown here are essential, especially after a bad-fuel episode and a fuel system reboot.

Going through the frustrating process of dealing with bad marine fuel? Be it diesel or gas, you’ll want to know how to start fresh and completely eliminate the problem. Bad fuels can come from water (condensation), debris (dirt or metal oxidation-rust), algae or varnish build-up as fuel ages.

The first signs of contamination can be seen in your fuel filter. Keeping the filter clean goes a long way to keeping your engine running right. I recommend an in-line fuel filter placed before the fuel pump. This will keep the pump from wearing out due to the contaminants.  If you suspect water contamination, sound the tank for more water (it will be on the bottom of diesel tanks and can be measured by water-activated paste on a sounding stick). You may want to invest in a water-separation filter like a Racor filter if you have persistent condensation problems. Whatever the cause of the problem, a thorough flushing of the fuel tank, a change in filters, and the proper disposal of old bad fuel is the only way to get a fresh start.

Hopefully, we’ve come a long way since the days when we dumped old oil down the storm drain, poured old gas on the ground or, in my case, when we used waste oil to grease a marine railway instead of getting rid of it with less impact to our environment. I was the ops manager of a 100-year old boatyard undergoing a massive infrastructure makeover; eventually we transitioned to be a “small” producer of hazmat material, and there were proscribed ways of handling contaminated fuels. But first we had to get rid of the backlog of used oils, foul fuels, and contaminated bilge water found everywhere in various containers among the 14 buildings about to be demolished. Dealing with everything from hundreds of cans of old paint to waste oil and barrels of contaminated fuel helped me understand how to dispose of it all in the best way we presently know how.

For diesel-powered boats, an inline fuel-polishing module can prevent a lot of woes.
For diesel-powered boats, an inline fuel-polishing module can prevent a lot of woes.

This large quantity of bad fuels and oils led directly to our advice to individual owners on how to deal with their boats’ old materials:

  • Don’t ever leave it by the dumpster. Go to the marina office for direction; they’d much rather deal with the fuel and oil through their systematic process than see it go in the trash or be spilled on the ground. In many cases they will advise you how to take it to a local recycling center, or will gladly take it themselves. Local recycling centers actually make money by recycling everything from oil to old batteries, and without much cost to you beyond the expense of an annual town sticker on your car.
  • Don’t ever dump even small amounts of fuel or oil on the ground. You know why!
  • Find someone with a waste-oil heater, but be careful: Transporting large quantities of old fuel or oil on our highways is restricted by law as to the mode of transport.  Throwing barrels of fuel in the back of an open truck doesn’t cut it as a “safe mode” of transport, and is a fineable offense if you’re caught — which isn’t much reward if you’re trying to do the right thing. It may mean delivering the bad fuel to the waste oil heater in smaller quantities, a bit at a time.
  • Consider fuel-polishing alternatives.

Fuel Polishing Module by Parker Energy Systems Keeps Fuel Systems Healthy Year-Round

Parker Energy Systems‘ new, patent-pending FPM-050 Fuel Polishing Module is designed to remove emulsified water from the system and combat the accumulation of water in diesel fuel, preventing corrosion and maximizing the effectiveness of filters.

Photo Credit: Parker Energy Systems

Enabling fuel maintenance during engine downtime and off-season storage, the FPM-050 is a fuel recirculation system that utilizes solid-state pump technology and the Racor filter already installed, so users don’t need to buy another filter. Consuming only 150 mA at 12 VDC, less than two watts of power, it won’t drain the battery, enabling continuous fuel maintenance. It can even work with a solar panel.

Promoting a bacteria-free environment and preventing contaminant build-up, the FPM-050 reduces the need for expensive fuel treatments and additives. Parker Energy Systems’ Fuel Polishing Module filtrates up to 50 gallons of fuel a day. It’s compatible with diesel, bio-diesel and kerosene.

Simple to operate, it incorporates an automatic, full-slow bypass valve, eliminating the need for manual switching. This versatile fuel maintenance solution can be installed in multiple configurations. The FPM-050 is designed for easy retrofitting into existing diesel fuel systems, whether in line with the main fuel filter/water separator or as a dedicated fuel maintenance loop.

Source: Parker Energy Systems