BoatUS: Beware of ‘Regular 88’ Gasoline

Ethanol industry's opaque labeling practices confuse buyers and put marine gas engines at risk.

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If you are like me, you probably spent a recent weekend awakening your dinghy engine from its slumber. If you winterized your outboard according to the usual protocol recommended by your manufacturer, you should have no problem bringing it back to life, but that doesn’t mean you are in the clear.

Recent adjustments to summer fuel regulations to allow more ethanol fuel in stations, coupled with confusing labeling means that the fuel you are putting in your dinghy’s fuel tank could undo all that care you took last winter. BoatUS is currently urging federal regulators to require more stringent labeling requirements at the pump — especially with regard to a blend marketed as “Regular 88.”

BoatUS: Beware of ‘Regular 88’ Gasoline
E15 gasoline is illegal for use in boats, many other vehicles, and power equipment. Can you spot any effective warning label indicating the increased 15% ethanol content in the “regular 88” fuel? (photo courtesy of the National Marine Manufacturers Association).

According to a recent press release BoatUS, the U.S. energy policy favoring ethanol based fuels is giving boaters the short shrift. The national recreational boating advocacy, services and safety group recently co-signed a letter to EPA Administrator Elizabeth Dermott addressing the proposed “E15 Fuel Dispenser Labeling and Compatibility With Underground Storage Tanks” legislation (EPA-HW-OAR-202-0448) and urging the federal regulator to ensure transparency in the sale of fuel to consumers.

The way BoatUS sees it, the ethanol industry is trying create a new federal rule that would weaken or eliminate important warning labels designed to prevent boaters and consumers from misfueling with prohibited higher-ethanol fuels at roadside gas pumps.

“Ethanol manufacturers are pushing to blend more ethanol into the nation’s fuel supply. To accomplish that, consumers are not being fully informed at the roadside pump about the type of fuel going into their boats’ gas tanks,” said BoatUS Manager of Government Affairs David Kennedy. “New marketing schemes to brand these prohibited 15% ethanol fuels as ‘regular 88,’ promoting them as a low-cost alternative and, at the same time, attempting to drive federal rulemaking efforts to reduce and weaken warning labels at the pump is an anti-consumer one-two-three punch that should not be tolerated.”

BoatUS: Beware of ‘Regular 88’ Gasoline
This little orange E15 warning label on a gas pump could be all that separates boaters from misfueling their boat, says BoatUS. However, it might not be that easy to see on the gas pump. (Photo courtesy of BoatUS).

Currently, the use of ethanol fuel blends with more than 10-percent ethanol, such as “regular 88,” in recreational boat engines, motorcycles, off-road vehicles and power equipment is prohibited by federal law. E15 fuels have been proven to damage engines and fuel systems, and its use in a marine engine voids the warranty.

Recent studies have indicated the need for a better, more effective higher-blend ethanol fuel warning label design as well as more prominent placement of the warning label on the pump. According to BoatUS, a recent national poll shows that just 18 percent of consumers think the current E15 label used at gas pumps across the country is very effective for warning that E15 is hazardous to certain types of engines.

“Visit a local gas station dispensing higher ethanol fuels and look for the warning label on the pump,” added Kennedy. “It’s often hidden or buried along with a mountain of promotional signage.”

Sometimes it is not what has been added to your fuel that matters, but what is missing. The most obvious difference between gasoline and diesel during our vented aging tests is that gasoline samples evaporated and required replenishment at the mid-way point. As we mentioned in our report on plastic fuel tanks, anywhere between 5 to 20 percent of the contents of a portable or installed polyethylene tank can vanish during the course of a year, the result of breathing losses and permeation. The remaining fuel is lower in octane, contains fewer of the volatiles that are so essential for easy starting, and has reduced solvency for gum and varnish. It often looks perfectly good-most of our samples did-but is perfectly rotten and potentially harmful as fuel.

There are several things you can do to ensure that fuel doesn’t go bad over the off-season, or during periods of long-term storage.

  • Reduce permeation. New EPA requirements for low permeation jerry cans, plastic tanks, and hoses are a blessing. The loss of vital volatile material is reduced and odors are reduced. However, our experience with the new jerry cans and portable tanks has been disappointing. Most of the designs we’ve tried have serious flaws; we can only hope the market place will sort that out. Metal tanks have zero permeation.
  • Store in a cool place. Keep jerry cans out of the sun whenever possible.
  • Vent filters. Several years ago, the EPA mandated carbon filters on new boats, but as we found in our fuel vent filter testing, the automotive based bias toward carbon filter media did not do boaters any favors. As we found in our testing, silica gel filters reduce water absorption and reduce breathing losses better and last longer.  Over a typical 10-years life, these filters can pay for themselves in saved fuel alone (we checked the calculations-depending on the boat you can expect to save 1-3 gallons per year), before factoring in reduced engine problems caused by corrosion and varnish.
  • Keep the tank full. A full tank will not breath, and fresh fuel renews the volatile content. By full tank, we mean the tank is filled to the “safe fill level,” which allows for expansion. This is the working definition of full, since a fuel tank should never be filled above the safe fill level, which is commonly defined as 96% for stationary tanks and not more than 90% for mobile tanks (depending on design). In fact, we have witnessed tanks overflowing because they were overfilled and temperatures rose. It’s a mess, and environmental problem, and a fire hazard.
  • Keep the vent closed when not in use (dinghy engines only). Water absorption and evaporation affect small tanks more quickly.
  • Run the engine often. The silence of wind power is nice, but gas does not keep.

If you are planning a long cruise, especially to remote areas of the country or to foreign ports where fuel quality is not strictly regulated, and proper storage tank maintenance is not assured, you can save yourself a world of fuel and engine headaches by reading our ebook Marine Fuel Additives. The ebook represents of more than a decade of gasoline and diesel additive testing, with advice on fuel storage and filtration, guidance on tank selection and maintenance, and how best to deal with a contaminated tank.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I have a new 4 stroke, 3.5 hp outboard that is used on the dinghy to get back and forth to shore. A gallon could last me 2 – 3 months. I have been advised by the dealer that winterized it to by aviation fuel. I have a small airport for private planes near my boat and that is what I did. I do add stabilizer and only purchased 1/2 of a gallon; apx $3.50. A lot less costly than having them ungunk or replace a carberator.

  2. My dinghy engine is a 17 year old four stroke Yamaha 2.5 hp. After having to replace the carburetor 6 years ago due to corrosion damage from phase separation of ethanol gasoline, I have run the engine on aviation gas ever since. I also began using it in all my power equipment; Rototiller, portable generator, snowblower, yard vacuum, and so forth. With the addition of StarTron and a preservative such as Stor N Start to prevent gum or varnish formation, I leave everything full all winter and have had virtually zero issues since. Although Avgas is more expensive (currently around six dollars a gallon here on outer Cape Cod), these are small engines and do not burn a lot of gas; the total absence of the maintenance issues associated with ethanol are definitely worth it.

  3. AvGas: I need a regulations update. Some years ago, upon the introduction of ethanol to gasoline, it was illegal to use AvGas in anything other than aircraft; the fine for violation was horrendous. The reason was that AvGas was (is?) still leaded gasoline which, or course, was being eliminated. Use in aircraft was (is?) the exception since engine failure, especially just after take-off, can ruin the whole day for everybody on board (although beneficial for undertakers). One can argue that boat engine failure upon approaching a breakwater, especially ocean, can be equally deadly. At the time, not only was AvGas leaded, but any ethanol was prohibited in aviation fuel. My local airport manager said he would love to use AvGas in his boats, but did not dare to in light of the huge fine if detected.

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