Singing The Alcohol Blues...Ed Sherman

I teach a lot of classes for ABYC certifications as well as others in a given year and nothing makes me happier than when I learn something new during a class session. Several weeks ago I was up in downeast Maine teaching a class on outboard engines to a group of service technicians and marina owners, and I left with a new tip on how to deal with the issue of alcohol being added to the gasoline we now are forced to use in our boats. Its not really a tip on how to deal with it, but rather a way to test to see if disaster is lurking around the corner after you fill up. The gang in my class had already been using a test kit supplied by . I hadn't heard of such a ready made kit and I vowed to get one and try it out. Well I just got my kit and I'm impressed, so I thought I'd share it with you.

The kit consists of a graduated test tube, a rubber stopper, a collection bottle and a small vial of blue dye. There's a little yellow plastic insert in the tube when you get it, and for the life of me I can't figure out what its for. It's not mentioned in the instructions that come with the kit, and it seems to serve no useful purpose, but it comes with it anyhow. The kit is designed to show you if you have water in your fuel, and to determine what percentage of ethanol (the alcohol) is actually blended with your fuel. This is important because all of the engine manufacturers I've spoken with will say that they know they are good with a 10% blend, but they don't want to talk beyond that. The exception to this is automotive applications with engines rated as "flex fuel", which are engineered to run on very high concentrations of alcohol if needed. Marine engines presently draw the line at 10%. Beyond that, you're on your own.

This whole issue is exacerbated by the fact that although most states limit the content to 10%, the ethanol is added regionally by the fuel distributors, and mistakes do happen. I've heard reports of upwards to 20% actually being discovered in "10%" blended fuels at various locations around the country.

So, let's get a look at the kit, and I'll explain how to use it.

The fuel in the collection jar above came from one of my outboard engine tanks and is several months old, so the liklihood of water in the fuel is good.

So, to use the test kit you take the graduated cylinder, remove the yellow thingy (total mystery to me) and add water (about one teaspoon up to the line marked "water" on the graduated scale. Then squeeze in some fuel from the collection jar up to the line on the scale that says fuel. Put the rubber stopper in place and shake vigorously for 10 or 15 seconds. Now wait, it could take a minute or two for everything to settle down. The kit comes with some blue dye that can be added (1 drop) before adding the fuel. This is supposed to make it easier to see the water / alcohol / fuel separation line, but I found I really didn't need to use it as the fuel was a nice golden brown color, and obviously quite different from the clear water. Fresh fuel might be nearly clear in color, so the dye could be useful in that case. The dye bottle is shown here:


 In the photo below you can get a closer look at the empty graduated cylinder:

In the final photo, you can see my water and fuel mix as its settling out. I discovered after about three or four minutes that the fuel had a 6% alcohol content. No evidence of extra water and visually no evidence of any particulates. So after sitting for several months in my engine's fuel tank, the fuel is still good. I'm going to recheck from this same tank in the Spring to see what I get. It is alleged that the fuel can absorb water just sitting in the tank over the winter. It has fuel stabilizer in it. So, we'll see what happens.

For $24.95 this kit is a good deal in my view. I mean, it consists of about 59 cents worth of materials, but is all calibrated and ready to go, so its worth it. I think after using it, which is much simpler than it sounds here, every boater should get this kit if they run a gasoline fueled engine and test their fuel, or the fuel they are buying before disaster strikes. Believe me, its not worth the hassle. I went through it the Summer before last with two of my engines. complete carburetor overhauls, entire fuel system cleanouts and addition of water separating fuel filters. I'm good now, but even doing all the work myself, it was a royal pain in the you know what! Get the test kit!