Switching To Ethanol Is Easier Than Ever
Submission by Mario Charnell-Delgado
(With some caveats)
Crude oil is not a renewable resource, but for most Americans it’s still the only fuel available to them. It’s no secret that our reliance on oil leaves us dangerously exposed to supply disruptions, which have led to major economic recessions in the past, and environmentalists have also pointed to fossil fuel production as one of the major leading causes of climate change. This has left many people scrambling for alternatives, though no single alternative fuel source has yet supplanted crude oil’s dominance. However, one particular alternative fuel has been in use since the early days of the Ford Model T, and is still compatible with many engines in use today; ethanol. This fuel is also known as distilled alcohol, and running it in your car is far easier than previously thought.
Today ethanol is readily available to fuel cars across the nation, though most drivers in Washington state today would probably respond with a blank stare if you asked them where you could fill up on E85. The fuel blend known as “E85” gets its namesake from being 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, and cars capable of running this specialized blend often bear the “Flex Fuel” label. Ford and GM alone have sold over 17 million Flex Fuel vehicles to date, representing approximately 7% of vehicles on the road in the U.S., but overall there has been little progress toward expanding availability of ethanol fuel outside of the Midwest. There are only 7 gas stations in Washington state that sell the E85 blend, and the closest station to downtown Seattle is still over 30 miles away in Snoqualmie. The rest are scattered among rural areas in towns such as Marysville and Chehalis, making ethanol essentially unattainable to large metropolitan areas, and where emissions reductions are needed the most.
Strangely, most gasoline cars already run a blend of ethanol and gasoline, using a minimum 10% ethanol by volume, otherwise known as E10. This was primarily a result of combined pressure from environmental and agricultural lobbying groups, the latter of which typically has surplus ethanol leftover from feedstock production, so the ethanol mandate helps consume the excess. But while mandating a minimum E10 blend certainly helped to open the door to higher ethanol blends, such a small difference in the fuel blend doesn’t usually require modifications. Furthermore, car manufacturers are free to make their own choices on whether to include support for blends E15 and higher, and most have chosen to omit the capability. Occasionally ethanol discussions have been revisited over the years, usually in correlation with major crude oil supply disruptions, but gasoline still reigns supreme thanks to recent advancements in extraction technology, further extending the supply.
Weighing The Options
The mere presence of E85 at gas stations does still inspire faith that ethanol is not a lost cause. But while businesses and research institutions can participate in subsidies and incentives for switching to alternative fuels, Washington is one of many states that offer no such advantages for the individual consumer, except for a tax break when buying brand new electric vehicles.
Those consumers not looking to buy a new vehicle are effectively on their own when attempting to convert an existing gasoline/diesel car to biofuel or electric, and these conversions can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. You may also find, as I did, that even the most experienced mechanics will try to steer you away from fuel conversions, citing fears of engine damage or worse. But it turns out that for many consumers the conversion to E85 ethanol is actually safe and relatively easy, providing that your vehicle meets some basic criteria.
First, your car must have electronic fuel injection. This capability is included with the usage of electronic emission control units (ECUs), which became a standard feature on cars in the early 1980’s. The ECU gives the vehicle the ability to dynamically adjust the air/fuel ratio via the fuel injectors to accommodate various altitudes, temperatures, and fuel quality, resulting in better performance and efficiency when compared to carburetors. This was also crucial for cars to be able to run on future gasoline blends that include ethanol, since ethanol needs a richer ratio of fuel to air in order to ignite.
Second, your engine’s cylinders must use port injection. This is the most common type of fuel injection currently, but is gradually being replaced by direct injection in newer vehicles, and current ethanol conversion kits don’t work with direct injection. Some vehicles will make this feature easily identifiable by applying labels like “EcoBoost” or “GDI”. Consult your owner’s manual or dealer if you’re unsure which type of injection is used.
Essentially if your gasoline vehicle uses both port injection and electronic fuel injection via ECU, then you can easily convert your vehicle to Flex Fuel for around $400. I did this to my own vehicle to prove the concept, and now I’m here to report my findings.
Vehicle: 2001 Lexus IS300 base
Engine: 3.0 L Toyota 2JZ-GE inline 6 cylinder
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Curb weight: 3,285 lb
Additional tools needed:
- Phillips screwdriver
- Pliers and wire clippers
- Socket wrench set
I purchased this car back in 2015, with just under 89,000 miles on the odometer. At the time of purchase I was already considering a switch to ethanol, but held off to fix some minor mechanical issues, and I was also unsure of which parts I would need for a conversion. I had first heard of Flex Fuel back in 2003 when I wrote a report on it for school, but I didn’t learn about DIY kits until watching the 2014 documentary “Pump”, which showcases a kit made by a company called Change2E85.
At first glance this kit seemed too good to be true, so before proceeding I received quotes from various mechanics in the area to get their take on what they believed would be necessary for a proper Flex Fuel conversion. Their own recommendations were going to overhaul the existing fuel system and cost several thousand dollars to install, which I found to be a bit outrageous. One could assume that 15 years of running E10 without incident is proof enough that ethanol doesn’t harm existing engines and fuel lines, but through this process I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of misinformation.
After a year of careful consideration, I went ahead and ordered the kit. Shortly after ordering the manufacturer asked me to check the polarity of the fuel injectors before they could ship it. After a quick check with the multimeter (they were reverse polarity, in my case), the kit was on its way.
Once I received the kit, I completed the installation in under 2 hours, in the middle of the parking lot near my apartment. Most of that time was spent carefully fishing cables underneath the intake chamber, trying to avoid having to disassemble the engine in front of my neighbors. An experienced mechanic probably would have removed the obstructing bits before running the cables, so you may want to consult one in case you run into trouble.
After installation, the kit works by reading the electrical signal that the engine computer sends to the fuel injectors, and “learns” how to adjust the timing of the injectors by effectively watching how the original computer reacts to the fuel blend. The existing computer isn’t aware that it is being monitored, and the engine performs normally if you continue to use plain pump gas after the kit is installed. Once you add some E85, however, the engine computer detects the change in the fuel blend, and the Change2E85 kit takes adjustment instructions from the engine and further modifies them to account for the higher ethanol content, basically keeping the injectors open longer. The only functional difference between this kit and a true Flex Fuel setup installed from the factory is that Flex Fuel vehicles simply receive a software update that adds injector mapping for ethanol, while the Change2E85 kit mimics the software update using hardware instead.
Overall I would rate the installation difficulty at about a 4/10. It’s easy enough to do in a parking lot, but requires some basic knowledge of your engine if you plan on doing it yourself.
Testing The Myths
Given the relative ease of the Change2E85 kit, why would a mechanic recommend spending thousands of dollars to replace the fuel system and re-tune the vehicle instead? In the case of the IS300, many owners perform such conversions for the purpose of racing, given E85’s increasing prevalence as a cheap alternative to racing gasoline. Racing modifications often require much higher fuel consumption, which would entail upgrading the entire fuel system for higher flow. The site for Change2E85 also mentions that the kit is likely unsuitable for racing and modified cars, so it’s safe to say they are well aware of the limits of consumer-grade fuel systems.
That said the ethanol alone will still provide a performance boost without any other changes to the vehicle. I haven’t yet put the car on a dyno to get an accurate measure of the horsepower gain, but the difference is definitely noticeable. From what I’ve read you can assume a gain of roughly 10% or more, which would bring my original 215 horsepower up to about 236. Mileage has also changed, with approximately a net decrease from 18-23 city/hwy MPG to 15/20 city/hwy MPG. These are expected impacts for a fuel that is both higher octane and lower density than gasoline.
What about the price difference? For now, the switch to E85 may end up being more expensive than gasoline, depending on where you buy it and whether your car normally takes regular, mid-grade, or premium unleaded. At the time of writing the Shell station in Snoqualmie prices E85 at approximately $3.25/gallon, while premium unleaded runs around $3.34/gallon. I currently drive between 9,000 and 12,000 miles per year, so if you factor in the MPG drop, that would equate to up to $200 more per year to fill up on E85 versus gasoline. Luckily you can still use gasoline while it’s cheap, and the price of E85 tends to be stable even while gas prices rise. If, for instance, you assume that gas will go up to $4.00 per gallon (like it did in 2015) while the price of E85 stays at $3.25, then E85 would be saving approximately $100 per year in my case. This rough calculation also includes the extra distance that I need to drive to obtain E85, which is usually takes around 45 minutes to 1 hour, round trip, from Bellevue College to Snoqualmie and back.
There can be additional savings from using E85 through reduced maintenance costs, but the savings depend on the vehicle and individual driving habits. For consumers using direct injection vehicles, a common problem is that gasoline leaves more carbon residue in the cylinders than traditional port injection, in some cases requiring expensive cleanings every few years. If you’re lucky enough to be in possession of a direct injection vehicle that also has Flex Fuel capabilities (Ford currently offers this option for the Focus), then the carbon buildup from E85 would be greatly reduced, if not eliminated. In the case of port injection vehicles, the switch to E85 reduces carbon buildup on valves and pistons, and can dissolve existing buildup on high mileage vehicles. In my case I also saw a gradual reduction of carbon buildup on the tailpipe, so you can definitely see the results even from the outside.
Beating The Stigma
The ease of installation and the benefits of the fuel beg another question: Why isn’t this option more publicized, and why are so many mechanics against it? Again, misinformation seems to have usurped the conventional knowledge of previous generations.
Gasoline has been the standard fuel for so long that it’s practically an assumption that no other fuel will suffice for automobiles. Part of this is because carbureted engines manufactured between the 1920s and the 1980’s often contained fuel components that were safe for gasoline but could corrode when exposed to ethanol, so mechanics may be operating under the assumption that the problem still exists for newer vehicles. Another explanation is that most gasoline engines are built only with timings specific to gasoline, and can misfire when using ethanol instead. Indeed, many consumers have filled up with E85 on accident, reporting a vast range of engine dysfunctions that result. As availability of E85 has grown, so too have the reported engine failures involving ethanol, further strengthening the stigma against it.
But the truth is that ethanol is safe to use in gasoline vehicles as long as the engine computer supports it, and given my experiences I would go as far as to say it’s better than gasoline. I also have my own concerns about the safety of gasoline, primarily because it contains the toxic compounds benzene and toluene, which are used in other applications as powerful industrial solvents. Plus, the additional carbon buildup will also damage an engine over time, which is the same reasoning that people have used for avoiding certain varieties of cheap gasoline.
So what are the real risks with ethanol? The only immediate risk with ethanol is that it doesn’t combust as well at low temperatures, so in the winter you need to add more gasoline to ensure your car will start, typically with a 70% (E70) or 50% (E50) ethanol blend. Another option would be to use an engine block heater, which helps warm the fuel when starting. Aside from that, it’s recommended that you change your oil more frequently when using ethanol since it doesn’t contain as much lubricant as gasoline, with recommendations ranging anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000 miles less than the normal oil change interval on gasoline.
Are there any legal issues with the conversion? Technically no, unless you run a shop where you offer to install the conversion as a paid service. The EPA considers it illegal to tamper with the emission control system on consumer vehicles, as tampering can allow you to bypass emissions restrictions, potentially increasing pollution. But this particular modification doesn’t change the original emissions tuning for gasoline, and it significantly decreases emissions on E85. Moreover, manufacturers of these kits have been selling for years without issue, so it’s definitely safe for the individual consumer to buy and install themselves. Some dealers may refuse to service vehicles that contain this modification, but they can’t void the warranty unless they can definitively prove that the modification is responsible for harm to the vehicle.
I myself couldn’t be happier with the results so far, and I hope to see more consumers getting behind the trend. The sustainable energy movement needs consumers to drive demand for ethanol and other alternative fuels, and with crude oil supplies constantly under threat of disruption we can’t indefinitely postpone investments in renewables.
Ethanol calculator: https://www.intercepteft.com/calc.html
Use this tool to determine fuel costs of E85 versus gasoline, or to calculate fuel blends before and after fill-up.
Head here to buy your own conversion kit. You can also contact the manufacturer directly if you have further questions about installing your kit.
This documentary provides a detailed history of alcohol-derivative fuels, and advocates for more fuel choices for the U.S. consumer.
Last Updated June 13, 2016