Giving Us Gas

Changes in fuel regulations may mean changes in your power.

April 26, 2011

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Pulling up to a pump and facing the big decision of whether to fill ’er up with high test or the cheap stuff is about to seem like a charming quandary from the good ol’ days. Sure we’re sailors at heart, but in practice, when most of us are out on the water, we’re to some degree beholden to the internal combustion engine, whether it be the diesel auxiliary in the big boat, the genset that keeps the batteries up, or the outboard on the dinghy that gets us to the beach bar and back. And now the care and feeding of those mechanical beasts are about to get a whole lot more confusing.

Let’s start with the outboard, shall we, because new developments on the gas front are most imminent. In January, the Environmental Protection Agency broadened its approval of gasoline with a mix of 15 percent ethanol to now include its use in all passenger cars built after 2001. And we were just getting to like the 10-percent ethanol crap! Well, maybe not like, but we’d replaced the hoses and seals that the ethanol dissolved in older engines, we’d drained the excess water and crud it left in our tanks, and we’d become used to tossing out any fuel more than a month old so it wouldn’t turn to a jelly-like goo in filters and carburetors.

It’s still uncertain when this new, cornier gas will start appearing at the local filling station, where most of us, in reality, fill up the dinghy tank. But you’d be smart to keep an eye out for the E.P.A.-mandated—but still to be designed and approved—gas-pump warning labels alerting you to the dispensing of E-15. I say this because no one seems ready to predict what hell this new gas will unleash.


Citing a BoatU.S. report, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary recently warned that ethanol can potentially damage many parts of a marine fuel system and that “the failure of only one of these components in your engine could lead to failure or, worse, a fire or explosion.”

Love it: U.S. Coast Guard vs. E.P.A. Sort of reminds me of the time a few years ago when the Justice Department bragged about launching an anti-trust suit against Microsoft just as the Interior Department was present at an event toasting the fact that it was finally 100-percent Word compliant.

But back to fuel. On the diesel front, new regulations will soon kick in that will drastically reduce its sulfur content; hence, it’s sure to be a nightmare for those with older motors that depend on the sulfur and other additives for lubrication of such parts as the fuel pump.


Since 2006, Low Sulfur Diesel (with a maximum sulfur content of 500 p.p.m.) has been available for off-road engines and sold at marinas throughout the United States. For highway use, and in other parts of the world, only Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (with a maximum sulfur content of 15 p.p.m.) has been available. In 2012, Ultra-Low fuel will be mandated for marinas in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. And while marinas in other areas may still be legally allowed to carry the more sulfur-rich diesel, they may not, in fact, be able to actually purchase it because as demand diminishes, many refineries may not bother to make it.

If you’ve been looking for a reason to repower, Uncle Sam may have just tipped the scales for you. If, on the other hand, you were hoping for a few more seasons out of that old Perkins or Atomic 4—well, good luck.
Mark Pillsbury


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