Fuel Additives: Snake Oil or Good Science?

Posted by By Darrell Nicholson at 11:56AM - Comments: (9)


As one who has spent many hours in exotic locations, cycling bad diesel fuel through a make-shift filtration system, I am as vulnerable as anyone to the promises of a quick and easy solution to fuel problems. In 2007, Practical Sailor warned of the problems related to ethanol-laced fuel (E10), and in 2008, we tested various products claiming to prevent problems related to ethanol and found varying degrees of success. In 2009, we looked at diesel fuel additives formulated to attack biological bugs that thrive in diesel. This summer, we’ll look again at gasoline additives, taking a closer look at the standards the industry is using to separate the snake oil from the elixirs.

PS tested products that claimed protection from ethanol fuel's bad side effects.

While the ethanol problem has brought a mountain of headaches to boaters, it has ignited a booming trade in fuel additives. At the recent Miami boat show, I heard Gerald Nessenson, president of ValvTect Petroleum Products, talk about the state of the finished fuel-additive industry and what established companies such as his are trying to do to fend off what he feels are unsupportable claims by small upstart companies.

Nessenson was quick to point out that the finished gasoline at our pumps already includes a range of additives that deal with issues such as corrosion, fuel oxidation, and deposit build-up. He added that the harsh marine environment presents special challenges and cited the well-documented ethanol-related problems in outboards as evidence that boaters need to be more cognizant of their choices when selecting, storing, and—if necessary—treating their fuel. But when it comes to comparing the fuel treatment products on the market, consumers are effectively left in the dark.

As Nessenson explained in his briefing on the topic: “Since there are no industry specifications for a multifunction gasoline additive for finished fuel, just performance tests that were established to meet refinery and engine manufacturer standards, a company can introduce products that do not meet any industry standard for components or testing for performance, long term incompatibility or engine damage that can occur after years of use.”

One of the biggest culprits, Nessenson says, are ethanol treatments that comprise alcohol, glycol, or new "space-age" technology “claiming superior performance to products that the world’s largest petro-chemical companies develop for the world’s refineries and engine manufacturers; but with no industry acceptable documentation.”

The most blatant offenders, says Nessenson, are those companies that claim to be able to restore phase-separate ethanol blends. Phase separation occurs when water in the fuel tank is drawn into the fuel until a saturation point is reached, at which time the ethanol and the water can drop out of suspension into the bottom of the tank. Ethanol-laced gas is more susceptible to this process than non-ethanol blends.

“Once phase separation occurs, there is no safe way to treat that fuel,” said Nessenson. “Engine manufacturers and gasoline refiners state that this is not possible, and if this is attempted, it could cause engine damage.”

In our 2009 test, only one product we tested, MDR E-Zorb, claimed to restore separated fuel.

Earlier this year, the National Marine Manufacturers Association formed a committee that aims to create a testing protocol for certifying fuel additives for their ability to prevent corrosion, fuel oxidation, phase separation, and deposit build-up. Representatives from ValvTect, Mercury Marine, and Golden Eagle are among the refiners, fuel additive companies, and engine manufacturers who are serving on the committee. This is a controversial topic, so we don’t expect any standards to emerge soon (some manufacturers have already rejected offers to participate, said Nessenson), and we expect some interesting feedback once our own results are in.

As we move forward with our own testing protocol, PS is interested in hearing about your fuel-additive experiences. We would be particularly interested in hearing about anyone having engine damage attributed to using a fuel additive or a warranty claim rejected on the basis of their using a fuel additive. If you currently use a fuel additive that you know little about, you don't need to panic. As Nessenson points out, such damage typically would not be the result of a single use, but repeated long-term use. Our own testing with both gasoline and diesel treatments indicate that limited use of the most popular brand name products will not cause any harm, but how much good the additives actually do is tougher to measure. We advise anyone currently using or considering using a fuel additive to first seek the advice of their engine manufacturer. It will be helpful to have some form of NMMA certification standards that make the process of comparing additives easier, but given the nature of this science, I expect we'll be trying to sniff out snake oil for some time.

Comments (9)

No fuel additive test would be complete without testing Ethanol Medic and Diesel Medic by Fuel Medics. these products remove the water chemically, clean injectors, stabilize the fuel, improve starting and performance. The Diesel Medic by removing the water in the tank eliminates the need for algae related products.

Posted by: Keyzcaptain | March 4, 2012 4:21 AM    Report this comment

Thanks to PS for taking this on.

The 8000 members of the Antique and Classic Boat Society are actively resisting the creeping "ethanolization" of boat gas, with roadside stations (but nor marinas) moving from E-10 to E-15 this year If you think there were a lot of deposits in the Atomic 4 tank on the Pearson 30, you should see what breaks loose from the tank walls of Chris Crafts, Lymans, Hackers, etc from the 20s and 30s. It has been such a problem that many members, including this one, have chosen to install new aluminum tanks, albeit with good filtration too.

In addition to the Unidentified Deposits that clog the fuel system, ethanol is widely known to also cause many of the various hoses and gaskets in these old boats to deteriorate and sometimes fail, causing dangerous fuel leaks. The school solution has been to replace all such material with modern alcohol-proof components - but too often after a member learned the hard way. It would be helpful if PS would identify the time frame in which most builders started using alcohol resistant components.

We have not developed any special expertise on additives. There is the usual range of opinion, with agreement only on the fact that, if you can't drain your tank for the winter, store it full usually with some additive, if there is ethanol about. Some members haul expensive av gas home to avoid ethanol. Others seek out ethanol free sources, only some of which are listed on such web sites as pure-gas.org.

We look forward to the results of your new test program on additives.

Gene Porter
Chair, ACBS Gov't Affairs Cte

Posted by: Gene P | March 3, 2012 12:27 PM    Report this comment

greetings from the Chesapeake Bay
Adding to the MIX : Google "fuel additive testing" .There are very few tests
out there . One from england that I recall .
E.W. Clucas

Posted by: Edward C | February 29, 2012 4:21 PM    Report this comment

Arizona has required 10% blended fuel(mtbe,ethanol,etc)by law for over thirty years.In my experience which includes autos,boats,atv,motorcycles,and airplanes there is nothing to worry about if you provide the most minimal of precautions such as don't let water accumulate in your fuel system.I've never in thirty years had a problem with a 2 or 4 cycle motor that was related to the use of alcolhol in the fuel.All this talk is much ado about nothing.

Posted by: RAY C | February 29, 2012 1:52 PM    Report this comment

I would love to have access to a source that would report the ethanol concentration in the different brands and grades of gasoline sold in the various states. Grant's comment above suggests I may be right in my preference for the highest octane gas I can purchase for all my two stroke and small engines, but I really have no idea what I am actually getting. Furthermore, I should report that I tried some additive I bought at Home Depot for use in an outboard, chain saw and leaf blower (I don't remember the additive brand), and it was so bad that I had to have all three carburetors cleaned. My mechanic told me the gas would not burn when dumped into a large pan and touched with a match.

Posted by: ERIC R | February 29, 2012 1:24 PM    Report this comment

It would be interesting to know, how biodiesel compares to the new diesel chemistry. So far bio diesel has a different chemical setup than regular diesel, and I am not aware of any regulation so far to add problematic chemicals to it. What I have experienced though has been a disaster by mixing biodiesel and the new diesel. Mixes we used to do, such as B20 or B30, we cannot do anymore. We had a quick buildup of tary sludge that, according to our observation as well as in our company provider's opinion, was not a biological but rather chemical reaction. We'd love to hear from you about this.

Posted by: HWI | February 29, 2012 1:18 PM    Report this comment

Having a Yamaha outboard, they recommend the regular use of their own brand Ring Free Fuel Additive. I wonder how well that product really works? Although, Yamaha only indicates the additive's usefulness is for preventing the buildup of deposits in the combustion chamber.

Curiously enough, I also have a waverunner from Yamaha and that owners manual mentions nothing about fuel additives (other than a stabilizer at the end of the season). I would believe that the two engines utilize similar technologies.

Pete Serdaru

Posted by: PETER S | February 29, 2012 12:36 PM    Report this comment

When E10 was introduced, it raised hell with the Atomic 4 in the Pearson 30 I owned at the time. Even though I regularly drained suspiciously milky-white liquid and water out of the fuel-water separator and changed its filter, the E10 cleaned all the accumulated material (varnishes, etc.) in the fuel tank and dumped it into the carburetor, totally plugging it and requiring a carb rebuild.

Since I live in MA near the VT border, I started buying regular gas in VT that had no ethanol at all. That worked fine until 2008 when VT introduced E10. After talking with the head of the Fuel Distributors Association in VT, I learned that high test in VT has no ethanol, and switched to that for the Atomic 4 and for all my two cycle engines (outboards, chainsaws, weed wackers, etc.) and since then have never had a fuel problem.

I have been told by other boaters that high test in MA may also not have any ethanol, but haven't been able to confirm that.

Grant Ingle
Padanaram and Conway MA

Posted by: GRANT I | February 29, 2012 10:52 AM    Report this comment

What about bacteriocide addatives and storage addatives? Did you test these?

Posted by: ZVI D | February 29, 2012 10:51 AM    Report this comment

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