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Beware of Bad Gas During Hurricane Season

By Tom Flanigan

Tallahassee, FL – The 2010 Atlantic Hurricane Season officially begins next week. Disaster officials are preaching preparedness. But there could be trouble when it comes to gasoline-powered emergency equipment.

Retired Florida State University Administrator Tom Knowles literally wrote the book on what to do and what not to do in a major storm. "Category 5: The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane" is considered the most complete account of what happened during that catastrophe. Driven by that acute awareness of how bad things can get, Knowles has prudently equipped his home with an emergency generator which he tried to fire up recently to make sure it would work when needed.

"I hadn't run it in several months, but that's never been a problem in the past because I put stabilizer in my gasoline and it would crank right up. But I went out this time, I had changed the gas recently, recently being a month or so before, and tried to start it and it wouldn't start."

Gasoline stabilizer, by the way, is an additive that extends the usable life of gasoline that's stored for more than a couple of months. After that time, untreated gas will get stale and start turning into a gooey varnish-like substance that will no longer work as fuel. Since that wasn't Knowles' problem, he took the generator to a repair shop. It turned out there was a surprising amount of water in the gas tank, which was keeping the generator from starting.

Where did the water come from? Knowles says it wasn't the fault of the gasoline, but something in the gasoline - ethanol.

"Ethanol is a powerful solvent, and it also has a very strong affinity for water. As I understand it, it's not just like it's a blotter, it's almost like it goes out and tries to seek out the water and absorb it."

Where did the ethanol come from? Knowles said, "I found out that in 2008, the Florida Legislature passed a law that required all gasoline sold in Florida to have ten-percent ethanol in it, unless it was sold at a marina or an airport."

It turns out gas sold at marinas and airports is exempt from the ethanol requirement because the marine and aviation industries recognize the water absorption problem and the disastrous potential of engines conking out in the air or far out at sea. On top of that, Knowles found the solvent characteristics of ethanol pose a danger to engine fuel systems.

"I understand it also reacts with plastics, rubber, and other materials and that can clog up fuel filters, and that's the reason that this ethanol blend, E-10 as they call it in the trade, is not sold in marinas and airports."

So what can those of us who buy gas at regular service stations or convenience stores rather than marinas or airports do? Knowles says there's only one sure fix. It consists of completely draining the gas tanks of generators, chain saws and so forth every month or so and refilling with fresh gas. It's a dangerous procedure at best, and the problem could persist even if the Florida Legislature repealed its ten-percent ethanol law.

"Right now, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering a request from the ethanol lobbyists to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline from ten-percent to fifteen-percent. So this will only make the problem worse as far as having more alcohol to absorb more water and separating out."

So, if you have an emergency generator, chain saw, or other gas-powered device, fire it up often to make sure it works, keep fresh fuel in it and hope it works when you need it most.