You Could Be On Your Own If Ethanol Messes up Your Engine

Monday, May 9, 2011

For thirty years, the corn ethanol industry has relied on the federal government’s muscle to force expanded production and availability of its fuel. The most recent favor handed to the industry was the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to increase the amount of ethanol that can be blended with gasoline. EPA approved a blend of 15 percent ethanol for use in newer cars and trucks – Model Year 2001 or later. That is a 50 percent increase in the amount of ethanol allowed (currently 10 percent ethanol) unless a vehicle has a special flex-fuel engine that can use up to 85 percent ethanol (E85).

While adding a small amount of ethanol to gasoline (instead of toxic MTBEs) provides more oxygen and improves combustion, the use of ever-increasing amounts of ethanol to replace gasoline has become a well-founded source of concern for both consumers and automakers.

The recent consumer rebellion against 10 percent ethanol blends in Germany shows that forcing a fuel into gasoline tanks without consumer education and acceptance is incredibly ineffective. And in this country, the EPA’s recent E15 decision has spawned widespread consumer fears and confusion over the potential to damage engines – and the possibility of voiding those vital carmakers’ warranties.

Environmental Working Group called the U.S. headquarters of 13 carmakers over the last two months and asked, just as any consumer would, whether the company’s warranty would be voided if a car owner had engine trouble as a result of using E15. We also asked if each make’s Model Year 2001 or newer vehicles could use E15 if it comes on the market within the next year or so.

Beyond the numerous safety, environmental and health issues around E15, automobile companies have been wary of the higher blend because of its potentially damaging effects on both new and older vehicles. Reflecting the confusion and uncertainty surrounding E15, no carmaker provided very detailed or confident answers to EWG’s questions, but four said clearly that using E15 would void their warranties if engine problems were caused by using the higher ethanol blend. Other companies recommended contacting a local dealer for answers or checking back later, or just suggested using a high-octane (and more expensive) blend.

We got the best answer we could from whatever employee took our call, and here’s what we were told:

These are the four companies whose officials said their warranties would be voided if E15 caused engine trouble:

- Lexus suggested using premium unleaded fuel with an octane of 91 or higher. Since E15 is not listed as a recommended fuel in its owner’s manuals, the warranty would be voided if using E15 caused engine problems (personal communication, April 6, 2011).

- Subaru said a vehicle’s warranty could be voided if an engine problem were traced to using E15. Subaru’s representative noted that some people recommend against higher ethanol blends (personal communication, April 6, 2011).

- Toyota simply noted that their owner’s manuals explicitly state that the warranty is only valid for blends up to E10, except for its limited number of flex-fuel vehicles (personal communication, April 22, 2011).

- Volkswagen’s representative suggested calling a local dealer but said that warranties would be voided if an engine problem were traced to the fuel (personal communication, April 6, 2011).

At the other auto companies EWG contacted, no one seemed to know for sure how using E15 might affect their warranties, but several suggested pursuing other avenues:

Some essentially punted to the local dealer or said, in effect, “Read the manual.”

- BMW just referred consumers to a local dealership (personal communication, April 7, 2011).

- Dodge’s representative had not personally heard of E15 before. Instead, we were referred to a local dealer and EPA’s website, which provides no information by specific car makes or models (personal communication, March 28, 2011).

- Jeep’s representative said using E15 in vehicles manufactured after 2007 should be fine, but that there are concerns with Model Year 2001 to 2006 vehicles. The company recommended checking with a dealership to see if the difference between E10 and E15 would matter for a particular vehicle, and also suggested referring to the owner’s manual (personal communication, April 7, 2011).

– Honda’s representative said only E10 is covered by the warranty in the owner’s manual and there is a good likelihood that it would be voided if a higher ethanol blend were used. It, too, recommended checking with a local dealer (personal communication, April 18, 2011).

Two companies said they knew nothing about E15 and only had information about E85:

- Ford’s owner’s manuals say its vehicles should not use fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol. A representative mentioned that a few weeks prior, a customer had engine trouble after using 20 percent ethanol (E20) and warned that gaskets and seals can wear faster with the higher blends (personal communication, March 28, 2011).

- Saturn’s representative was not familiar with E15 but mentioned that E85 can only be used in flex-fuel vehicles, and that its cars are made with yellow gas caps to signal compatibility with ethanol fuel (personal communication, April 7, 2011).

Still other makers simply referred to their cars’ recommended octane level:

– Buick said it does not make vehicles that are compatible with E15 and only had information on E85 and its use in flex-fuel vehicles. In the end, 87 or higher octane fuel was recommended (personal communication, April 18, 2011).

- Nissan’s representative confirmed that E15 is not mentioned in the owner’s manual and instead recommended using a fuel with 91 or higher octane content (personal communication, April 6, 2011).

Only one company said its warranty would not be voided with E15 so long as the correct octane level was used:

 

- Chevrolet’s representative indicated that owners should use regular unleaded gasoline of 87 or higher octane to avoid heavy “knocking.” The vehicle warranty would not be voided as long as that condition was met (personal communication, March 28, 2011).

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The confusion surrounding E15 will escalate as the fuel becomes available within the next year or so. No one really seems to know how to deal with the warranty and liability issues. In the end, consumers, convenience store owners, car companies, local dealers and small engine manufacturers will be on their own to sort them out. The small engine industry has petitioned EPA to ensure that E10 will still be available.

In response, the spokesman for E15’s most vocal advocate – the Growth Energy lobbying group, said, “I don’t see why the vast majority of the market should be held captive to the interests of a much smaller portion of the market.”

After EPA’s January waiver decision, Growth Energy suggested “that with engine and emissions systems testing on cars 2001 through 2010 complete – and showing no issues with using E15 as a fuel – EPA’s approval of E15 should be extended to older vehicles.” That’s despite the fact that the Department of Energy’s vehicle emissions data for 2001 to 2006 model vehicles shows that of the eight vehicles tested, four failed at least one emissions standard.

Is this the type of organization that consumers should trust for vehicle warranty and fuel information?

If automobile companies can’t even answer questions about their own vehicles, where will consumers turn? To local gas stations that haven’t yet sorted out their own liability problems? To local dealers, who will likely defer questions to corporate offices and/or warranty specialists? Will taxpayers end up on the hook because of a bad decision by the government?

At EWG, we’re doing our best to keep you informed, and we urge consumers to take the corn ethanol industry’s recommendations and assurances with a grain of salt.

 

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