Monday, February 2, 2009

Phase Separation in Ethanol Blended Gasoline

Phase Separation in Ethanol Blended Gasoline’s

Phase Separation in Gasoline’s containing Ethanol is now a major problem for all users of gasoline.

Whether you use gasoline as a fleet operator or for your family car, classic car, boat, personal water-craft, motorcycle, snowmobile, ATV, RV, lawnmower, weed-whacker, generator, or any of the thousands of other types of equipment that use gasoline engines; you are being affected by Ethanol in your fuel.

Phase Separation describes what happens to gasoline containing Ethanol when water is present. When gasoline containing even small amounts of Ethanol comes in contact with water, either liquid or in the form of humidity; the Ethanol will pick-up and absorb some or all of that water. When it reaches a saturation point the Ethanol and water will Phase Separate, actually coming out of solution and forming two or three distinct layers in the tank.

Phase Separation is also temperature dependent. For example, E-10 can hold approximately .05% water at 60°F. To better understand the amount of water that we are talking about, picture 1 gallon of E-10 at 60°F. This gallon will hold approximately 3.8 teaspoons of water. However if the temperature drops to 20°F it can only hold about 2.8 teaspoons of water.

We recently were called to consult for a fleet where a fairly large number of vehicles were being regularly fueled from a single tank and about one-half the vehicles were stored inside and the other half were stored outside. After a night with a 30°F+ temperature drop, several of the vehicles stored outside developed problems with significant amounts of water found in the vehicle tanks. After checking the storage tank and finding no measurable water, they looked for other possible causes including sabotage. After looking at many possible causes this customer consulted with us and we were able to describe the Phase Separation through temperature change scenario and determine that this was the most likely cause of the problems.

Phase Separation can happen in an underground or an aboveground storage tank, a vehicle tank, a boat tank, in any type of equipment tank, and even in the gas can in your garage.

When this happens, you can have serious and even catastrophic engine problems, without warning.

When this Phase Separation occurs you will have an upper layer of gasoline with a milky layer of Ethanol and Water below it, and then in many cases a third layer of just water at the bottom.

If this happens and you try to start the engine you can have one or more of the following problems. If your fuel tank pick-up tube is in the water layer, most likely the engine will fail to start. If the engine is running and suddenly draws water you can have damage from thermal shock or hydro-lock. If the pick-up tube draws the Ethanol-Water mixture or just Ethanol you can have problems where the engine will operate in an extreme lean condition, which can cause significant damage or even catastrophic failure. If the pick-up tube draws the gasoline, it will operate very poorly due to lower octane that is the result of no longer having the Ethanol in the fuel.

Gasoline containing Ethanol provides further challenges and dangers for marine operators (Boaters) and other users of seasonal equipment such as motorcycles, personal water-craft, snowmobiles, ATV’s, RV’s, yard maintenance, generators, and other equipment.

Ethanol is a strong, aggressive solvent and will cause problems with rubber hoses, o-rings, seals, and gaskets. These problems are worse during extended storage when significant deterioration will take place. Hoses will delaminate, o-rings will soften and break down, and fuel system components made from certain types of plastics will either soften or become hard and brittle, eventually failing. Fuel system components made from brass, copper, and aluminum will oxidize to the point of failure.

Operators of boats with fiberglass fuel tanks built before 1993 can have actual structural failure as Ethanol will break down and pick-up some of the materials the tanks are made from. This causes two separate but equally serious problems. First the tanks can become so weakened that they can fail. In cases where the tank is part of the boats structure we have seen tanks become so weak that it is possible to collapse part of the deck just by walking on it. The second problem is that this material when dissolved from the fiberglass tank is carried through the fuel system and can cause damage to carburetors and fuel injectors and can actually get into the combustion chambers causing damaging deposits on valves and pistons. This material can be nearly impossible to remove without destroying the affected parts.

Two-Cycle engines have a special problem with Ethanol blended fuels. Two-Cycle engines function because the oil added to the fuel bonds to the engines metal surfaces and provides barrier lubrication to all the parts requiring lubrication. When Ethanol is added to the gasoline, it displaces the oil and forms a primary bond with the metal surfaces. This bond provides virtually no lubrication and can result in significantly increased wear and even catastrophic failure in a very short amount of time.

Until now the only preventative measures available to tank operators and end users was to try and make sure there was no water in the tank and that vents allowed a minimum amount of airborne water (humidity) into the tank.

Gasohol, E-10, E-20, and E-85 are the terms that refer to gasoline containing Ethanol. For example the most common fuel available today is E10. E-10 is 10% Ethanol and 90% gasoline, while E-85 is 85% Ethanol and 15% gasoline (Note: E-85 is actually E-70 in the winter in cold weather (Northern Tier) states.

Ethanol has less energy (as measure in Btu’s – British Thermal Units) per gallon than does regular unleaded gasoline. This means that the more Ethanol found in fuel the worse your fuel economy will be. You use more gallons of fuel containing Ethanol to go fewer miles.

This poor fuel economy is made worse by other EPA and State requirements for fuels to change seasonally. Until very recently we have used what is known as “Conventional” gasoline (CVG) in the winter and “Reformulated gasoline (RFG) in the summer. The theory is that the lower volatility of RFG will reduce the formation of green house gases. However RFG has lower Btu’s per gallon. RFG together with Ethanol results in a significant mileage penalty. My own vehicle drops about 2 miles per gallon or about 9% when using RFG with Ethanol.

For many years the refining industry used a chemical called MTBE to meet the oxygenate requirements set forth by the EPA. Generally refiners used 15% MTBE and 85% gasoline. However MTBE has now been virtually eliminated in the US due to its carcinogenic compounds and the huge potential problems caused by its pollution of as much as 75% of the ground water in the US and Canada.

This has left Ethanol as the primary additive to meet Federal and State oxygenate mandates.

Further the federal government currently subsidizes Ethanol with a $.51 per gallon tax credit that goes to the refiners or blenders. With E-10 this provides those refiners and or blenders with a $.051 per gallon subsidy on every gallon of gasoline that they sell.

In many cases we have seen gasoline containing more than 10% Ethanol. We test regularly and have seen fuel containing 12%, 13%, and even 14% Ethanol while the pump shows only 10%. Increasing the amount of Ethanol increases the refiner/blenders subsidy and profit while further lowering your fuel economy.

One more concern with Ethanol and RFG or Ethanol and CVG is that Ethanol when mixed with water; they readily form Gums in the fuel system much quicker than gasoline without Ethanol. These Gums coat fuel system components including filters, carburetors, injectors, throttle plates; and will then form varnish and carbon deposits in the intake, on valves, and in the combustion chamber. These deposits can coat sensors and plug catalytic converters.

The good news is that we now have products available to prevent and control Phase Separation and that we can dramatically reduce or eliminate most of the problems caused by Ethanol in Gasoline.

Because of all the problems with Ethanol Blended gasoline’s we will list some specific suggestions and recommendations on how to deal with and resolve many of these problems.

When Phase Separation occurs in fuel tank on a vehicle, boat or other piece of equipment, the tank should be completely drained. The tank should be refilled with good fuel and the fuel line purged prior to restarting the engine.

For Seasonal vehicles and equipment, e.g. boats, personal water-craft, motorcycles, classic cars, ATV’s, RV’s, lawn and garden equipment, gasoline powered generators, and so on, we recommend that you try to use conventional gasoline without Ethanol whenever possible and particularly prior to storage.

In ALL Two-Cycle gasoline engines where there is any possibility that you are using gasoline containing Ethanol we strongly suggest using a full synthetic two-cycle oil in the gas.

In bulk storage tanks where you believe phase separation may have occurred or where you are concerned it may happen. We suggest the use of a modified water finding paste such is made by the Kolor Kut Company. This paste starts out brown, if you dip the tank with a measuring stick with the paste and it turns yellow (even light or spotty yellow), you have significant water dissolved in the fuel, if the paste turns red you have free water.

If you have fuel that has Phase Separated and you have either two or three layers you should arrange to have the tank pumped from the bottom to remove the one or two bottom layers containing the water and or the Ethanol/Water mix. (Note: you should check again with the paste before the technician leaves to be certain that all the Water and Water/Ethanol has been completely removed). You do not need to remove the gasoline. Check with water finding paste after 24 hours. If no red or yellow present then add clean fuel to the tank to working capacity.

If you have specific questions, please contact me here or at:


  1. Hi Doc,
    I have recently installed new tanks on gas station location. The petroleum contractor emptied the tank which was full of water as they were new installs. After emptying the tank and reconforming with Kolor Kut on the stick that no water is in the tank. We orderd fuel but still after delivery we have doubt now that phase sepration have occured. The delivery ordered is Shell product with upto 10% ethanol. What can we do to save this load of fuel. The stick with Kolor Kut on is turning spotty yellow?

    1. hello I am the field supervisor with a company in the Tulsa, OK area and we deal with this a lot our company also builds stores and the tanks as well there is ways around disposal of the hole tank you will lose some but not all you need to have a truck come out and remove the heavy layer after that the rest of the fuel needs to be treated and rolled the process takes normally about 24 to 36 hours but after that you are back up and running let me know if you have any questions
      Jonathan Shultz

  2. The problem with testing with paste is that most people just test from the fill. Even if you test from the probe the paste may not read any water. Most tanks are sloped toward the STP (pump). This is where the water will be. This is why it is important to have trained professionals check for you such as Clean Fuels National based out of Indiana.

  3. We have a small c/ store/ gas station in Southwest Utah. Everything was working fine until we started getting e-10 fuel delivered about 5 months ago. We were not notified other than the invoice that indicated that it was e-10. We're new to the business and from California where ethanal fuel was as normal as the sunrise. The filter started getting glogged with a brown sludge that required up to 7 changes a day to keep the fuel flowing. After having the supplier come out he explained about the phase separation but never really explained the brown sludge. We had the tanks cleaned by a certified service recommended by the supplier and started using different ethanal specific filters (Blue) recomended and sold to us by the tank company. After a week it all started over again. Fast Forward three months. After a vehicle died a quarter mile from the store after using our gas, approximatlly 8 days from the last delivery,we shut down all the pumps and called the state for help. We're awaiting the final report in a couple days but we do know so far that the 91 octane fuel tested at 85.7 octane. The 85 octane,they have that in Utah, showed it had only 1.17% ethanal. AND we were using the wrong filters. We were told the filters did not remove water and were given the information on the filters we should be using. But so far we don't know what the sludge is. Note, the fuel system is about ten years old. It has double walled tanks with a Veeder-Root monitoring system. Again, before the ethanal it worked fine. But the main question is what is the brown sludge that is clogging the filters. Can anyone help?

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  5. You should always pump out the entire tank when you experience phase sepration. The gasoline left behind will be low on octane without the full 10% ethanol. An 87 octane E10 starts out as 84 octane gasoline and becomes 87 only after the addition of the ethanol. The low octane can damage engines.

  6. I had a huge problem in my New 22 ft boat with a 225 Yamaha engine. Filled the tank with E 10 after 30 hours for winter storage. Used recc Stabilizer After startup ran fine for 5 hours then occasional problems with rpms at high speed. Bottom line..after many bucks for spark plugs,fuel/water seperators (sucked Phase into it and could not identify water just unusal colr gas)I Needed the Fuel system purged of phase seperated fuel. What is the top layer that floats on the removed 3 layers observed in a glass jar. one is water next must be phase top looks like microbes in watery mix (is that ethanol?)

  7. Nice post! You have worked hard on jotting down the essential information. Keep sharing the good work in future too.

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  10. The brown sludge you are most likely seeing is caused when ethanol is introduced into a tank that has had neat gas or another type of fuel. What the ethanol will do is scrub your entire tank and release contamination. If your tank is 10 years old and was not cleaned before delivery of the E10 this will cause all that sludge to be sent through the system. This will likely go on for days if not weeks until all the contamination is removed. You should also be using an alcohol monitor for ethanol as it is designed to detect phase-separation and restrict the flow alerting the operator there is a problem.

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  13. I recently fueled up my truck with 89 octane regular fuel. My truck stalled 2 miles down the road from the gas station. I had to have it towed, and the GM dealership shop tested the fuel and said it was 90% ethanol. They drained the tank and put fresh fuel in, and the truck runs fine. I contacted the gas station about my problem so they brought in a fuel sample to the dealership, and tested it. His sample tested fine. The gas station manager claims the fuel he tested was out of the same tank I pumped. He refused to reimburse me for my fuel or the service work done to my truck due to the fuel I had just purchased because his sample tested OK. With phase separation will the ethanol become concentrated up to 90%? The station does not even sell E-85, just 87, 89, and 91 octane. Also, will I experience any problems with the fuel pump, o rings in my fuel system in the truck with that concentrated 90% ethanol in my tank for 2 days?

  14. This has been going on longer than anyone knows. You've just answered what happened to me better than 10 ten years ago. We have a large yard, and me and my brother would each burn about 1/2 tank of gas to mow it all. Then one day when I filled up my gas can,transferred it to the mowers, and started mowing, when all was done; We each went through a tank and a half! I personally Know there was no water in my can, but when I ask about it at the station;It had to be somthing I done! Them knowing me to be a mechanic for most of my life with good credentials! Never got fuel there again. A year later the gas truck driver only would say,''There's a reason for that'', and that's all he would say. Also, we each had a significant power drop we could'nt account for. Amazing what you can learn by paying attention!

  15. hi ......i own a gas station in india and the oil companies recently started blending 5% ethanol as per govt directives.we are facing a similar problem here in india with vehicles stopping right after fuelling. how best can this be avoided because it is becoming a nuisance for the gas station owners as they not only have to shell out compensation to the vehicles but are accused by the illinformed public of adulteration

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  17. I think your information is interesting, but somewhat misleading. First, ethanol blended fuel is not a CAUSE of water in the fuel or phase separation. If the fuel meets ASTM spec, it will have minimum amount of water. Now if the fuel is off spec, that is a problem in itself – and needs to be dealt with at the source. If E10 is experiencing phase separation, straight gas would experience the problem much worse, because water is essentially insoluble in straight run gasoline.

    In your case study of fleet vehicles, you indicated the storage tank was tested and found to have NO water. Yet it was claimed the vehicles had water in the fuel system. This is highly suspect as modern vehicle fuel systems are essentially sealed and very little water can get in, just as very little gas vapor can escape.

    Assuming the vehicles did have blended gas, believe it or not, ethanol blended gas is actually the SOLUTION to water in fuel. How? Assuming you had a tank of ‘pure’ gasoline, it would hold virtually NO water in solution. If any amount of water enters the tank – most likely through sabotage, or EXTREME cases of neglect (ie allowing an almost empty tank to set for months of wide temperature changes and condensing moisture from the air) This water IMMEDIATELY separates because straight gasoline can absorb virtually no water.

    The normal solution would be to go out and buy an expensive bottle of ‘HEET’ (isopropyl alcohol) or other gas ‘drier’ which can be added to gas to make the water soluble. Essentially, you’ve paid for a very expensive bottle of alcohol to dissolve a slight amount of water in the straight gas. A couple bucks for a 1 pint bottle of HEET gets you about 0.6% alcohol in a 20 gallon tank, which can absorb that slight amount of water and ‘dry out’ the fuel system.

    By contrast, E10 has 10% alcohol already blended in. Instead of the capability to ‘dry’ the tank with 0.6% alcohol, you now have the drying capability of 10% alcohol – essentially for free!

    To look at it another way – I’ll assume you’re correct that E10 can hold about 3 tablespoons of water per gallon, and knowing regular ‘straight’ gas can hold virtually none, put ‘dry’, gas meeting specifications is put into two vehicles – A 20 gallon tank of E10 could hold almost (3 tablespoons per gallon x 20 gallons ) = 60 tablespoons of water in solution – that is almost a quart of water! By contrast, the tank containing straight gasoline can hold virtually none, so that quart will set right on the bottom of the tank! If a saboteur (or extreme cases of Mother Nature) spiked both our tanks with a quart of water, I would happily drive away on my tank of E10 – with the water fully in solution causing at most a slight change in engine performance, while you would be stuck with straight gas in the tank and a slug of water on the bottom!

    I SPECIFICALLY use E10 in my PWC’s ('jet skis') for this exact reason – if a small amount of water does enter the tank, it’s easily solubilized in the fuel and causes no harm. E10 is basically a large dose of gas line drier with every tank. With straight gasoline, that water sits at the bottom of the tank and accumulates until it gets picked up at the fuel inlet, then the engine goes dead!

    What you are likely seeing the large tanks – years of straight gasoline use has left a slug of water setting in the tank. When E10 is added, it tries to solubilize this water, but it’s too much for even the 10% ethanol blend to hold…THEN you get phase separation.

    1. There are two phase equilibria that are important. One is the vapor-liquid equilibrium, and one is the saturated solution-two liquid phase equilibrium.

      100% gasoline has a negligible amount of water because, as you mention, it is insoluble.

      E-10 can have continued absorption of water from the atmosphere. It isn't likely to happen in a car due to the evaporative-control fuel system. However, in my boat there is no evaporative control system, so atmospheric air is able to be in contact with the fuel throughout the winter.

      Once the water is absorbed into the fuel, then the temperature cycles are very effective in creating phase separation. THat's why long-term storage is the key problem, as opposed to short term use.

      ANd there's still the problem of deteriorating seals....

  18. Anyone know of a non-toxic chemical or product that will cause a more complete Phase Separation of this E-10 Crapohol? It is ruining parts (and probably the engines) in my pre-emission vehicles (the oldest in a 1953 model, my "Daily Drivers" are '62 and '70 models.. plus several more '50's & '60's models).
    I have had success in Phase Separating out the Ethanol, my vehicles love it (they run better, get better fuel mileage, etc.) but the process takes about three hours for four gallons of 93 "octane" (RON/MON) E-10 which results in 3.5 gallons of 89-90 octane ethanol free "Gasoline".. I need a faster process.
    Any Help??
    Classic Car Lover.

  19. I have several 6 gallon tanks stored in my boat which is at a dock. I use one tank each time I use the boat, about three times a week, and alternate the tanks. When I need gas I go to the gas station and fuel up a portable tank. I then add the recommended additive, Stabil for marine use, and the proper amount of oil (2 cycle). I run the boat tank dry before I switch fuel tanks. I use a water separating fuel filter with a visible bowl and a drain valve. When I refill the boat tank I use a water separating funnel. It never shows any water. However, after using, the oldest fuel in the boat I have to drain the filter three times to get clear fuel. I need help on this. What should I be doing?

  20. It'a amazing that we can put a man on the moon, and can't make fuel for our old vechiles, my poor dune buggy is really taking a hit + the gov. gives the Oil Co. .50$ a gallon to put it in,One Gallon of Ethonal is 30% less effecient than Gas, so every one suffers on miliage,and all the rubber seals in you little engines are History, and no one is making new ethonal safe seals, I think it's time we get the Dummies out of washington and give America back to the American's. Let's just vote them out!

  21. Some stations carry ethanol free gasoline, try this web site;
    For the station owner that asked about filters, using a phase separation filter on your dispensers will alert you to any problems by slowing the dispenser to a crawl or stopping it- changing the filter will only work for a bit as it will soon be shutting down as well- get the tank bottom pumped out and fix it already. There is ALWAYS water in the storage tank, and is usually monitored by your TLS along with fuel levels, and should be pumped out when levels get more than a couple of inches- the pick up tube for the STP is not on the very bottom of the tank, but above it by 5-6 inches usually. For the guy with 90% ethanol in his tank and a clean fuel sample at the station, fuel samples are supposed to be pulled at the same level as the bottom of the pickup tube, but can easily be pulled from higher up. Proper sample procedure followed? For the guy that like to use gasahol for his PWC, there is also an appreciable loss of fuel economy due to ethanol having less energy in a given volume, so you are paying more for the alcohol than you realize. Adding alcohol as needed would be far cheaper and more efficient if your goal is to remove water from the fuel system.

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  24. I live in Iowa and have been using ethanol blended fuel since it became available some 30 years ago. I can honestly say I have never seen "phase separation" in any engine I have used it in. Sounds like "phase separation" is just a way to scare people about ethanol blended gasoline.

    1. Bahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!

    2. Scare people???? seriously??! Ethanol is an alcohol based fuel. Alcohol has an infinity to water (it attracts water). just as the original post says, the ethanol will fall out of the fuel if there is too much water " absorbed" into the fuel. Now,in Iowa, thereis not alot of humidity, and im pretty sure you are pretty high on land., down in the southern states (florida, louisania,ect) where the water table is very high, there is more problems with this fuel.
      I work for an environmental company, cleaning up oil spills and chemicals. When Florida first got ethanol fuel, my company removed around 200,000 of bad fuel.
      The fuel terminals blend the gasoline and ethanol right at the loading rack, and they do this so the fuel will not seperate in the tank.

      bottom line is, yes this will phase seperate.

    3. Our car is currently, Jan 2014, at dealership for extensive repairs due to phase separation in the tank where we got gas, in matter of minutes, car died on road. We & 12 others at last count had same thing happen. Fortunately the gasoline supplier is paying as car warranty does not cover this! Don't tell me ethanol Isn't causing problems, not after this.

  25. So if ethanol can absorb BUT also attracts water what is best to fill or not to fill boat tanks for storage?

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  27. Could an individual use phase separation to liberate ethanol from pump gas to use in small quantitys? For instance five or so gallons a week. Assuming I start with 10% ethanol 93 octane. Would the filtered, seperated end product be suitable for use in engines requiring ethanol free 89 octane? If not is there a product available to consumers you could recommend?

    Thanks for the great information!

    A. Stolts

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  29. I have proof that switching back to ethanol-free gas after using 10% can trigger phase separation. It turned my Subaru into a lemon and took me 4 years and thousands of dollars to discover the extent of the damage. Same thing happened to 3 people locally around the same time, and I hear stories of people who have mysterious car trouble mechanics can’t figure out. I’m starting a class action lawsuit against the EPA as soon as I can get 10 names. I already have 2 or 3. This is absolutely enough and it’s about to get worse as more gas stations add non ethanol pumps.

    No proof of EPA guilt is necessary, as they admit on their own website they knew about phase separation from the beginning. All about it. Should be a slam dunk case for any honest jury/judge.

    If you have had mysterious car problems immediately after getting an ethanol free tank of gas - or you have some kind of proof that phase separation occurred in your auto, bike, boat, small engine, whatever – and want to join the suit, get at me at cklein37 at netzero dot com. Use “Phase Separation Suit” in the subject line.

  30. Would the use of only the highest octane fuel help decrease all these problems??


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  33. Most fuels seem to have some ethanol blended in there. It's good to know that separation can happen. That way I can keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn't with my vehicles. I'm glad they're finding things like ethanol to help fuel companies. You need to keep a good eye on it though for that very reason.

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