When does “non-ethanol fuel” still contain ethanol?

“Non-ethanol fuel” may be anything but, reports our engine expert - with damaging consequences for your outboard motor.

When does “non-ethanol fuel” still contain ethanol?
The ethanol Fuel Testers kit from Lakeside Marine.

I recently discussed the drawbacks of using E10 ethanol fuel petrol in marine engines, plus how to test for ethanol and why premium unleaded (95 RON) petrol is a superior fuel.

However, recent fuel sampling tests from service stations in NSW’s upper-central coast and lower Lake Macquarie areas have indicated that some of the independent fuel distributors blend ethanol into standard unleaded (91 RON) fuel marked "non-ethanol"! The testing was conducted over a two-month period by myself and Dave Denny of Lakeside Marine, the national Tohatsu outboards distributor.



For legal reasons the independent distributors can’t be named, but at least one of the better-known brands had a four per cent ethanol fuel mix in its "non-ethanol" standard unleaded. How these companies can get away with blatant mislabelling of fuel is beyond me, but we all know governments are weak when it comes to confronting oil companies. Another independent distributor chain had obviously mixed in Toluene or cleaning fluid, as the fuel was pale blue instead of a normal straw colour.

Of the fuel sampled, only standard unleaded from Caltex and Shell was free from ethanol and had a straw colour. Surprisingly, the premium unleaded from even the independents was straw coloured and free from ethanol, probably because of the greater profit margins servos can make from this pricier fuel.



Although highly accurate, the glass tube fuel tester from Briggs and Stratton described in TrailerBoat 254 is finicky to use and very slow to display a fuel’s level of ethanol.

To reduce the time taken to detect ethanol content, in May Lakeside Marine began importing a fuel tester kit from Florida, USA. All the petrol currently available in Florida is either E10 or E85, with an ethanol content of up to 48 per cent even in fuel marked "E10".

Made by a company called Fuel Testers, a division of MLR Solutions, the test kit comprises a fuel bottle with pouring nozzle, a graduated tube with rubber stopper, and a small bottle of Quik-Check indicator solution. The squeezable bottle and rigid measuring tube are made from fuel-resistant plastic and are far more robust than those of the Briggs and Stratton tester.

With the Briggs and Stratton tester, fuel had to be poured into a separate container and then a funnel used to fill the glass tube — again, a very finicky process. But with the Fuel Testers kit, petrol is poured from the petrol pump bowser nozzle directly into the plastic bottle. The sealing lid with capped pouring nozzle is then screwed on. Water is then added in the graduated tube to the marked level. The bottle nozzle cap is removed and petrol is squeezed from the bottle nozzle into the tube until the "gas" (petrol) level is reached.

Unlike the Briggs and Stratton tester, which is then shaken and allowed to stand for up to 10 minutes to show the ethanol level (hard to do, as it won’t stand upright by itself), a drop of blue Quik-Check indicator solution is squeezed from a small bottle provided into the water/petrol mix in the graduated tube.

The rubber stopper is fitted, the tube is shaken vigorously for 30 seconds, and within another minute the ethanol level is clearly shown in pale blue. The graduations are moulded into the tube so, unlike the Briggs and Stratton tester tube, they won’t rub off over time. The tube also has a Phillips-head screwdriver on its bottom end to slacken fuel drain-screws on outboard carburettors, so the fuel in these can be checked directly.

All the sample testing I conducted was done twice to eliminate any water and petrol level inaccuracies, but results from the Fuel Testers kit were consistently accurate, with the blue separation line making it so much easier to see the slight colour and opacity differences compared to using the Briggs and Stratton tube.

The quantity of fuel required to test for ethanol is obviously more than for the Briggs and Stratton tester, but it’s still only about one tablespoon. When buying fuel from the servos, no doubt the operators were suspicious of me buying only a couple of dollars’ worth of fuel at a time, so I simply said it was for my brush cutter.



To enable its dealer service technicians to quickly analyse fuel-related engine operating problems, the Fuel Testers kit has been supplied to all Tohatsu dealers around Australia and is available through them.

Remember that with all outboard manufacturers the new engine warranty is void if the powerhead fails due to fuel containing more than 10 per cent ethanol. At a recommended retail price of $47 as of July 2010, the Fuel Testers kit is relatively cheap insurance for your investment. Fuel Testers is also working on a kit to detect other added chemicals, such as Toluene, but this won’t be available for a while.

Visit www.tohatsu.com.au or call Lakeside Marine on (02) 4392 6110 to locate a Tohatsu dealer.


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