published Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Ethanol damage pushes propane gas as alternative

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    Staff Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Adam Hall, lead service technician, gets ready to change out one of the propane tanks on a specially outfitted mower at Southern Turf. The propane is used in lieu of gasoline to power the motor, and Hall says that the mileage is generally the same.

Ethanol destroys engines and gasoline is costly, propane industry officials say, with some now set to ask the region's maintenance officials to give the cleaner combustible a trial run in the area's commercial mowers, trimmers and blowers.

They intend to pose the question at a Feb. 4 meeting with municipal officials and lawn care businesses, as advocates of propane-powered lawn equipment make the case for what they contend is a greener fuel.

The conversion to propane could cost municipalities roughly $1,500 per commercial mower engine, or just over half the cost of replacing an entire engine, sales officials say. But the savings over gasoline in spillage, theft and reduced maintenance costs could pay for the propane upgrade within a year, they said.

"Chattanooga's trying to have a go-green push, and be a city on the leading edge of the green industry with their buses and other facets," said Chad Haun of Southern Turf. "Why not do it in parks and recreation, where they're out mowing eight to 10 hours per day?"

But Steve Leach, administrator of public works for Chattanooga, was cautious about embracing the idea.

"Anytime you can burn cleaner fuel it's a good thing, but if you have to retrofit the equipment and worry about refilling, that makes it a little bit more problematic," Leach said.

Ethanol gunks lines

John Watson, owner of Common Ground Landscape Management in Knoxville, participated in a three-year study through the University of Tennessee and said he converted all his units over to propane.

Following his initial investment in engine conversion and a new filling station, he said his costs have fallen 10 percent since he began using cleaner-burning propane.

"My mechanic found that we could go further between services, and [propane] is quite a bit cheaper in the summer," Watson said.

Lawn care and municipal officials confirm that they're on the hunt for an alternative to today's gasoline-ethanol mix, currently available at gas stations in Chattanooga for about $2.95 per gallon, because it gunks up spark plugs, fuel lines and carburetors.

Wholesale propane, on the other hand, can be purchased for closer to $1.45 per gallon, or about $2.80 per gallon at retail, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, although it isn't as widely available as regular unleaded and must be kept in special storage tanks.

"This is all going to be new to us," Tommy Burnette, general supervisor at Chattanooga's Parks and Recreation Department, said Tuesday. "Anytime you can do something for the environment it could be a good thing, as long as its not astronomically high to switch over."

Cheaper operations seen

Jerry Lindsey helps outdoor equipment dealers to convert gasoline engines to propane on behalf of Metro Lawn, a conversion kit seller, and said converted units see an 80 percent drop in emissions and 40 percent drop in operational costs.

"Lawn guys who send their men out with tanks of gasoline, 10 percent of that fuel ends up in somebody's vehicle, but that won't work with propane," he said. "Plus, that ethanol shellacks the carburetors. It's a maintenance headache."

"The ethanol [mixed with in gasoline] is a big problem we're having right now," agreed Burnette.

Barrett Fischer, owner of Chattanooga-based Fischer Irrigation & Lighting, said he's also having a problem with the current 10 percent ethanol/gasoline mixture.

He's considering the switch to propane in part because the ethanol, especially in small engines, is "clogging up injectors and carburetors," which necessitates replacement every two months, up from once a year with regular gasoline, or even less often with propane.

Feds boost level to 15%

To further complicate matters, the Environmental Protection Agency last week expanded on a previous decision to allow the sale of gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol, though the EPA admitted that the new blend will not be suitable for small engines or vehicles built before 2001.

"As soon as they start putting in the mandated 15 percent ethanol, I'll be looking to buy a gizmo to put propane in our small equipment," said Paul Page, director of general services for the city. "I've seen what 10 percent will do to engines."

Page said that while he's open to the idea of switching his fleet to propane, the cost savings had better be substantial. It wouldn't be the first time propane has been tried.

"It was very unsuccessful," he said. "At the time, the valves on the vehicles were not sodium and you'd burn the valves and the clutch out."

Fischer anticipates long-term fuel cost and maintenance savings by switching, but he is worried about putting too many eggs in an untested basket.

While gasoline can be bought almost anywhere, propane supplies are less plentiful.

"If my guys are out mowing somewhere and they run out of propane, where are they going to fuel up?" he asked.

There are currently about 50 lawn care businesses using roughly 2,000 propane mowers nationally, mainly concentrated in Texas and Florida, according to Metro Lawn.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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jpo3136 said...

It's okay to see us using propane. While the immediate emissions form individual units may be lower, it's another Big Oil product. Pollution problems like fracking and spills and refinement and drilling mismanagement alone are poor conditions that have to be considered when continuing to use their products.

It's only as green as their next for-profit disaster.

"No ethanol" signs at gas stations mean "no truth in advertising" most of the time. MTBE and some other additives are made from ethanol; so, this story about how there's no ethanol in the gasoline is kind of a thin claim.

It's PR nonsense to manipulate us into doing what gas companies want.

I think we've all seen "what 10 percent will do to small engines." Ethanol has probably been in our gasoline since the Ford and Carter administrations. Ethanol-based fuel additives were made lawful around 1975.

When that gasoline became "unleaded," that's about when ethanol first went in there.

People act like it's some kind of recent additive: it only took oil companies a few weeks to roll out a new set of stickers on the gas pumps, nationwide, a few years ago.

Meanwhile, look at the reality of fuel oil legislation. Those 1970s and 1980s additives for gasoline are forms of ethanol. They were sometimes marketed to us as cleaners or engine conditioners. It's the same stuff we've been buying all along.

Look at the octane ratings on gasoline. What, other than an additive like alcohol, is going to be an easier way to change the octane rating for gas? Alcohol has a higher flash point; and, we see gas companies for years telling us about how they've added soaps to "clean" our engine interiors; alcohol is a liquid salt; there are a lot of liquid salts in soaps.

These additives, like MTBE, are, effectively, ethanol. While they may not be strait ethanol, they are ethanol-based compounds. To say there's no ethanol is not quite right.

I suspect all the gas companies did to make their product "greener" was to put these new stickers on the gas pumps.

Now that alcohols have gotten some push back, probably for political reasons more to do with politicians than actual gasoline, they'll switch up to an even cheaper additive which does the same thing: alter the flash point of the solution to tune an efficiency rating.

Because of the duration of our experience, I don't agree with these PR campaigns that have been singling out ethanol as some kind of recent political evil. The "no ethanol" signs at gas stations are just ignorant. It's tantamount to false advertising.

So, raising our ethanol in gasoline percentage from near 10% to 15% is not that big of a deal. Probably the main reason why oil companies will support it will be because it will mean more trips, by volume, to the gas pump.

Ethanol in gasoline: we've been buying it that way since 1975.

January 29, 2011 at 8:41 a.m.
DEB said...

Ethanol also destroys boat fuel injection systems. Quit buying gas that has ethanol in it!There are stations in Chattanooga that sell gas with no ethanol. Go to a station that sells 100 percent pure gas. If everyone would stop buying gas that has ethanol in it no one would sell it anymore. My town car gets 15-20 percent better mileage around town with the no ethanol gas and the engine runs better!

January 29, 2011 at 8:48 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

There is no "100 percent pure gas." It all has ethanol in it. Look at the octane rating.

Do you see a 99 or higher octane rating? They sell it that way in former Soviet Union. No ethanol.

Purchasing gasoline in America? All gasoline will have ethanol or ethanol-based compounds in it. Any company telling you otherwise is either selling you a compound that's synthetic substitute for ethanol, or just plain old lying.

Ehtanol. It's in everyone's gas tank. Everywhere. No exceptions.

January 29, 2011 at 8:54 a.m.
laidback said...

Biodiesel is the future...it's cheaper than diesel and lubricates better. The drawbacks: it gels at higher temps and absorbs moisture from o-rings and hoses. Now most trucks use Viton hoses and o-rings anyway and they are fine. A blend of 20% diesel and 80% biodiesl (B20) is better than pure diesel, and is renewable and emits way less hydrocarbons.....

January 29, 2011 at 12:42 p.m.
galonga said...

"Ethanol destroys engines"

What a bunch of lies.

Brazil has been mixing 5% ethanol all the way back to 1938 and now mixes 24% in even the premium and since then no car has ever been harmed.

But since most of the readers here probably can´t even locate the country in the map, it´s no wonder we read stuff such as this.

When we in the US stop thinking we have the answers for everything and instead look for what's already working, then we will have a successful and independent energy model.

Until then we will continue having to say "yes" to whatever the arabs tell us.

January 29, 2011 at 2:53 p.m.
elisajallen said...

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January 30, 2011 at 12:45 a.m.
Oz said...

Ethanol damages the food supply! Why are we putting food in our gas tank with predicted shortages in the food supply?

Plus ethanol blended gasoline decreases fuel economy.

January 30, 2011 at 9:41 a.m.
laidback said...

Most ethanol development these days comes from waste biomass and switchgrass grown on bad land, so there is minimal impact on food production. Brasil is successful because they have a abundance of cane sugar, and you get a large "bang for the buck" with sugar. I would also like to recommend a website: http://www.oilgae.com to see another interesting way to produce biodiesel.....

January 30, 2011 at 11:38 a.m.
erobersonII said...

You've got it backwards, laidback. B20 is 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum.

January 31, 2011 at 1:10 a.m.
erikbjornstad said...

Most ethanol development in the United States does not come from "waste biomass". In 2010, over 40% if US corn production was used for producing ethanol. You can reach your own conclusion as to the impact on food production and, more importantly for the typical consumer, the cost of items made from corn. Brazil does have a natural advantage over the US because they have more sunlight and a greater natural ability to grow sugarcane and essentially convert the sun's energy to autofuel, which was what you're doing by using ethanol as a fuel.

It is fairly evident, whether one wishes to deny it by citing Brazil or not, that ethanol is damaging equipment, whether it's cars or boats or the small equipment people are having to put ethanol in. I don't think it's a placebo effect where mechanics are making these problems up just b/c they're hearing about it on the news. We have a website http://www.wefixfuel.com which talks about this and other issues with fuels, whether ethanol or regular diesel fuel, biodiesel and others, including LPG.

February 15, 2011 at 12:41 p.m.
erikbjornstad said...

Algae, as referenced by 'laidback' is being studied more as a producer of feedstock oil for biodiesel production. As always, the devil is in the details for something like that and I think we're a long way off from that being a viable source of fuel. Unfortunately for the consumer, biofuels in general are not any cheaper than convention petroleum. Which plays into the concept that there is no free lunch. The only reason ethanol and biodiesel fuels are even cost competitive is because taxpayers are already paying part of the fuel cost through tax subsidies. Take away those tax breaks and nobody would buy them. Unless the government did something revolutionary like require them to be put into fuel no matter what.

February 15, 2011 at 12:45 p.m.
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