THERE'S NO FUEL LIKE AN OLD FUEL
Twice in the past 20 years the Australian Government has taken the most commonly used fuel in the country off the market, forcing motorists to use a different fuel for their vehicles; in many cases, a fuel that they were not designed primarily to use. The first of these was the removal of leaded fuel, which ended in 2001, forcing a change to Unleaded. And now, in 2010, they are removing regular Unleaded, substituting an ethanol-blend as the alternative that it says we should all use. Are we concerned about this? I think we should be! Because using ethanol in vehicles not designed especially for it can have dire consequences. Also, and you can call me a sceptic if you will, another reason I reckon we should be concerned is that governments and petrol companies can’t entirely be trusted when it comes to issues of fuel. Why do I say that? Well, let’s look at the history.
WHAT HAPPENED FIRST.
A lot of people reading this will remember when we had two types of petrol; Super and Standard. Super was the petrol used by most cars on the road; Standard being used only by old (“Vintage” we’d call them now) cars and lawn-mowers etc. The difference, as you probably know, was in the octane-rating. Super had an octane rating of 97, Standard had a rating of *92. In the mid 1980s the Australian Government decided they would phase out the most popular fuel used in the country. Leaded petrol would be phased out, to be replaced by Unleaded Petrol. From January 1986 all new cars sold in Australia had to be designed to run on Unleaded Petrol; and the new fuel became increasingly more common at our servos. Finally, during 2001, leaded fuel was taken off the market. By January 2002 you could only buy Unleaded. And that caused huge problems for cars (and bikes) not designed to run on it. The first problem came from the fact that lead was a means of boosting the octane-rating; so by removing the lead, they lowered the octane rating of the fuel. Unleaded came in at an octane-rating of just 91 – actually lower than the old Standard petrol. So any cars built to run on Super wouldn’t run properly on the new fuel and were effected by “pinging”. (This is the effect of fuel “exploding” rather than “burning very quickly”, which is what it is supposed to do). The next problem came from the fact that lead was a lubricant. As the fuel was burnt, the lead left deposits on internal components, in particular the valves and valve-seats. This created a kind of “cushion” that protected the valves and valve-seats from excessive wear. At normal running speeds, these valves open and close at an average of 20 to 40 times every second; or over 60 times a second in many bike engines. Without the “cushioning” effect of lead, this constant pounding of the valve where it meets the cylinder-head (the valve-seat) would cause rapid wear, resulting in the valve burying itself deeper into the cylinder-head. This is called valve-seat recession. As a temporary solution the petrol companies introduced a modified fuel called Lead-Replacement Petrol (LRP). This was claimed to have an octane rating of 96 (exactly the same as the old Super, which had been lowered to 96 some time before being taken off the market), and they put in additives that were supposed to have the same lubricating properties as lead. But it was dreadful stuff! A lot of people complained. I had a car and a bike running on it at the time and both suffered poor performance and rough running. (For more on this, and indeed the whole issue of removing lead from our petrol, go to the web-site I compiled at the time, called Old Cars And New Fuels). The final and best solution – without re-building the engine – was to use Premium Unleaded (with an octane rating of 95) supplemented by an additive that prevented valve-seat recession. The two main additives were (and still are) Flashlube (which I use in my old car) and Valvemaster. This worked, but was quite a bit more expensive than the old fuel it replaced.
WHY DID WE CHANGE?
So if the removal of lead caused such a hassle, why did the government force us to change? Ah, well, I’m glad you asked! Because this brings us to the reason I said above that governments can’t entirely be trusted! We were told that they were removing lead from petrol for the benefit of the environment and our health. Lead is a poison, we all know that. So having our cars and bikes belching the stuff out of their exhausts was bad for our health, and bad for the health of our kids. That’s the message we were given. So the government told us they would do something about it; they would ban lead in petrol and introduce a new unleaded petrol. Oh yes, and to run this new petrol cars would need to be fitted with something called a catalytic converter. But was that the real reason for lead being removed? No it wasn't! They were fooling us! Lead wasn’t the health problem we were lead (sorry!) to believe. The situation was actually the opposite of what we were told. The real reason they were removing the lead was because they wanted all cars to be fitted with catalytic converters to reduce other exhaust emissions. But in order to use catalytic converters the petrol had to be free of lead. So rather than having to fit catalytic converters so that we could use fuel without lead, we had to use fuel without lead so that we could fit catalytic converters! Bearing that in mind, it’s interesting to read what the government told us at the time. The Australian Government’s Department Of Environment issued the following statement on their web-site in 2001. “Reducing the use of lead in petrol reduces airborne lead, and lead in our streets and household dust. “Lead has long been recognised as posing a serious health risk. Of particular concern is the correlation between increased blood lead levels and decreasing IQ, but other biological effects can also occur depending on the level and duration of the exposure. “All sources of lead can contribute to lead in the bloodstream and have absolutely no beneficial effects. Lead used in petrol is a significant and preventable source.” Sounds convincing, but remember they weren’t doing this to remove the lead; they were doing it so they could fit catalytic converters!
Now, to be fair, the stuff they were actually trying to remove by fitting these catalytic converters was pretty nasty. Things like nitric oxides, carbon monoxide, and unburnt fuel. In other countries, such as the U.S. these emissions had become such a problem that even the public was crying out for something to be done. The answer was to fit catalytic converters that filtered out much of these harmful emissions.
The only thing was, the converters are virtually destroyed by lead. So lead had to be removed from the petrol so that we could have these converters fitted to our cars. That was the real reason we went unleaded! So why didn’t the government and the petrol companies just tell us that? Well, I think it has something to do with the way the Australian motoring public had reacted to previous anti-pollution measures. In 1975 the government legislated to further reduce exhaust emissions by requiring certain anti-pollution equipment to be fitted to all new cars. This was Australian Design Rule 27A. But the general public's reaction to this was far from positive! It wasn't that we were totally uncaring for the environment, it was just that the equipment had an adverse effect on the performance of our cars. While different manufacturers handled the implementation of this equipment with varying degrees of success, it was true that all new cars initially suffered some effects as a result of the new equipment. As time went on, most problems were overcome and performance was restored to pre-ADR27A standards; but in the meantime a thriving back-yard industry flourished where certain mechanics would re-route a few hoses, or modify carburetors, etc. to disable this equipment. So I suppose the government thought that if they said they were going to require all new cars to be fitted with a big filter device on the exhaust as a further means of reducing pollution, the public reaction wouldn't be too encouraging! It probably seemed better to convince us that we should remove lead from our petrol, and then say that the fitting of catalytic converters was part of that move! As a kind of foot-note to this, here’s another point worth considering. According to information I’ve read, catalytic converters don't work properly until they have reached a temperature of around 400 degrees. That means that until the car has driven some distance and properly warmed-up the exhaust would be producing untreated emissions into the air. And it was claimed that some of the emissions from the new fuel were carcinogenic and more harmful than that of the old leaded petrol! Considering that most bikes don’t have catalytic converters, that does raise concerns about how unhealthy the emissions from our bikes might be!
AND SO TO THE PRESENT
Okay, back to ethanol. Like the introduction of Unleaded, it can be argued that the government has good motives for this. Fossil fuels are a finite source of energy; a finite source that is running out. How quickly it is running out is open to debate, but there is little doubt that we need to reduce our consumption of fossil-fuel. Replacing at least part of the fuel with a substance that we can re-grow seems like a good move. But like the swap to Unleaded petrol, there are problems with the new fuel for cars and bikes not designed specifically to use it. Now, the point should be made that engines can be made to work with ethanol. The best example I know of this is in motor-racing. The Australian V8 Supercars are required to run on E85. That’s a blend of 85% ethanol and just 15% petrol. There were problems that the engineers had to work around to adapt the engines to the new fuel, but they did it. And they seem to perform pretty well, don’t they! So we have the knowledge and ability to make ethanol work in our engines – when we design those engines, and the vehicles they are fitted in, specifically to run on an ethanol blend. The problems come when using it in vehicles not specifically designed to use it.
THE PROBLEMS WITH ETHANOL-BLENDED FUEL
The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries lists several problems with the use of ethanol. You can read the article on their web-site, and I’ve summarised the main points below. In carburettor-equipped engines the use of ethanol blended petrol impacts the air/fuel ratio because of the additional oxygen molecules within the ethanol's chemical structure. So the engines will run more lean. Also, they say that fuel systems may experience hot fuel handling problems because the vapour pressure of fuel with ethanol will be greater (if the base fuel is not chemically adjusted), with possible vapour lock and hot re-starting problems occurring. Ethanol acts as a solvent and attacks both metallic and rubber based fuel-lines, and other fuel system components. Ethanol also absorbs water, which can result in corrosion of fuel tanks and fuel lines. Rust resulting from this corrosion can ultimately block the fuel supply. Fuel-injection systems would be particularly vulnerable to this. Water in the fuel system can also result in the engine hesitating and running roughly. In addition to the issues mentioned above, the use of ethanol blended petrol in fuel injection systems will result in early deterioration of components such as injector seals, delivery pipes, and fuel pump and regulator. They also say that mechanical fuel injection systems and earlier electronic systems may not be able to fully compensate for the leaner mixture of ethanol blended petrol, resulting in hesitation or flat-spots during acceleration. Difficulty in starting and engine hesitation after cold start can also result from the leaner mixture. For another perspective on this I spoke to a trusted mechanic. I asked him what he recommended for my wife’s 1998 model Toyota Camry. He somewhat cautiously said, “You should be okay with ethanol.” I told him that according to a list on the FCAI web-site the Camry was approved for E10, but I was still concerned. I mentioned the problem of rust and asked if he knew whether the Camry’s fuel tank was all steel. He said rust was one problem, but the fact that ethanol attacks rubber was another big problem. “The more steel and the more rubber there is in the fuel system, the more potential there is for trouble.” He said he was concerned with how it would effect fuel-pumps; which on most fuel-injected cars are located in the tank, and have rubber fittings. He also said that ethanol has a cleansing effect on fuel tanks. (This is a result of the solvent action mentioned above). He pointed to a big truck parked in the servo pumping out the underground tanks. “That's what that is doing – filtering the fuel. It's been in the tanks for a week or so now, so all the rust and crud that accumulates over the years gets loosened up and could contaminate the fuel. So we're pumping it through filters to clean it.” Hmm, so ethanol is probably not a good idea for older cars! Loosened rust etc from the tank could very easily clog injectors. It’s also a widely accepted fact that an ethanol blend will result in higher fuel-consumption. That was just one issue the engineers had to work around with the V8 Supercars. And comments from people I know who have used E10 also confirms this.
WHAT CARS / BIKES CAN USE ETHANOL?
Ah, good question! And this is where I reckon it gets tricky; and where official answers are perhaps not to be entirely trusted. Most service-stations will have a list of what vehicles are approved to use it, but I know of at least one case where the list initially supplied to the servos was wrong. And considering the problems mentioned above, how do we know that cars officially approved to use it won’t suffer one of these problems – such as destroyed seals, or injectors clogged with rust, etc. And here’s another variable to throw into the mix. At the time of writing (2010), Europe has a maximum blend of 5% ethanol. So cars and bikes designed to run ethanol in Europe may not be able to run satisfactorily on the 10% mixture we have in Australia. Okay, so what vehicles do they say are approved to use it in Australia? Well, as I’ve indicated already, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries has a list available on their web-site. (It’s the same article I referred to above). You can go to the site for cars, but I’ll summarise the bikes here. No bikes from the main Japanese manufacturers (Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha) are approved to use ethanol. Some European brands, like BMW, approve it, as do the main American ones (Harley and Victory). On the European front several significant names are missing from the list, including Ducati and Aprilia. For makes like these that aren’t on there, contact your dealer, or even send an email to the manufacturer.
This article was aimed more at cars than bikes really; although it still applies to bikes, of course. Most of today’s bikes require Premium Unleaded, which (at the time of writing at least) does not come with ethanol; so there’s no change for them. But Older bikes, or those with a low compression-ratio, that previously used Unleaded, of course, are effected. For those vehicles that previously used normal Unleaded, the first thing to do is to find out if your car / bike is approved to use ethanol. If it isn’t, then you’ve got no choice; you’ve got to use Premium. If your car / bike is approved to use it, then you’ve got a choice. Switching to Premium is going to cost you more, but especially if it’s an older vehicle, the potential problems of using ethanol are a definite concern. And the cost savings would well and truly be negated if you ended up having to have the fuel system over-hauled. Also, the fact that your fuel consumption will be less with Premium than E10 does reduce the price gap between them a little. Now, this issue of fuel-consumption raises another point. If fuel consumption is greater with E10, that reduces the environmental advantage of using it. Putting ethanol into the petrol saves on the consumption of the oil-based stuff, but only if over-all consumption is the same. If, for example, the car or bike used 10% more fuel with E10, (a scenario that has been given some credence), the amount of fossil-fuel being used would be exactly the same as it was with normal Unleaded. And if that was the case, you’d have to ask, is there any benefit to changing? Are we changing just for show, to make it look as if we are doing something to reduce use of fossil fuels? Are we being conned - again? Well, I have to say that I think the government is trying to do the right thing; it's trying to reduce the dependance on fossil-fuels. And to look at the V8 Supercars again, imagine how much oil-based stuff they are saving, running 85% of the stuff! So it can work! But there are many who say that ethanol is not the answer; partly because if we were all using, say E85, we wouldn't be able to grow enough of the stuff to keep up with demand. And there's also the aspect of using a food source (corn) to burn in our cars that upsets some people too. I don't know what the long-term answer is, but in any case, for the moment what we have is ethanol. So, back to the present situation; who should use ethanol? The way I see it, the bottom line to all this is that E10 is probably okay for late-model cars (and bikes) that are designed to run on it. Older cars – even those approved for E10 – could give trouble; such as blocked injectors, failure of fuel-pump, leaks in the system, etc. And increased fuel consumption. The mechanic I spoke to said that he would be using Premium in all his cars. And I’ll be using Premium too. I will not use E10 in the vehicles I have at present.
*I was unable to definitely confirm the octane rating for Standard, but 92 was the figure I found when researching it.
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