Ethanol: The Great Paradox

By Jeff Sheets

What is a paradox? A paradox is a “statement that appears to be self-contradictory or silly but may include a latent truth. It is also used to illustrate an opinion or statement contrary to accepted traditional ideas.”

If you read paradoxes carefully, you know that they really make no sense. Crowded restaurants have people in them, and you have to get into the water to learn how to swim. In the outdoor power equipment world, we have our own paradox because the ethanol that is put into the gas that runs our equipment can cause it to run inefficiently or destroy it. One of the reasons that ethanol was put into gas was to reduce emissions and save the environment. The great paradox is: Ethanol helps the environment, but it hurts the outdoor power equipment that helps to maintain that same environment.

As a dealer, you want as much service work as possible, but you don’t want it to be because equipment is failing due to ethanol. Your goal should be to avoid as many of these repairs as possible by reinforcing what your customers should be doing consistently for the life that they own the equipment. How you go about this is to make it a part of your routine in selling equipment, servicing equipment, and any chance you have to communicate with your customers. Here are three recommendations on how to do this.

#1 Online resources

Visit the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) Look Before You Pump campaign’s website at (see the cover story in this issue of OPE on pages 14-17). The website serves as a great resource for owners or purchasers of small engines, UTVs and outdoor power equipment; equipment manufacturers, suppliers, dealers and landscape professionals; and press and media outlets. The website features a great video of Kris Kiser, president and CEO of OPEI, telling consumers what percentage of ethanol in fuel is OK in outdoor power equipment, which is E10 or less. Any ethanol-blended fuel containing above 10-percent ethanol can damage the equipment and is actually illegal. Clicking through to the site’s dealer link takes you to a page where there are great answers to frequently asked ethanol questions. However, the best part is that you can download valuable educational materials that you can hand out to your customers who buy equipment from you. You will need to have a username and password to connect to these materials. You can contact Kristen Reamy at OPEI with questions on how to go about this at If you are discussing this issue on a social media platform, OPEI recommends using a hashtag of #LookB4UPump. The website would be my #1 resource for keeping informed and in turn informing customers. OPEI really does it all for you the dealer.

#2 Show customers damage of high ethanol use when equipment is returned after service

If you service a piece of outdoor power equipment that was obviously damaged by highly ethanol-blended fuel and consequently have to replace parts, make sure that when the equipment is picked up, you discuss with your customers why the repair was needed and how they can extend the life of their equipment by avoiding high ethanol-blended gas. Sometimes, consumers have a hard time believing that the same gas that fuels their cars cannot be used in their outdoor power equipment, but that is why you need to educate them and not just send them on their merry way without instruction. You must make this a part of your sales/service process, so that customers know how important this is for the continued excellent operation of their equipment. You should give them a brochure explaining the hazards to reinforce the importance of your discussion. You need to be able to recognize these repairs in some way in your sales/service process, so that you, the service manager or a technician can have a conversation with a customer about the problems associated with a high level of ethanol in gasoline. There are some excellent videos on YouTube (some videos produced by OPEI) that show the damage of high ethanol-blended gas on equipment, and they can be used if the parts are not available. This type of conversation can be an asset in the future, so that customers know you can see the damage and they might be less likely to make the same mistake again. It also shows the professional nature of your service department, making you only look better to your customers whenever you recommend additional services. Being honest and forthright has long-term benefits for you and your customers.

#3 Offer non-ethanol fuel and fuel additives specifically developed for OPE

Many dealers sell non-ethanol 2- and 4-stroke fuel and fuel additives, which can be a great advantage, especially for the handheld items that you sell in your dealership. I know that most dealers currently sell those items. If you don’t, there are many companies that offer these products — and often advertise in OPE — that you can contact. When you sell these items, you provide peace of mind for your customers. Even if the rating of the gasoline at the service station is E10 or lower, sometimes the ethanol content can be higher than advertised, as many dealers have found out when testing their gasoline supplies in their own dealerships. I would suggest that you use these formulations in repaired items and let customers know about the availability of these products to be purchased. If you know they are using something that you recommend, then they need fewer repairs and it makes them comfortable with your expertise and recommendations even though it might cost more money in the short run. Every opportunity you can take to develop the “expert” type of relationship with your customers, you should take advantage of it, and offering non-ethanol fuel and fuel additives gives you that opportunity.

In summary, sometimes a paradox can put you in a very strange situation. You can’t just stand there and do nothing. If you don’t have a plan to help eradicate the problem, then you contribute to the problem. You want to be headed somewhere and make sure you are not just getting by without educating your customers the best you can and as often as you can about this problem. I prefer to take the following approach of legendary football coach Lou Holtz: “I follow three rules: Do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care.” When you educate your customers, you are doing the right thing. If they make mistakes and you show them the effects of those mistakes, you are doing the best you can. And if you continue to strive to educate your customers, they are going to see that you care, which is exactly what you are hoping for. The opportunity to make this a win-win proposition is there. Make sure you take advantage of it.

1504_OPE_FS_Profit Center Series-Part III-Service2_author-Jeff Sheets-webJeff Sheets is the founder and owner of OPE Consulting Services. Whether a business is thriving or struggling to survive, Sheets’ rich experience in both the corporate and not-for-profit sectors allows him to partner with business owners to customize unique strategies for their needs. For the past nine years, he has worked extensively with hundreds of outdoor power equipment dealers to create best practices in business structure, personnel management and financial profitability. For more information, he may be contacted at or (816) 260-5430. You can also follow him on Twitter @opeconsult, connect with him on LinkedIn, and visit his website at