Lab Holds Back On Certifying E85 Pumps

Delay in approval of equipment for 85% ethanol threatens growth of ethanol in marketplace.

Motorists who want to till their cars with E85 ethanol already have a hard time finding it. But it may not get much easier anytime soon, because of a delay in safety certification of ethanol pumps at gas stations.

Underwriters Laboratories, a private product-safety testing group, has not certified any pumps to dispense 85% ethanol or E85. Earlier this month the firm suspended its approval of various internal pump components while it completes a review. "It's definitely having a slowing effect on what is going on in terms of opening more pumps at stations across the country," says Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

"We need to expand the number of E85 pumps to help increase the market for ethanol and increase production of flexible fuel vehicles," he says. "Iowa is the nation's top producer of this corn-based fuel."

There are only 50 E85 pumps in Iowa

There are only about 50 gas stations in Iowa that have an E85 pump to offer the fuel to customers. Nationwide there are only about 1,000 stations out of 170,000 that currently handle E85 ethanol.

A problem with ethanol is that in high concentrations, the alcohol can corrode some types of metal, such as aluminum, and damage conventional rubbing fittings and hoses. E85 compatible pumps are manufactured or retrofitted with different metals, including stainless steel, and higher-grade rubber.

In Iowa, the lack of certification will not prevent E85 pumps from being installed or taking existing pumps out of service, says Steve Pedersen, head of the weights and measures division at the Iowa Department of Agriculture. Under a state law, service stations have until July 2009 to have UL-certified pumps.

Review could take six months to a year

He says six inspectors from the bureau are responsible for checking fuel pumps throughout the state. So far, they have not discovered any problems with E85 pumps. "I don't think it's a point of alarm," says Pedersen. "But E85 hasn't been around a long time so we don't know what the long-term effects of this fuel are."

Underwriters Labs, based in a Chicago suburb, certifies the safety of a wide range of household products as well as industrial and automotive equipment. Items that have been certified and approved have the UL label on them. Although UL is not a government agency, fire marshals and other state officials.

The review by UL on E85 pumps and related equipment could take from as little as six months to as much as a year or two to finish, depending on the amount of research UL has to do, says company spokesman John Drengenberg.

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