Burning E85 Without a Conversion Kit (in a Non-Flex-Fuel Vehicle)

Most cars may be already capable of burning ethanol. This first part is a letter by John Kolak:

I thought about this a lot, and realized I will never be in a position financially to buy a new vehicle to enjoy flex fuel, but I found out there are flex fuel conversion kits.

Forgive me if I got these links from you. Once I started searching, I learned so much from so many sources, that I have forgotten whether you provided the initial idea, or if I found out about kits elsewhere.

This technology is all so new that there is a lack of reviews from the mainstream sources we normally trust for our auto technology news, but White Lightening seems to be the main kit out there with the best reputation and lowest price. It also seems the developer is well-connected with the real world in Brazil's flex fuel auto program.

Of course, I also noted with interest your post yesterday about regular non-flex fuel cars sometimes also getting better fuel economy. The main reason I've always been told that I cannot use ethanol in my car is because fuel system plastics and rubbers have to be chosen for alcohol resistance and because the oxygen content of alcohol puts it beyond the ability of fuel injection computers to compensate, and if you have a carburetor, there's nothing at all you can do unless you rejet to run exclusively on ethanol, though I did find your video link to Henry Ford's flex fuel Model T very interesting with its manually-controlled and adjustable variable mixture carburetor jet and manually-controlled distributor advance.

White Lightening solves the mixture issue by adding an auxiliary circuit board that increases the fuel injector pulse so it stays open longer. Then the car's onboard computer is able to reduce the flow when regular gasoline is used. They say this only works on modern cars with an OBD II compliant ECU computer. Their website says that they encourage questions, so I wrote them a letter to ask about their experience with rubbers and plastics, and also whether the car's OBD II ECU is capable of advancing the timing, or whether we are essentially running alcohol on a gasoline ignition advance curve. After seeing their website encourage questions, I was very disappointed to receive no response.

But the issue of rubbers and plastics, and potential engine damage by ethanol in non-flex fuel cars is thoroughly addressed in this web page at Ohio Bio Systems.

The second frame has a video showing a tear-down of a non-flex fuel Chevy Tahoe owned by an ethanol industry executive who ran it on E85 for over 100,000 miles. The video interviews the technician who did the tear-down and discusses the various components of the engine and fuel system as the camera shows them. No ethanol related damage was found, and the plastic parts actually looked better than the the ones in gasoline cars. The additional frames analyzes and compares the part numbers in flex fuel vehicles and their corresponding non-flex fuel versions and finds that in some cases 100% of the part numbers are the same, and at most in other cases only 3 or 4% of the part numbers are different. And even in these cases, in some years and models, the part numbers are the same, but then different in a different year.

So I might try asking a White Lightening vendor the same questions the manufacturer would not answer for me. E85 is still 400 miles away for me, but E20 has just arrived in town, so I might take a chance and see if my car will tolerate it. I hope it doesn't cost me in damage and repairs to my plastic and rubber components. My 1998 Hyundai Accent owners manual says my car can use gasohol, but I'm sure that's only talking about the lower ethanol content gasohol 91 and 95 octanes that were available at that time. Plus I'm a little worried that plastic and rubber in an older car like mine might be more prone to breakdown than in a newer car.

All for now,


. . . 

The letter below is a response to John Kolak's article, On Using Ethanol Fuels In Unmodified Vehicles. The letter was written by Marc Rauch, the Executive Vice President and Co-Publisher of The Auto Channel:

Hi John -

I just finished reading your article on the Open Fuel Standard website and I wanted to add my personal experiences to your compendium of information.

For a few years, whenever I would rent a car or get a new vehicle from a manufacturer to test drive and review, I would manually fill the tank with a blend of regular gasoline (e10) and e85, if e85 was available to me. Depending upon how much fuel I needed to fill the tank, sometimes the blend would give me only about 30-40% ethanol, and sometimes I might have 60-80% ethanol. I did this with almost every make and model vehicle you can think of, and almost none of them were "flex-fuel" vehicles. I did this specifically to see what, if anything, would happen.

Other than the "check engine" light illuminating in some instances, I never encountered a starting, driving or acceleration problem. Knowing that the "check engine" light illuminated merely because the cars' sensors detected something different, I knew that there was no problem with the vehicle. Often, if the test drive or rental period was long enough, and I had the need to fill the tank again — and only had access to regular gasoline — the check engine light would go off, confirming that there was no problem with the engine.

Of course, because the test or rental period was of rather short duration, I knew that my experiments were not really conclusive since I wasn't able to witness what ill effects, if any, might occur from longer, more sustained usage.

With this in mind, about a year and a half ago I purchased a used 2002 Ford Taurus non-flex-fuel sedan to be able to go all out on my test of e85. Because I've never had a situation in which my tank was completely empty, I've never had the opportunity to fill the Taurus fully with e85. However, I've run the vehicle on virtually all other blend levels. Similar to the short duration tests, I have run the Taurus on straight e10 gasoline to as high as 65-80%. Keep in mind that because even e85 might contain only about 70% ethanol (according to the label on the pump), it's hard to really get a blend that's much higher than 80%.

When I bought the vehicle, my friend David Blume — perhaps the world's leading expert on ethanol production and use — sent me one of the conversion kits that he endorses and sells for use on non-flex fuel fuel-injector vehicles. The purpose was for me to test the device and to maximize my vehicle's ability to handle e85. To date I have not installed the device. I've been waiting to push the car to the point where it screams "I can't take any more ethanol." That point is nowhere in sight. This isn't to say that the device is not necessary, it's to illustrate just how well an un-modified non-flex fuel vehicle can perform with e85.

Long before I purchased the Taurus, David and his associates alerted me to the need to transition into using a lot of e85, rather than going cold-turkey and make the immediate shift. The reason, they explained, is that the ethanol will loosen (and clean) the deposits left by the gasoline and that the gunk could clog the system. Because of this, I did transition to high ethanol blends through the first 3 or 4 fill-ups. I don't know if I would have experienced any problems if I didn't heed the advice, but I have not had any fuel line clogs.

In the nearly 18 months, I have driven the vehicle a little less than 25,000 miles  —  enough time and enough miles to make a more enlightened evaluation. I can report that the results are what they were in the short-term evaluations: my car runs fine, as good  —  I think  —  as any 10 year-old car should run. And I have noticed no difference in how the vehicle runs regardless of how much ethanol I use.

At an early stage I did have an interesting experience with Meineke. After watching one of their TV commercials about bringing your car in for a free test if the engine light goes on, I brought the Taurus in for the free check-up. After the test was completed the service manager told me that my O2 sensor had gone out and that it needed replacing (for a cost of about $200). I knew the light was on because I was using e85, I just wanted to see if the test system could discern the reason.

I declined the O2 replacement and told the service manager why I thought the engine light was illuminated. He reacted as if I was speaking Martian; not comprehending what I was saying about using ethanol in a gasoline-optimized engine. He argued a bit with me and warned that if I didn't get the O2 sensor replaced that I was driving an illegal vehicle. For the heck of it, I went through a couple of fill-up cycles where I only used e10 gasoline. As expected, the light went off. I brought the vehicle back into the same shop and told them that I had been experiencing an intermittent check-engine light, although the light wasn't on at that moment. They put the test through what I assume was the same computer test and told me that the vehicle was okay (with no mention of an O2 sensor problem).

Incidentally, I have to tell you that I have never experienced the huge mpg reduction that is typically cited by both ethanol critics and advocates. In my experience I lose only 5-10%. Considering that the e85 costs less 15-30% less than regular gasoline I still get a respectable net savings. Earlier today, May 12, 2012, when I drove past one of the Shell stations that I use to get my e85, I noticed that e85 was selling for just under one dollar less than premium gasoline. That represents nearly 25% savings per gallon.

In closing, I will admit that there is one major drawback to using ethanol, but fortunately it's not my problem, it's the oil companies' problem: They make less money!

Thanks for your time. I hope that this case study helps your efforts.

Sincerely yours,

Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher

There were some comments on the articles above that I think are worth noting too:

Comment number one: When my wife & I visit relatives in North Dakota we always fill up with E-85. Our car is a 1996 Chevy Lumina...Not a flex fuel car. We do not notice any difference in performance or mileage. Our visits don't last long enough to really get much more than 1 or 2 fill ups during those visits, so the alcohol percentage doesn't get up to 85% for very long. It does save us about a dollar per gallon for fuel.

Comment number two: Modern OBD-2 vehicles should automatically adjust for up to E35 without any running issues. I have tried this with Honda, VW, Jeep, Subaru & Chevrolet vehicles from 02+ (First year of ethanol blending). I experience < 5-10% drop in mileage.

I have also used a plug in conversion kit to run E85. While it does drive flawlessly around town, I was not satisfied with its fueling under hard acceleration. The engine does not receive the additional ~30% fuel that is required, and tends to run around 15% lean. For long periods of time and lead footing, this could lead to engine failure. For 99% of your drive, it's a cheap & easy way to convert to E85. Shame the boxes can't change the timing to really get the most out of E85.

Freedom through choice at the pumps!

Comment number three: John, I too have used E30 in both a 1997 Ford and a 2007 Volvo without any problems whatsoever. My mileage change is negligible.

I converted my Volvo using a Fuel Flex International kit(White Lightning is apparently out of business) made specifically for the car. I have been using E85 exclusively for the past 2500 miles. I did have to adjust the kit so that the car's fuel would not "run lean". It now works perfectly. I do have access to E 85 in my local community. I notice a 10-20% drop in mileage since I have been running exclusive E85.

I have been running E85 since the conversion for a few reasons. One, the potential security of our country by supporting Americans and creating jobs. Secondly, the E85 has less pollutants as it is vegetable based. Lastly, our national security by not having to buy as much oil from the Middle Eastern countries which do not like the US. Oh yeah, it is cheaper as well.

The real price of a gallon of gas when you take all things considered is estimated to be (in early 2000 dollars) between $5-$15/gallon when you potentially subtract tax benefits to oil companies and what we pay to keep our troops in the Middle East to protect our oil interests. Read "Energy Victory" by Robert Zubrin for other important information.

We need Fuel choice now and then can use whatever fuel is the best. Options are important whether it is cellulosic ethanol, methanol, butanol or anything else or a combination of all of them.

I think these two articles by Robert Zubrin are relevant here. He discovered that cars are already designed for flex fuel cars, including having the software installed in the onboard computer, but the software is disabled. Check it out:

Methanol Wins

The following paper from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is also interesting: It's about using "intermediate blends" of ethanol. Apparently normal fuel injector computers handle up to half ethanol before the car starts running poorly (if it is going to run poorly at all). What happens is that the injector automatically adds more fuel if the fuel is partly alcohol, and most cars can do up to 50% E85 with no problems. Every little bit makes a difference. Anyway, here's the link to the PDF file: Effects of Intermediate Ethanol Blends.

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