Many new flexible fuel vehicles are becoming available as ethanol continues to grow in popularity as an alternative fuel. However, in October 2006, the ethanol industry was cropped by one of the most respected safety and standards institutions in the United States. On October 5, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) suspended the certification of E85 fuel station pump components and revisited its certification standards. This was brought on due to the natural corrosion characteristics of E85.
If you are unfamiliar with the UL, it is the largest certifier of products in the United States. For example, look on the back of your computer there will be a UL marking either on the power cord, on the information tag, or in some cases both. What that little symbol means is that this product is a safe machine or device to operate, and it has been tested to ensure the consumer is using a product designed for its intended use. In most cases, people do not understand the importance of that little UL in a circle. Many municipalities have laws, codes, or regulations which require a product to be tested and certified safe before it can be sold in the area.
Research has shown that high concentrations of ethanol in blended fuels may cause corrosion. Although no reported failures of ethanol dispensing components have been reported, the UL has suspended the current certifications for E85 dispensing devices. The UL is actively reviewing current E85 research to draft revised certification requirements.
Since this announcement was made, E85 has not stopped flowing in the one thousand stations in the United States. Since the UL markings are no longer valid, it is up to local municipalities to proceed by considering one of the following: (1) allowing the equipment to be used based on a review of specific compatibility data for the products involved, (2) allowing the dispensing equipment to remain in service, but implementing a program of periodic visual inspections to verify that fuel leakage is not present, or (3) in limited cases, taking the equipment out of service until additional supporting information is received. Other solutions may also be identified. In Iowa, this decision has not affected fueling pumps in any way, because state laws do not require UL markings on the dispensing equipment until July 1, 2009.
The recent decision by the UL could prove to be a challenge to the E85 expansion network. Some of the major oil companies may reconsider installing E85 stations at their fueling sights. In particular, a BP (British Petroleum) company spokesperson said that it would delay the expansion of E85 at its American gasoline outlets until the laboratories certified an E85 dispensing system.
The UL is committed to developing the appropriate requirements to address E85 compatibility issues. Although the process may temporarily hinder the expansion of E85 stations, drivers can be confident that measures are being taken to ensure safety at the pump.