Arthur Wyckoff III has sworn off alcohol — in his gasoline.
"I make it a point, before I get real low, to make it to a gas station that has 100 percent gas," the Chickamauga, Ga., man said Thursday morning as he fueled his Toyota Corolla at the Sav-A-Ton on LaFayette Road in Fort Oglethorpe.
The gas station is one of a number in the Chattanooga area that advertise gas free of ethanol. The grain alcohol additive -- usually derived from corn -- makes up 10 percent of almost all gasoline sold at the pump around the United States.
"The ethanol, it just messes up your engine," Wyckoff said.
He's not alone in that sentiment.
There's a niche for 100 percent gas in the Chattanooga area and around the country. Gas stations advertise ethanol-free gas, and websites and smartphone apps are available to help people steer clear of "corn gas," as it's dubbed by those who avoid it.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press Facebook page lit up last week with about 80 comments from people who take their gas straight, with no alcohol, despite it costing about 20 cents more per gallon.
They cited such reasons as better gas mileage, fewer repairs and better performance. Commenters said that ethanol wreaks havoc on older and smaller engines, such as those used in lawn mowers, and they questioned the federal crop subsidies that drive the use of "biofuel."
"I have noticed a dramatic increase in my gas mileage," said Karen Polcen, a Henagar, Ala., woman who switched two years ago to using ethanol-free gas in her 2007 Ford Taurus and now swears by it.
Pure gas means better mpg
There doesn't seem to be any dispute that pure gasoline delivers better mileage than gas that's part ethanol.
Mileage suffers by 3 to 4 percent using E10, or gas that's up to 10 percent ethanol, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Transportation and Air Quality.
When it comes to performance, the ethanol industry hoped to boost its image by partnering with NASCAR, which adopted ethanol-blend gasoline in 2011. The stock car racing association's website announced in November that its drivers had racked up more than 5 million competition miles using "Sunoco Green E15, a biofuel blended with 15 percent American ethanol made from American-grown corn."
But E15 has had a hard time getting out of the gate with consumers since the federal government in July 2012 approved its sale at the pump for cars built in 2001 or later and for flexible-fuel vehicles.
AAA and a number of automakers came out swinging against E15, warning that the extra ethanol could corrode plastic, rubber and metal parts in cars not built to handle it.
Five manufacturers -- BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen -- stated their warranties will not cover E15 claims, the automobile association warned. And eight others -- GM, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo -- said that E15 may void warranties.
"Research to date raises serious concerns that E15 ... could cause accelerated engine wear and failure, fuel system damage and other problems such as false 'check engine' lights," AAA stated. "The potential damage could result in costly repairs for unsuspecting consumers. This is especially tough for most motorists given that only about 40 percent of Americans have enough in savings to afford a major auto repair."
E15 also can destroy small engines. Boat engine manufacturers and retailers warned against use of E15. And when the EPA approved E15 gas for cars, it prohibited its use for small engines including motorcycles, ATVs, lawnmowers and leaf blowers.
The EPA required gas stations selling E15 to affix a 3-inch sticker on gas pumps warning that the fuel was prohibited for pre-2001 cars and small engines.
Ethanol's benefits touted
The use of E10 was spurred by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and subsequent laws that mandated the sale of oxygenated fuels in areas with unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Oxygenates are gasoline additives that reduce carbon monoxide and soot.
"This kicked off the modern U.S. ethanol industry growth," the Energy Department states. "Today, E10 is sold in every state. In fact, more than 95 percent of U.S. gasoline contains up to 10 percent ethanol to boost octane, meet air quality requirements, or satisfy the Renewable Fuel Standard."
Ethanol in gas provides the United States with energy security, has created roughly 365,000 jobs, reduces greenhouse gas production by up to 52 percent -- and E10 gas can be used in any conventional gasoline vehicle, according to the energy department.
An Associated Press investigative report in November titled "The Secret Environmental Cost of U.S. Ethanol Policy" questioned whether ethanol meets the greenhouse gas reduction goals it is supposed to.
"As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they touched off a cascade of unintended consequences, including the elimination of millions of acres of conservation land," the AP investigation found.
Not buying it
Gas with any ethanol at all in it raised concerns among readers who posted on the Times Free Press' Facebook page.
"I always try to buy ethanol-free," one reader wrote. "I have had too many small engines gummed up and won't run due to ethanol hardening the carbs and hoses. I am so adamant about it that I bought a 15 gallon tank/transfer to fill my mowers and toys."
Business at the Fort Oglethorpe Sav-A-Ton gets a boost in the summer, when people seek out ethanol-free gas to fill their lawnmowers, station manager Priyanker Patel said.
Sav-A-Ton has sold nothing but ethanol-free gas since 2003, she said.
"Regular customers come because of the 100 percent gas," Patel said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...