Gasoline…It’s Just Not What It Used To Be

Let me preface this post by stating I’m certainly no expert when it comes to motors and the science of understanding the workings of a combustible engine.   This statement holds even more truth when the engine happens to be a marine motor.   In fact, until recently the extent of my functional knowledge of such things evolved around these few principles:  Use fresh, clean gas…service the motor at regular intervals…and when something doesn’t seem to be working quite right get it into the repair shop for immediate attention.

GascanToday, however, if you’re a boat owner following those rules is simply not enough.   Unless you want to deal with major headaches and expense down the road…you damn well better know what kind of fuel you are putting through that boat motor.   Chances are good that the fuel you were putting into that boat five years ago when you bought it are vastly different than the fuels commonly available today.   Not only is petroleum science very confusing, but the fuel additives that partially make up the gas you fill in your tank are constantly in a state of flux as EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations must be closely followed with all the new fuel blends.

Here’s the main problem, as I understand it.   The petroleum industry has one main constituent—the automotive and truck driver who uses unleaded fuel in their cars, pickups and SUVs.   Oh, sure, they realize that when a station fills up its big holding tanks that a small pittance of that amount of fuel will be sold for lawn mowers, for ATVs, for weed whackers and similar small engines.   But in a one-product-fits-all world you don’t concern yourself with the small product consumers…you worry most about serving the folks who allow you to sell volume.   That’s where you make money, after all.

On top of all that, those EPA regulations no longer allow some of the more popular additives to make for a cleaner burning fuel.   Additives like MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) can currently still be used, but refiners who do so are not immune from lawsuits alleging water pollution.   In fact, in certain areas the only way to meet the emission requirements is to sell a blend of fuel requiring ethanol, a corn-based product.   Blends of 10% ethanol are now common in many gasoline station options which are said to allow for a cleaner, healthier emission standard.

Problem is most boat motors just don’t thrive with ethanol or similar forms of oxygenated fuel.   Despite many of the claims from the petroleum industry that all fuel is perfectly safe to use in all motors…in reality this just doesn’t always turn out to be true.

This weekend there’s a good article in the Wall Street Journal describing this very dilemma.   Of course, on one hand most outdoorsmen are all for taking those steps necessary for a cleaner environment.   I can’t think of any sportsman I know who willfully puts impurities into the lake water that someday will end up contaminating the very fish they intend to eat.   Yet, the problem of ruining expensive equipment or having major problems keeping the boat motor running effectively can be quite aggravating.   Just check out this boating forum for some additional information on the growing problem.

Personally, I had to take my Yamaha four-stroke in for repairs about three years ago for a clogged needle valve of some sort, as the repair technician described it.   At the time the technician kept preaching to me that it’s a gas problem.   Use stabilizer…use fresh gas…burn all the gas out of the motor before storing for long periods to avoid it varnishing up.   All the usual advice.   This spring now Yamaha issued a press release with additional suggestions for boat motor owners—good advice no matter what motor brand your sticker shows.

The point of all this is gas is not what it used to be…the quicker you accept this fact the better off you’ll likely be.   Moreover, chances are good that in a few years it might even be quite different, yet again.   Technology is constantly changing and so, too, must the motor owner be prepared to deal with those changes.   If you carry on your fueling habits in some status quo fashion as in the past then you might be setting yourself up for big surprises and/or expenses down the road.

I’ve noticed when you travel to northern Minnesota—in areas typically more popular for boating—you stand a much better chance of finding a station selling non-oxygenated fuel.   Here’s a tip…check with your local or state street rod association as many of them compile lists of gas stations that still cater to fuels more suitable in marine and older vehicle engines.   In Minnesota, for instance, the Minnesota Street Rod Association has a list of stations that can be printed out and later used as a handy reference as to where best to fuel up the next time you plan to go boating.

It’s also a good idea to check with your local marine dealer to see what they recommend.   Many might tell you not to worry as today’s ethanol products should work just fine in the newer motors.   Others might tell you to be sure to use products such as SeaFoam or other consumer-based fuel additives.   By all means be sure to check your owner’s manual to make sure none of your motor maintenance actions jeopardize the manufacturer’s warranty.

As for me, I will gladly pay a little bit more money for the premium fuels and get in the habit of taking a few new precautions in my fueling routine to prevent motor problems down the road.   Yet, it is a bit frustrating, to say the least.   We now pay twice as much money for gas here in recent years but the quality, at least for some of our sportsman purposes, is arguably not to the same high standard it used to be.

So what special boat motor fueling procedures, if any, do you use?   Is it hard to find non-oxygenated fuels around where you live like it can be here in Minnesota?   Please leave me your comments so we can all learn a bit more about this essential topic.

© 2006 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.  No Reproduction Without Prior Permission.