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Ethanol on Two Wheels

June 18, 2013


I have been riding motorcycles for 23 years now, all on ethanol-blended fuel. I grew up in the State of Kansas in a rural community, and my family used ethanol because it was the right thing to do. Back then, you had to hunt for the ethanol blend, but now it is available at nearly every gas station in the country. In more than two decades, I have not had one issue with any motorcycle I have owned while using ethanol. Bikers under tentI have been to Sturgis multiple years, all promoting ethanol, and have hosted promotional activities at the Legendary Buffalo Chip. I have talked with numerous riders at fuel stations along the way, and many while at the rally, all with differing opinions on ethanol. Those that speak negatively about the fuel rarely have experienced any issues personally. They are going off of warnings from organizations like AMA, the American Motorcycle Association, from a friend or colleague, or stories from their local mechanic. If they will allow you to answer questions, they usually become positive, or at least neutral. In fact, if they rode their motorcycle to Sturgis, there is a very strong chance they used ethanol along the way, and most don't realize that. In this picture, riders are lining up to fuel with ethanol as part of a promotion in 2012 during the Sturgis Rally. E10 (10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline) has become the standard fuel for most Americans. Ninety-six percent of all unleaded sold today is E10. Motorcycle manufacturers endorse it, and it appears in all late model owner's manuals. The debate used to be that E10 was not acceptable for motorcycles, but that changed in the past couple of years with the idea of E15 (15 percent ethanol, 85 percent gasoline). Suddenly, the same organizations that wanted to stop E10 wanted to ensure its availability and overnight we had a change of thought. E15 was ultimately approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for only 2001 and newer vehicles, along with all flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs). No motorcycles are approved to use E15, yet AMA has made it a top priority to stop. They are having a lobby day this week in Washington. Their pitch to Congress is to stop E15 until testing can be done to see if there will be any damage or harm to motorcycles should they use it. It is illegal for a motorcycle to use E15. How about we just follow the approval and the label, and we don't use it. E15 labelThey also claim that the warning label, seen here, is not enough. Ironically, there are already fuels that motorcycles cannot use at many fuel retailers, and somehow we function with this issue daily. The only one of these fuels that provides any level of education to motorcyclists is E15. Just look at the label. No such label exists for diesel, 85 octane, E85 or kerosene. One would think a misfueling concern from AMA would encapsulate all fuels, not just one. In fact, E15 is now available at fewer than 30 stations nationwide, a drop in the bucket compared to these other fuels. We have managed to not use these other fuels in our motorcycles for decades. I think we can handle this one too. AMA also expressed concern with hose configurations for E15 at retail, and the amount of fuel left in the hose from a previous customer. The RFA worked with EPA to address their concern on more than one occasion and E15 can now be sold in one of three ways:
  1. Dedicated hose for E15.
  2. Common hose with E10/E0, with a 4-gallon minimum.
  3. Common hose with E10/E0, with at least one dedicated fueling position with a dedicated E10 hose.
Motorcycle testI thought I would share one more story, that of my Harley. I own a 2009 Harley Road King Classic. After purchasing it new, I took it to a Harley Master Technician, and asked what we could do to allow it to be flex-fuel, capable of using any fuel from E10 (10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline) to E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline). We ultimately agreed that we would not change the engine at all, but would change the computer, injector and oxygen sensor. We replaced the computer to give it a wider band on air/fuel ratio, as that needed mix varies greatly between E0 and E85. We replaced the oxygen sensor simply because it came with the new computer. Finally, we replaced the injector with one of a larger size allowing more fuel to be delivered if the computer asked for it. That is it. You can see in the picture some fine-tuning on the dyno. The Harley now has been ridden more than 10,000 miles since this project started, and without issue. I use E85 when available for two main reasons: octane and price. Our bikes require premium, and E85 is usually 96+ octane, but more than $1/gal cheaper than premium. I do have a slight fuel economy penalty, usually less than 10 percent, but it still pencils well. The point of this story is not to encourage others to do the same. I am sharing results from this project with Harley, and other manufacturers, in an attempt to show just how close to compatible these motorcycles are today with higher blends of ethanol. AMA wants you to believe that fueling your motorcycle once with E15 will destroy it, yet I have fueled nearly 50 times with E85 and found no problems. All that said, EPA says you cannot use it, it is not legal, so don't. In closing, I thought I would share what is stated in the current Harley-Davidson owner's manual regarding ethanol. "Fuels with an ethanol content of up to 10% may be used in your motorcycle without affecting vehicle performance. U.S. EPA regulations currently indicate that fuels with 15% ethanol (E15) are restricted from use in motorcycles at the time of this publication. Motorcycles delivered in some countries are calibrated to operate with higher ethanol concentrations to meet the fuel standards in those countries." Pretty simple stuff here, use E10, have zero issues, avoid E15. Ethanol continues to be a discount to gasoline providing the least expensive octane source on the market, along with serving as a gasoline extender. This ultimately lowers the price at the pump for all of us. We at the Renewable Fuels Association continue to provide outreach to motorcyclists with an E15 handout and more information on our website, and stand ready to work with others in any constructive ways to ensure motorcycles use the correct fuel.