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Water Contamination of Fuel and Its Resulting Problems

Ethanol-blend fuels and diesel fuels are both susceptible to the buildup/accumulation of water, and both of these fuels experience problems of concerns as a result. As a fuel user, how does this affect you?

Water & Ethanol Blends

Ethanol has a chemical attraction to water and any ethanol blend, whether 10% or 15% or more, will absorb water from the air and pull it into the fuel.  All ethanol blends can absorb a certain amount of water, but when the water from the air exceeds what the fuel can absorb, you get a phenomenon called "phase seperation". The previously-absorbed water will fall out of solution and it will pull some or most of the ethanol out of solution with it. You end up with a layer of water & ethanol at the bottom of the tank or container (the water-ethanol sink to the bottom because they are heavier than gasoline). Meanwhile, the gasoline left behind is poor quality because when the water and ethanol fall out of solution, they will strip much of the octane rating from the gasoline.  So instead of a tank full of high-quality E10 or E15 blend fuel, you finish with a tank of water and ethanol on the bottom and poor quality, low octane gasoline on top.

Functionally, this is a problem because the engine won't run properly on this low-octane gasoline.  The worst case scenario, however, is that the fuel line will suck some of the water-ethanol in the combustion chamber, with severe engine damage as the result.

So you can see why it's important to keep this from happening.

Water & Diesel Fuels

Diesel fuel problems with water tend to be caused more by their long-term storage than by any chemical interaction with water.  Storage of diesel leads to condensation of water in the storage tank, with the water settling on the bottom of the tank.  When this happens, you can get:

  • Accelerated breakdown of the fuel quality (because the presence of water leads to certain types of chemical reactions that cause the fuel to darken and that cause gums and varnishes to form and drop out of the fuel)
  • Possible injector damage if the water develops in the vehicle fuel tank and is sent through a hot injector (the water forms steam in the pintle tip and expands, blowing the injector out)
  • Development of microbial growth in the storage tank, as microbes need water present to multiple and flourish.  This leads to corrosion, plugged filters and the destruction of the diesel fuel quality.

Solving These Problems

Controlling water buildup to head off these problems in ethanol and in diesel is typically done by a couple of avenues.

  • A fuel treatment can be added to the fuel that either absorbs the water or keeps it from interaction with the ethanol through the use of surfactants
  • Physically draining water from the bottom of large storage tanks.
  • Use of water-seperating filters



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