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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Corn Ethanol Shuts Down Police Cruisers

(Updates have been added at the end of this post)

According to Green Inc., lab tests have confirmed that a high ethanol blend was to blame for taking about 70 police cars out of service in Baltimore.

At first it was suspected that diesel had contaminated the fuel. Here is a video of the mechanics flushing out the fuel injectors.

According to the maintenance supervisor in that video the cars were misfiring and some were running on only two cylinders resulting in low power. If you have ever fantasized about escaping from the police in a high-speed chase, you just missed your chance.

I suspect that the ethanol flushed residue out of the gas tank, fuel lines, pumps, etc clogging filters and injectors.

This made the news because it was a fleet of police cars. This is proof that there are millions of cars out there ending up in repair shops because of ethanol. Had this been a gas station in the middle of the city serving the general public, hundreds of cars would have ended up in repair shops but because each car would have been in a different shop, nobody would have known about the problem. Many repair shops suspect this is happening but why make a stink about something that is so good for business? Statistically speaking, this has to be happening all over the place. There are likely tens of millions of cars out there that are susceptible to higher ethanol blends.

And then there is the slow, methodical degradation of old rubber seals in older cars by constant exposure to 10% ethanol blends. These cars will fail randomly instead of in large numbers all at once. They will not be detectable without a statistical search of repair databases.

For the older car I drive, it cost me about a $100 to replace my fuel filter, $400 to replace damaged injectors, and $800 to replace a fuel pump. I have replaced all three in the last two years, plus my gas cap, which had a rubber seal that fell apart in my hands.

Low-income people tend to drive older cars, which are the most susceptible to ethanol. As rubber ages it becomes brittle and develops cracks, which can increase the area exposed to ethanol a hundred fold. But the politicians pushing to increase the ethanol blend to 15% are not worried about poor people, who don't vote or line politician's pockets with contributions.

Update 10/4:

From an article dated 9/22:,0,7240327.story

"..Tests were being conducted at a Towson lab to determine the precise problem, but officials say they were looking into whether the gas station's unleaded tank might have been filled with diesel fuel.."

The lab results arrived the next day as confirmed in an article dated 9/23:,0,1002895.story

"..Officials had expressed concern that the unleaded gasoline might have been mistakenly refilled with diesel, but results from a lab in Towson showed that ethanol was the apparent culprit.."

Next up, in an article dated 9/28:

The President of the company (Charlie Joanedis) that supplied the gasoline told Jay Hancock that he had a sample of the fuel in question sent to

"..a petroleum inspection company ..the gas was 10 percent ethanol -- just what it was supposed to be.."

To recap, on 9/23 a lab test (submitted by the city) found ethanol to be the problem and on 9/28 test results (submitted by the fuel supplier) found everything was hunky-dory--nothing wrong with the fuel at all and neither report made any mention of diesel contamination. If you had to bet your first born on it, which test result would you believe?

Now things start to really get confusing. In an article dated 9/30:

Blogger, Jay Hancock gets confused, sending us back to the original 9/22 article when diesel was first suspected (but rejected the next day after the lab results came back) thinking it was a newer article blaming diesel again. It appears that Hancock failed to check the date on the article, which was 9/22. Sigh.

It gets worse. The NYT blog Green Inc. followed suit in an article dated 9/30, also linking back to the original 9/22 article, apparently also mistaking it for a new article:

Word of advice to my fellow bloggers. Always check the dates on articles and it never hurts to read more than just the headline while you are there.

And while we are revisiting this let's look into some of these theories offered by the President of the company that sold the fuel to the city. From this link dated 9/28:

"..Joanedis [president of the fuel company] wondered why only police cars and not other city vehicles seemed to be affected …"

Nice effort but according to the original article dated 9/22, they were not the only vehicles affected:,0,7240327.story

"..Jeremy Ark, who said he is the fleet manager for a Maryland Transit Administration contractor that provides services for the disabled, said he had 17 buses break down beginning Friday afternoon .."

He then offers up another hypothesis:

"..Perhaps the Chevies were unusually sensitive to normal seasonal changes in the gas formula that take place at the end of September.."

Perhaps ….but if "Chevies" are unusually sensitive to normal seasonal changes in the gas formula that take place at the end of September, then why are the roadsides all across the country not littered with stalled Chevies (not to mention that Sept 21 is not the end of September)?

The bottom line is this. Every car make and model is different and will be impacted differently by ethanol blends. This is especially true for older cars. The impacts may be immediate (like lower mileage, rough running, stalling) or long term (slow degradation of seals and corrosion of metal by water absorbed by ethanol). That, in a nutshell, is why we invented the flex fuel car, which is still only good up to 85% ethanol.

Unlike American cars, cars in Brazil where ethanol blends have been 22% since 1993 are all designed to run on that higher blend. According to Wikipedia:

"..All Brazilian automakers have adapted their gasoline engines to run smoothly with these range of mixtures, thus, all gasoline vehicles are built to run with blends from E20 to E25, defined by local law as "Common gasoline type C". Some vehicles might work properly with lower concentrations of ethanol, however, with a few exceptions, they are unable to run smoothly with pure gasoline which causes engine knocking, as vehicles traveling to neighboring South American countries have demonstrated.."

[Update 5/13/2010]

More cars taken out of action by too much ethanol:

All came out of the same pump during the same time frame," Cohen said.

Dominick Garretson, assistant service manager of Honda of Nanuet, said his mechanics have "had our hands full of vehicles."

He said whatever is in the tanks has been "eating up" the engine. There is damage to catalytic converters, fuel systems and spark plugs. Repair costs could range from $500 to $5,000.

(Photo credit 888bailbond via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

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