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When Engineering Fails…Blame Ethanol?

June 9, 2011

           

"Round up all the usual suspects" as the saying goes in Casablanca – or apparently in the corporate offices of STIHL Incorporated.  On May 25, 2011, STIHL Incorporated issued a Consumer Products Safety Recall for 2.3 million yard backpack blowers, hedge trimmers, pole pruners, edgers, brushcutters, clearing saws and other pieces of equipment due to a failure of the fuel cap.  That's a lot of brand new yard equipment.  Reading the safety recall press release, one is led to believe that the gasoline used in the 2.3 million hedge trimmers was defective.  But a review of the facts demonstrates that is simply not the case. STIHL Incorporated issued the recall after 81 consumer complaints of the fuel cap distorting and thus making the installation or removal of the fuel cap "difficult."   The recall notice goes on to blame "ethanol, aromatics and other fuel additives" for the fuel cap failure leading to the recall of the equipment, again "round up all the usual suspects." According to the STIHL Incorporated Safety Recall Notice available on their website:  "Specifically, the levels of ethanol, aromatics or other additives in some gasoline sold in the United States may distort parts of the fuel cap, which could make caps more difficult to install and/or remove. If a fuel cap is not properly installed and fuel spillage results, there is a risk of fire if an ignition source is present, which could result in a burn injury to the consumer. STIHL Incorporated has received no reports of injuries at this time." This notice should leave consumers – and the Consumer Product Safety Commission in charge of protecting consumers from faulty products – scratching their heads.  Why is brand new STIHL equipment experiencing problems with a thoroughly-tested and approved fuel that has been on the market for years?  There's been no change to gasoline regulations for small engines that would affect the ethanol, aromatic or other fuel additive content in gasoline in years.  Why would brand new equipment need to be recalled and not all the equipment that's been manufactured since like 2007? The answer is simple.  This safety recall is not about the fuel that would be used in these millions of pieces of equipment; it's about an engineering flaw.  Distortion of the fuel caps when exposed to normal levels of ethanol, aromatics and fuel additives indicates a poor selection in the fuel cap construction. In plainer terms, STIHL used inferior (and probably very cheap) parts for the fuel cap. Consider these facts as evidence: Fact 1:  Today, the legal limit for ethanol is gasoline is 10%.  From the STIHL website: "All STIHL gasoline powered engines can be used with up to a 10% (E10) blend of ethanol in the gasoline/engine oil mix." Fact 2:  Aromatic components, like Benzene, a known carcinogen, and fuel additive requirements changed back in 2007.  Are the engineers designing the equipment at STIHL not up to speed on gasoline regulations? This recall may shed light into the playbook of STIHL Incorporated and other small engine manufacturers when the Environmental Protection Agency gives the final go-ahead on the use of up to 15% ethanol in gasoline for cars, pickups and SUVs. Blaming ethanol or aromatics or other fuel additives for this situation is wrong.  Unfortunately, blaming ethanol for "fill-in-the-blank" problem has become a broken record.  In this case, STIHL has 2.3 million broken records.  As ethanol becomes a larger share of the nation's motor fuel supply, the STIHL engineers should pay closer attention to the fuels that are actually in the marketplace or they are going to have to get creative on who to blame next.