New state mandate for ‘bad’ ethanol

Dirty fuel - ethanol fuel economy

Queensland is the latest to mandate a certain percentage of fuel sales as bio-fuels, even though they are bad for most motorcycles and scooters.

From January 1, 2017, Queensland will require fuel retailers to ensure 3% of their petrol sales each quarter is biofuel-based. It follows a similar mandate in NSW. 

While no one is forcing any rider to fill their bike with ethanol, the problem is that the mandate results in some service stations not supplying unleaded fuels without a mix of ethanol.

In many NSW stations, you can’t buy standard unleaded fuel and have to use more expensive premium or E10 with 10% ethanol.

While the odd dose of ethanol is ok for most bikes and fine for modern BMWs and American bikes on a more regular basis, it may cause long-term damage to most others.

If the only choice is expensive premium, use it!

While ethanol is cheaper, it is also less efficient and, in the long-run, is not any more economical considering the engine damage it may cause.

Political decision

Mandating that service stations stock a certain amount of ethanol-blended fuel is purely a political decision to appear environmentally friendly and aid farmers who probably should have switched to other crops years ago when the demand for sugar declined. (Notice both states with the mandate also have ailing sugar industries!)

Ethanol is a type of alcohol produced by fermentation of crops such as sugarcane or grain. In Australia, ethanol content in unleaded fuel is limited to 10% (E10) but some countries use 85% or even higher in South America.

CFMoto 650NK fuel filler - ethanol

Ethanol suitability

According to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, only post-1986 bikes and ATVs made by BMW, Harley, Polaris and Victory can safely use E10. No Japanese bikes and no Piaggio products can use it. The FCAI doesn’t mention other brands, but it can be assumed ethanol blends are not suitable.

Ethanol doesn’t work with carburettors or mechanical fuel injection. It is also a solvent which attacks metallic and rubber-based fuel lines, and has an affinity to water that can cause steel fuel tanks to rust.

Octane rating

But one of the confusing things for riders is the octane rating. (Octane is a measure of a fuel’s ability to resist engine knocking or pinging which is an uncontrolled burn in the engine that can cause damage. Higher octane fuels resist knocking.)

Most E10 in Australia is rated at 95 RON which seems like it could be suitable for bikes that require that higher octane rating. (In America it has a lot lower RON ratings as their highest RON fuel is only 91.)

RACQ executive manager technical and safety policy, Steve Spalding, warns that ethanol-blended, higher-octane fuels may not necessarily meet the correct fuel requirements for a vehicle designated to run on PULP.

While the RON may be high enough, there is another property in fuel, called Motor Octane Number (MON), which is rarely specified on the bowser.

MON is usually about 10 numbers lower than RON, so a MON of 85 would be ok for a bike rated at 95 RON.

However, ethanol fuels have much lower MON numbers than their RON which could be too low for your bike.

Avoid filling your motorcycle tank with ethanol fuel
Ethanol fuel is fine for Harleys

Either ask the service/gas station for the MON rating or fill up non-ethanol premium unleaded fuel of 95 RON or higher.

It is always best to have a higher octane rating than a lower one even though modern engine management systems have knock sensors that can handle lower octane.

If there is no choice but to fill up with ethanol fuel, make sure your next fill is with a high-octane fuel.

For and against ethanol

Ethanol supporters say it lowers gas/fuel prices, furthers energy security by reducing reliance on foreign oil, and revitalises the rural community. However, even those debates are far from definitive and the environmental argument is far from proven.

But mainly it is not doing your hip pocket any favours, even though E10 is usually a few cents cheaper.

There is about 3% less energy content in a litre of E10 compared with unleaded fuel which means your engine performance and fuel economy will be 3% worse, or to put it another way, your range will be limited by 3%.

The price of E10 would need to be at least 3% less than ULP for riders to even break even on the fill. And then there is the long-term damage it could do to your engine.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that ethanol can damage motorcycle engines and has proposed a cutback in its availability, not a mandate as in NSW and Queensland.

The US agency says ethanol-blended fuels increase exhaust temperatures which can cause component failure. Now, more and more US states are reversing their mandate decisions.

27 Comments

  1. I’ve been a licensed mechanic for 41 years, a licensed Auto LPG installer for 38 years and a licensed Auto CNG installer for 33 years. I’ve been an avid motorcyclist for 45 years.
    Over the years, I’ve seen the introduction of ULP and then Ethanol enhanced fuel use in Australia.
    Since Ethanol introduction, we’ve observed some issues.
    The consumption rate of E10 v’s ULP91 is 10% higher, so where’s the saving?
    The failure rate of fuel systems using Ethanol has been catastrophic.
    Because alcohol is hydroscopic, moisture from the atmosphere dissolves into the Ethanol component of the fuel. Remember, no fuel tank is a sealed vessel. Fuel vapours are prevented from venting to the atmosphere, but when the tank cools atmospheric air can enter the tan via a check valve.
    Vehicles that have steel fuel tanks, pumps, lines, injector rails and injectors that are just zinc plated, will suffer substantial corrosion. This corrosion leads to component failure of pumps and injectors as the surface coating breaks down and the fuel is contaminated with rust particles.
    Some plastic and rubber components of the fuel system are also incompatible with Ethanol. We’ve encountered substantial deterioration of rubber fuel lines, fuel pressure regulator diaphragms, injector seals and even plastic gauze filters around side-entry injectors. In one such case (Nissan Pathfinder), the gauze decomposed to plastic grit and was then pumped into a couple of injectors, seizing them open and filling the cylinder with fuel.
    The problem is exacerbated by vehicles not used daily, or having two separate fuel systems. Autogas Bi-Fuel vehicles are a sitter for the problem because the gasoline will be the standby fuel. Boats will come in a close second because of infrequent use, then lawn mowers, trimmers, chain saws, etc. Motorcycles after them. Most motorcycles would be categorised as recreational vehicles, but the owners usually maintain them well. Exception to motorcyclist that daily commute, you lucky buggers.
    Couple this with the added “bonus” of ULP going stale quicker than the old tetra-ethyl lead laced juice we used to run and “Houston, we have a problem”.
    You see, ULP is refined to a higher volatility than the “good ol’ stuff”…
    So what happens to the ULP to make it deteriorate? Heat. It evaporates. As it sits in the tank in the garage, or the vehicle being used on LPG, the gasoline degrades because the “light ends” evaporate, or “boil off”. Remember back when I said the fuel tank is not a sealed vessel?.
    If the vehicle is not being operated, the fumes are collected by the “activated carbon emissions canister”. The canister can only hold so much and the excess will be eventually discharged to the atmosphere. If you are driving and are using Autogas, the gasoline fumes are drawn into the engine intake for burning during combustion.
    The result in both cases is a tank of fuel that has been depleted of the “good bits”, leaving a remainder that is actually sticky. Have you ever felt ULP that has “gone off”? Rub some between your fingers and it feels like paint varnish. Gums up injectors and fuel pumps quicker than bowser prices rising before a holiday weekend! You’ll actually smell “off” fuel because it’s extremely pungent – think bad outboard fuel.
    Let’s go back to when I mentioned that Ethanol is hydroscopic.
    Years ago, we used to use methanol in racing engines. IF you were sloppy enough to leave that fuel in the system for a month, you could kiss that prized set of Webber DCOE carbys a big goodbye. The buggers would contain so much water corrosion they’d look like they spent a month as bait in a fish trap . Fuel system drainage happened after each race meet.
    In 2008, we did a road trip across the USA. The rental car fuel hatch was marked “E15 compatible”. The rental company counter had THREE signs in the sales office warning that use of Ethanol fuels in their vehicles was strictly prohibited and any engine damage resulting from using it would be your personal responsibility. We had to sign declarations to that effect as well.
    Now, several years ago there was a government push to phase out ULP with E10. It was to be illegal for fuel retailers to offer ULP91. We saw the majority of the retailers removing 91 from their fuel inventory. So what happened? Did the government chicken out or did they cave on to pressure from motorists? Whatever it was, we now see the re-introduction of ULP91 back into the outlets and the arrival announced with huge banners celebrating the event!
    On a final note, we own two late model SUVs and three motorcycles. The manufacturers state ULP is okay to be used in them.
    No freakin’ way will that fuel knowingly enter the tanks of these vehicles whilst we own them.

  2. Suzuki DL650 L5 2015 = Not sure , check your manual ? Manual said under 10% ok , I said NO WAY , any petrol going in my bike will be 91 only or higher . The 4 cents cheaper sugar fuel price has changed to 2cents cheaper ? Even with 4 c , its not worth it in the mileage dept . I have a 2003 model van , but have worked out that it s crap and will stick with 91.

  3. Considerable evidence that E10 is no more fuel efficient than standard unleaded (or any other type of fuel). Basically most cars get less Kilometers per litre on E10 than standard unleaded, thus fill up tank more often and actually burn more fuel so no real environmental saving. E10 (all ethanol) is a scam to help sugar industry it is not as govt’s try to pretend an environmental saving occurrence.

  4. I heard all of this 40 years ago when ethanol started in the U.S.
    most of it is nonsense

    been using 10% since the early 1980s
    now I use 30% in regular vehicles
    and 85% in flex fuel vehicles

    no problems

    1. Fred,

      Try this page from the Australian Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI): https://www.fcai.com.au/environment/can-my-vehicle-operate-on-ethanol-blend-petrol

      That page is a longer explanation of ethanol-laced fuels and their effects and why some vehicles won’t work with them and others will. The good bit is a reference table listing which vehicles can and can’t use e5 and e10 petrols.

      You will need to scroll down a bit(almost to the bottom of the page) to get to the motorcycles section(don’t forget that Suzuki and Honda make cars also and appear in both sections).

      And manufacturers websites are interesting – the owners handbook for my bike indicates that if something burns I should be able to run my bike on it to some degree – but….. a look at the manufacturers website tells me “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” (like sticking a fork into your eyeball).

    1. Brazil has had an excess of sugar for many years and has a well established ethanol industry – I remember reading(20 years ago! eek!) that certain bikes had a “Brazil conversion kit”, mainly seals and hoses, to make them ethanol compatible.

      Since 10 years ago, we have had an excess of grain and sugar feedstocks, the completion of at least one ethanol refinery(Dalby) and lots of push towards what are seen as greener/sustainable/renewable fuels.

  5. My bike has a plastic tank and the manufacturer warns of the unsuitability of ethanol mixes (I use 95/98 as most modern bike engines are designed to run on higher octane anyway). Apart from the well documented damage to fuel system components it causes the tank to swell and then split at the mounting points.
    Any truth in the rumour that ALL BP fuels contain ethanol? I don’t/won’t use the stuff and avoid BP servos.

    1. Some servos have converted all of their tankage to ethanol-laced fuels, so you have a choice of regular, premium and diesel – all with ethanol.

      The roadside signage may be a bit ambiguous, but the bowser should be marked correctly.

      I’m pretty sure you will find servos from all of the majors that only serve up ethanol, but due to the way the mandates work they should mainly be in the high-volume locations near big cities – all the more reason to take a long ride to far flung places!

  6. The way the ethanol mandate worked in NSW several years ago is that a percentage was mandated across a retailers distribution network. The easiest way to meet the target for the fuel companies is to convert tankage in high volume sites(ie major roads in or near cities) to ethanol. This drives the percentage across the network, makes regular ULP hard to find in the cities, but easier to find in country areas where there is lower turnover.

  7. Worth mentioning the QLD gov ethanol ready checker: https://e10ok.initiatives.qld.gov.au/

    Feed in your rego number and you get an answer – my bike is a definite NO. Would be interesting to see what a Harley (or other ethanol safe bike) shows up with.

    It is meant to reassure people that their car is OK with the wonderful new ethanol…..

    1. That site says my BMW 135i is ok to use with ethanol. However, BMW are quite emphatic in saying not to use it in their turbo engines, so it seems the website is about as useful as flipping a coin.

    2. I put mine in, and says:

      Sorry, we cannot say if your 2003 HONDA CBR600 is E10 compatible.

      I’ve run E10 but mainly run 91RON as there is no need / waste of $$ running 95/98 in a vehicle that does not need it. Besides, the bike doesn’t have an adaptive ECU that can advance/retard the timing so no point in higher octane.

  8. Neither of my vehicles can use ethanol, I certainly hope that the signage is clear if this is made into law. Seems to me they want you to use the moe expensive 95 or 98 RON, or E10

  9. The only reason we have E10 mandated in Australia is that the company making is is a BIG financial supporter of the National Party, totally corrupt usage of the political system. I will NOT use it in my cars or motorbikes!

    1. You are right! The Honan Family are big donators and told the govt to put more E10 out there as their sales were slipping. This was in the papers a couple of years ago.
      Then some dick from the Govt says that we are giving people the choice of the type of fuel!!!!
      HUH! didn’t we have a choice before they made it law?
      This Country is driving me to drink.

  10. It also increases formaldehyde emissions which is a carcinogen.
    Never let it sit even in your car tank for more than a few days as it can collect water and fall out of solution with the petrol and turn into a nasty jelly like substance.
    On a side note I strongly suspect that a number of struggling operators and some just plain greedy ones are dumping whatever crap into the fuel they can get away with! if you’re lucky it’s just toluene and kerosene and white spirits that some operators use to diddle the excise but it could also be various toxic wastes that are being illegally disposed of by being added to petrol and or diesel. Like the seen out of breaking bad where they steal methylamine from a train but hide it by just putting in water because the amount will only put the purity off by such a tiny amount that it will still be within tolerances anything can be stuck into fuel and not even be noticed unless you test the exhaust for things not normally found in vehicle exhaust.

    1. A few years ago dilution was going on all over the place – it wasn’t really struggling operators, it was an organised activity. Things came to a head when a couple of servos in Sydney became known for dodgy fuel, but couldn’t be stopped as the ACCC had no definition for a “product known as petrol”.
      Once they had a definition of what was and wasn’t allowed/required in retail petrol they were able to test samples and come down on dodgy operators.

      1. It wasn’t the ACCC that cracked down it was the tax department, mainly by upping the tax on anything that could be added to fuel unless you could prove you’re not going to put it in fuel.

  11. My local service station.. and I do mean SERVICE station only has 2 pumps. 1 for Diesel and 1 for Premium. This will be interesting.

  12. In the USA they use AKI as an octane number. We use RON, but there is also a MON index. The AKI is a mean of RON and MON. RON is more reflective of low engine speed and load, so it is a reasonable index to use for cars. MON is more reflective of higher engine speeds and load, so it is perhaps a better index to use for bikes, boats, and OPE equipment. The American AKI system allows motorists to better understand the anti-knock quality of fuel, as with some octane improvers like ethanol, fuel will perform better under the RON testing protocol than the MON protocol.
    Another factor with E10 use other than mentioned is the environmental aspect. Ethanol in the petrol allows other fuel additives like Benzine or MTBE to be transported into our biosphere much faster, and stay there for much longer periods, when fuel storage tanks leak.

    1. The MON is tested in an actual motor, but unless things have changed, that special SAE-spec knock motor is based on a side-valve flathead which has not really been representative of a typical engine for literally decades.

      1. Wow Mister T, if what you are saying is true that is mindblowing, those old flathead motors had compression ratios of about 5 or 6 to 1, not even remotely anything like a modern OHV high RPM engine of today! It just goes to show you the level of bullshit that is delivered to us by bureaucrats in power.

  13. Yeah right — E10 helps by making us less reliant on fuel imports. Garbage. Just another way to prop up industries that struggle to stand on their own. I’m not going to use the stuff.

    It also annoys me that my mower can’t use it so I have to source normal unleaded elsewhere or use a premium fuel. And of course the fuel retailers enjoy all the extra profits from people like me that are left with using premium blends that they make more $$ from!

    Everyone wins, bar the consumer. What’s new?

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