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Fuel quality declining

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Fuel quality declining

Fuel quality declining, auto industry asserts
Half of gas pumps tested did not meet minimum for detergent content, study finds

Posted: Dec. 10, 2004
As automakers, oil companies, mechanics and motorists continue seeking answers to what may be fouling fuel injectors in Milwaukee, recent reports by the auto industry cite a startling nationwide decline in fuel quality.

One study, to be published next month, shows rampant violations of the EPA's detergent requirement, said Pete Misangyi, a fuels expert with Ford Motor Co. who is familiar with the study.

The Environmental Protection Agency began mandating in 1995 that all gasoline sold in the United States contain a minimum level of detergent to keep fuel injectors and intake valves free of deposits and to keep engines running smoothly.

About half the gasoline sampled from pumps did not contain the minimum level of detergent, Misangyi said.

The study, conducted by the Coordinating Research Council, a Georgia-based non-profit agency that studies the relationships between cars and gas, focused on Florida, where General Motors and Honda were seeing soaring numbers of clogged fuel injectors, Misangyi said.

CRC's studies are typically funded by the American Petroleum Institute, the Society of Automotive Engineers, automakers and the government.

The findings back a broad 2002 study by Ford that also showed half the gas sampled failed the detergency test, and ongoing nationwide testing by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers that shows detergency levels dropped 50% from the late 1990s to 2002, Misangyi said.

"From what we've seen, some of the brands that do promote good detergency are doing just that," he said. "Other brands, names you would recognize, didn't perform - even with repeated tests - to the standards."

Misangyi would not reveal the names of the companies that did or did not pass the test, but said the industry is considering naming them if the situation doesn't improve.

Misangyi said automakers originally supported the EPA requirement because back in the 1980s when fuel injectors became popular, many became clogged, and the problem was traced to a lack of detergent.

"We thought 'Great, the problem will go away.' But the problem is they go with the cheapest version." It turned out that those already using detergents decreased amounts to simply meet the minimum requirement, he said.

Even some in the petroleum industry say the standard needs tightening.

"We've felt for a long time - and our own vehicle testing shows - the minimum standard set by the EPA is not sufficient to keep fuel injectors and intake valves free of deposits for many vehicles," said Mark Henry, fuels manager for Shell Oil Co.

All Shell fuels have at least double the EPA's requirement, and its premium grade has five times the amount required, Henry said.

Exxon Mobil Corp., BP Amoco PLC and others say their fuels meet and exceed the standard.

John Cabaniss, director of engineering at the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, said some of the problem stems from variations in fuel supply and quality across the country. One minimum level of detergent doesn't suit the ranges of specifications for fuel, which are too wide, he said.

"We don't build different vehicles to sell in Milwaukee than we do in Des Moines," Cabaniss said. "For vehicles to perform properly, you need to have good enough quality gasoline that will perform wherever the vehicle is used. What we need is a national specification."

And, Cabaniss added, the standard needs updating.

"Vehicles have changed quite a bit since the requirements were set up nearly 10 years ago," he said.

Then, there's the issue of enforcement.

"We want the EPA to do a better job of enforcing the regulation," said Ellen Shapiro, a fuels specialist with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which tests fuel quality in 26 cities nationwide twice every year.

EPA officials wouldn't say how often they test detergency levels at terminals or pumps. The Wisconsin Department of Commerce, which regulates petroleum in the state and tests for EPA specifications, does not test detergent levels.

An EPA official defended the standard, and said there is no movement in the agency to change it.

"Certainly the auto manufacturers have mentioned they think maybe the regulations could be strengthened," said Jim Caldwell, with the EPA's fuels division. "But I don't get very many calls on it."

The standard requires gasoline to contain a certified detergent that can demonstrate that no more than 5% of the fuel injector openings will become clogged with deposits while using the fuel, and that the accumulation of deposits on the intake valves remains less than 100 milligrams.

The American Petroleum Institute said it sees no reason to alter the standard.

"I don't have any hard information to lead me to believe there's a problem with gasoline in the United States," said Al Mannato, API spokesman. "The EPA has standards out there, and gasoline generally meets those standards."

**** Hock, owner of ****'s Automotive in Cudahy and a mechanic for nearly 40 years, disagrees. Hock tells his GM customers to buy only Shell or Mobil gas.

"The proof is in the pudding," Hock said. "I've seen too much of this for too long. The people who buy Mobil or Shell don't have problems."

Hock, who owned a Mobil station for about 35 years, said when he cleans or replaces injectors, he writes a warranty guaranteeing that customers won't have trouble if they buy those brands.

"I haven't had one person come back," he said.

GM officials would not support Hock's theory, and said they do not endorse any particular brand of gasoline. They, however, along with Honda, Toyota and BMW, are pushing for higher detergent standards. They also support minimum requirements as set forth in the newly marketed Top Tier gasoline now being sold by various companies. GM is investigating the clogged injectors around Milwaukee. Early findings suggest something is in the fuel, and that perhaps one brand of fuel may be to blame. But official conclusions won't be available for at least another week.

Meanwhile, Bill Fulton, a fuel injector expert with Ohio Automotive Technology, tells drivers not to panic.

"This is not a crisis," Fulton said. "It's easily preventable. It's like going to the doctor and practicing good health care."

Fulton, who trains mechanics on injector issues around the country, suggests drivers have injectors cleaned annually and add a bottle of Chevron's Techron injector cleaner every three months or so.
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