Fuel Additives: Snake Oil or Good Science?
Posted by By Darrell Nicholson at 11:56AM - Comments: (9)
February 28, 2012
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.
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.