Here's how the E85 movement can get scary!

As of today, the EPA has not certified a single aftermarket kit or component to convert a gasoline engine to run on E85. Even the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition warns such a conversion is "extremely difficult." The group's Web site also says: "Technically speaking, converting a vehicle that was designed to operate on unleaded gasoline only to operate on another form of fuel is a violation of the federal law and the offender may be subject to significant penalties."

Sound advice, yes? Yet, this story from a TV station in ethanol-friendly South Dakota makes an E85 conversion seem as simple as a 15-minute oil change.

The story focuses on kits manufactured by Flextek. A check of their Web site reveals that the kit is basically made up of a stand-alone CPU that plugs in alongside the factory engine-management computer. The consumer also gets a bottle of proprietary E85 Engine Preparation formula that "increases fuel mileage and helps offset mileage loss due to burning alcohol."

I'm not sure that simply adjusting the computer calibrations to pump more fuel (remember, ethanol has about 25 percent less energy than gasoline) and playing with the ignition timing makes a complete conversion. Here's what the NECV has to say: "The differences in fuel injector size, air-fuel ratio, PCM calibrations, material composition of the fuel lines, pumps and tanks are just a few of the components that contribute to making an E85 conversion extremely complex."

As far as I can tell from the Flextek Web site, there are no replacement parts for the vehicle's fuel system. There is one line of caution about having a "professional" check to see if the fuel pump is alcohol compatible. Some late-model vehicles may already have fuel lines made with alcohol-friendly materials, but I question whether older vehicles are truly compatible. Perhaps there's a GM Powertrain engineer who can go into detail all the changes that were made on the Chevy and GMC trucks to convert them to flex-fuel.

I searched for other stories on E85 conversion and found an SAE paper written by a University of Nebraska class that converted a 1999 Silverado pickup, which was the first year of the current GMT800 platform. The team members were very much aware that alcohol can lead to degrading and/or corrosion of fuel-line components and made numerous changes in the system. They also added larger fuel injectors to compensate for the additional fuel needed to perform.

Another concern I have about Flextek is the company's statement on the Web site that its kit will not void a manufacturer's warranty. The company refers to the Magnuson-Moss Act as the consumer's protection. In effect, that ruling says a dealer may not refuse to honor a warranty (no dealer can void a warranty!) if the consumer has installed an aftermarket part. But that's only if the aftermarket part did not lead directly to the damage in question. I can install a nitrous kit on my car and it won't affect warranty coverage if the heater blower burns up. But burn a hole in a piston and I'm back on the tow truck or pulling out my wallet. If there's an engine failure of any degree, and the dealer finds evidence of E85 in the fuel system, there can be grounds for not honoring the warranty. In this specific scenario, there's a legal question that may have to be resolved in court. I've worked with numerous SEMA companies on Magnuson-Moss scenarios, and the issue is much more complex than Flextek would have one believe.

Also, the Flextek Web site offers no testing or documentation that its system doesn't affect vehicle emissions. It simply quotes the Department of Agriculture that says alcohol burns cleaner than gasoline. Yet the EPA, according to the NEVC, discovered that alternative fuel conversions in the mid '90s "produced emissions that were worse than those of baseline gasoline vehicles." And those tests were with fuels that technically burns cleaner than gasoline. Independent, comprehensive tests, such as those required to obtain a CARB EO number, should be required on any conversion kit for specific engine families. At least the TV story offered a link to a story about emissions testing underway in Minnesota.


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