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A letter from Stew


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Newsletter No 42
May 2005


You may have noticed there has been lots of talk  about ethanol lately.  The state legislature has just passed a bill to boost the percentage of ethanol in gasoline from ten to twenty percent, and people are discovering the E85 pumps and experimenting with that fuel.  So, what does this mean to you?  It may not mean much unless you have one of the  flex fuel cars.  Right now, there are over four million flex fuel  cars on the road – and many of the owners don’t even know they have one.

Wow. E85, flex fuel, ethanol, what is all this stuff, and why care?  It  has to do with using more of our local resources, and it has to do with better stewardship of the environment.  Let’s start with some basic definitions.

Ethanol is ethyl alcohol and can be fermented from locally grown crops such as corn or sugar beets.  The production process is similar to the brewing of beer. In case you didn’t know it, you have been using ethanol for several years. Any gallon of gas you dispense from a Minnesota pump is 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol.

E85 is a gasoline/ethanol mixture composed of 15 percent gasoline, 85 percent ethanol.  There are 185 gas stations in the US where you can buy E85 – most of them in Minnesota!  An E85 pump is usually found at a “regular” gas station such as Holiday.
A flex fuel car is a car designed to be run on E85 and/or  gasoline interchangeably.

Ethanol as an automotive fuel has been around for a long time – Henry Ford used it in the first production run of the Model T.
As he said, any vegetable matter that can be fermented can be used as a fuel.  I hate to break this to you, but ethanol is not a modern Minnesota invention.

Ethanol is a very suitable fuel for cars, as Ford proved, but a car needs to be designed with that in mind.  Your gasoline car will run, but not very well, on pure ethanol.  The game is to see how much ethanol can be added to gasoline  before having driveability  or maintenance problems.  So  why (or should) you bother?  Let’s look at the “why” of using ethanol and then we can talk about the “how”. 

Some folks think that “if God meant us to run ethanol in our cars, he would have put it in the ground like he did petroleum!  Besides, it takes petroleum and other energy to make ethanol, so why not just pump the free crude out of the ground?”   Well, oil isn’t really “free”.  Here is a “crude” analysis.  If you take a gallon of crude oil and make gasoline with it, you will wind up with only a little more than a half gallon of gas to use.  If you use that same gallon of crude to grow corn and make ethanol, you will wind  up with almost two gallons of ethanol.  (The extra energy came from the sun. )

Using fuel (and other energy sources) that are created in our local community help our local economy.  There is also a national benefit to keeping the money in the US instead of using it to buy oil abroad.

Ethanol use addresses two  environmental concerns.  First,  ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline when used as a motor fuel.  So the total pollutants out the tailpipe are lower.  

The other environmental benefit is reducing carbon emissions, which are responsible for global climate change (also called global warming).


Some  people are confused by the issue of carbon emissions.  They say that when we burn ethanol, it releases just as much carbon as gasoline does.  Yes, it does release similar quantities of carbon (just one component of total vehicle emissions) as gasoline, but the devil is in the detail, the detail of where the carbon came from.

Think back to botany class.  Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and emit oxygen as a by-product. That’s why plants are the earth’s most wonderful air cleaners.  So, the ethanol is made from corn, which got its carbon out of the atmosphere to begin with.  Therefore, when the ethanol is burned as fuel, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon emissions, it is really just returning the carbons  that it took away while it was growing as corn.  Well, this is extremely oversimplified, but I hope you get my point.   Fossil fuels, on the other hand, have been locked-up in the earth for eons.  Carbon released from burning fossil fuels increases the total carbon in the atmosphere, setting the scene for global climate change.   Ethanol has very little net effect on climate change.
 Oil drilling in ANWAR may soon become a sickening reality, due to American gasoline appetites. We need to get serious about our very real alternative fuel cars -- hybrids, flex fuel, and electric  – while we think about the transportation of the future.    We are all aware that no single type of today’s alternative fuel car is the ultimate solution down the line, but they’re all  a step in the right direction. 

On to the “how” -- how  do you use ethanol? If you can dispense your own fuel, you are already using ethanol. So far, we have seen no driveability issues with the 90/10 gasoline/ethanol blend.

 If you have a flex fuel car, you can safely use the E85 fuel.  Among the cars we work on , the flex fuel vehicles are mostly the Chrysler and Dodge minivans with the 3.3L V6 motors.  Check your owner’s manual if you are curious.  Some of the flex fuel models are listed on the main E85 web site too. (Go on-line and Google E85.)

 If you drive a flex fuel car and use E85, you will probably save a bit of money on your fuel bills.  You will see a decrease in your fuel economy too, but that can be made up for by the lower pump prices.  It is perfectly safe with a flex fuel car to switch back and forth between a tank of E85 and a tank of gasoline, and any mixture in between.

Some people look at ethanol as such a good thing that they want to push the limits and put extra ethanol in their tanks.    Chances are that you would not have any trouble at all mixing  thirty percent E85 with 70 percent gasoline (which, if you will remember, already has ten percent ethanol in it).  Thirty percent E85 means your tank has about 33 to 34 percent ethanol in it.  The reason I won’t endorse experimenting with it is that the consequences could be expensive.  It is unlikely that you would do any damage to your car, because the computers are pretty good at detecting abnormal conditions and compensating for them.  The problem is that the computers may turn on the “check engine” light and now you are stuck having to go in to the shop and paying to get it turned off.  Not a big deal , but a hassle and costly enough to negate quite a bit of the savings you got at the pump. 

One person I know just got done with a tank of almost 50 percent ethanol, and had no problems at all.  Their fuel mileage went down noticeably, but the “check engine” light stayed off and the car seemed to run the same.

If you choose to add E85 to your car, BE SURE TO TELL YOUR MECHANIC!!!!!  Using E85 will cause the computers to compensate  for the lower energy content and to add more fuel.  These numbers show up when we scan computers for codes and problems.  If we don’t know that there is a good explanation for the numbers being off we could recommend unnecessary repair work.  Ouch!  If you do decide to experiment with E85 and have anything interesting to tell me about it,  please call.


Last summer, a new motor oil standard, called GF-4, was introduced into the marketplace and endorsed by nearly all of the major manufacturers.  Its endorsement has been fought by the oil change franchises (it’s a more expensive oil).  Basically, it has many qualities of a semi-synthetic oil.  It doesn’t thicken or form deposits so quickly, and it has improved lubricating qualities at colder temperatures.  If you’re buying engine oil, look for the starburst design on the bottle.  If you have a new car still under manufacturer’s warranty, and you’re having the oil changed at a franchise, ask them if they’re using the new oil.  You should be aware that some carmakers are saying that a failure to use the GF-4 oil could void the warranty.  For your information, we switched over to the new standard last year.


Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Audi, Saab and Volvo all have problems with prematurely failing engines and turbos.  Motors start consuming oil at low mileage. 
What’s up with that?  Do our newer cars have weaker motors than cars of twenty years ago?  The answer is a resounding “NO”.

The root cause of these prematurely failing engines and turbos, and excessive oil consumption, is the ludicrous oil change interval suggested by the manufacturers. I know that some people want to take the recommendations in their owners manual as gospel, but 10,000-mile intervals on oil changes is going to cause engine problems in the long run.  The proof of this is in all the warranty extensions, campaigns, service bulletins and recalls; all blaming everything but the oil change interval.

 Now, how can not changing your oil often enough ruin an engine or a turbo, or cause an engine to start burning oil?

Engine oil deteriorates over time, thickening and picking up debris.  It will coagulate into chunks and crud.  Imagine the crud sticking to the engine components and going through the turbo.  At this point in the oil’s life, it is getting sludgy and doesn’t flow very well anymore. It has lost most of its lubricating abilities.  Engines and turbos will become oil-starved, and fail.

I really don’t know why the manufacturers went to 10,000-mile oil changes.  Maybe they were doing free maintenance with new car purchases and didn’t want to get stuck doing a lot of oil changes.  Maybe they figure you’ll dump the car once it gets to 60,000 miles or so, right before the problems start showing up.  They certainly had no evidence that these newer cars could tolerate dirty oil; the evidence today proves just the opposite.

Be advised too that many of the manufacturers are switching over to semi-synthetic or full synthetic as the mandatory oil.  Volkswagen and Audi 1.8 turbo owners, take note:  you should be running full synthetic, and your car now requires a different oil filter than the one specified in your owner’s manual.

Even with the new GF-4 oil, please get your engine oil changed every 3,000 miles or four months, whichever comes first.  Synthetic users, keep changing every 3,000 miles.  Spend an extra $60 a year on more frequent oil changes and save yourself the cost of a $6,000 engine rebuild later down the line.

Stop in to visit us, or if you have any questions about your cars, call us at 651-635-0395.


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