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Gasoline politics and Seafoam

June 28, 2006

There’s hardly anything luckier than running into a certifiable genius when you can’t figure out a problem.  I’d just bumped into a friend of mine at the lumberyard, and I was pickin’ his brain like meat from a crab-leg.

One of his many talents is a deep, engineering-level knowledge of everything automotive.  For example, he kept all the old cop cars running safely for the stunt scenes in the “Blues Brothers” movie remake.  He was a motor consultant to “Batman Begins”.  He knows all about fuel chemistry, all the way from the crude oil entering the refinery cracking tower to the deposits inside your car’s tailpipe.  So he was just the guy to ask about the fuel problem in my VW.  It turns out the problem is political…

Oil companies in the US have been unwilling to comply with environmental rules (because they’d have to charge an extra dime for their incredibly cheap gas) so they have not been building any new refineries.  Instead, they just cranked the old ones up to maximum capacity, so they have less control over the purity of what comes out each level of the towers.  This situation was not improved by the hurricanes that damaged the gulf coast last year, by the way.

It had not occurred to me to blame the fuel itself.  The gas you’re buying?  Well, it’s approximately what it’s supposed to be, but it varies a lot. They don’t have time for recracking when the tolerances are ‘off’.  Usually, this is fine.  The computer in your car can compensate and you generally don’t know about it.

But suppose your car ain’t got one o’ them thar computer dealies?  Suppose it was built when gas refineries were run as if the purity of the gas mattered, because cars had carburetors… say in about 1967?  And suppose it’s an air-cooled engine that runs thirty degrees hotter than the one in your car?  The fuel sits in the float bowl, getting nearly to boiling temperature.  Then it gets sucked down a little tube, through a tiny jet, and that’s where the impurities crystalize into ‘lacquer’.

This aligned neatly with my experience.  I’d take the carb out, thoroughly clean it with very agressive solvents, and the car would run great for about a day until the idle jet and idle trim jet (which are really the most important ones up to about 2300 RPM) would clog up.  My first thought was ‘plain old crud’, but my gas tank was fully reconditioned, there’s a fine brass screen, and two fuel filters inline before the carburator.  That should have caught any POC.

When this happens, I know it.  The car loses power at low RPM’s, it runs even hotter than normal, and it bucks and kicks.  It will idle either at high RPM’s or not at all.  It’s embarrassing, not to mention uneconomical, polluting, and unsafe.  It’s very bad for the engine itself.

I had tried various fuel system cleaners to dissolve the lacquer, but to no avail.  My friend recommended something called ‘Seafoam’, which is an old product that I would not have thought to use.  He said to start with 30% higher-than-recommended concentration, and to be prepared to swap out the fuel filters a week later (after all, despite the clean tank, the fuel line is 39 years old).  Then, use when needed at normal concentration.

It worked.  I spent the last few days hotrodding around town on various errands and the car idled and performed exactly the way it is supposed to.  In fact, as it never has since I built that engine.  Yea, Seafoam!

UPDATE: I have consolidated this post and all the other fuel and carburetion related posts into one: 34PICT-3 Carburetor Final.  That post will also be updated when new information comes in.

Correct jetting of 34PICT-3 carburetor
Correcting fuel pressure problems in VW type 1

Categories: Personal, VW
  1. June 28, 2006 at 11:27 | #1

    For those of us that have fuel injectors, and are noticing similar problems, or just poor performance, my genius friend recommends a fuel injector cleaner made by Lucas Oil.  http://www.lucasoil.com/.  I have used their products and can say they rock.

  2. June 28, 2006 at 15:13 | #2

    Oil companies in the US have been unwilling to comply with environmental rules (because they’d have to charge an extra dime for their incredibly cheap gas) so they have not been building any new refineries.

    Given that every time oil companies add a dime to the price, whatever the reason, they’re treated by citizenry and pols alike as cackling plutocrats, it’s not too surprising.  And the costs are non-trivial (and it’s fine to say that Exxon should be willing to charge an extra dime a gallon, but if they’re the only ones doing it, they aren’t going to have many customers).  Even a minor expansion of an existing refinery can place the entire plant under the latest-greatest regs (which can cost a lot more to remediate than the upgrade itself).

    And it’s not just a matter of complying with environmental rules.  Getting localities to even allow new refineries to be built is politically very difficult, even in “oil-friendly” states.

    Not that I’m objecting to those environmental regs, to be sure.  Refineries are nasty places.  But it’s not just pinch-pennyness that has kept refinery capacity in this country at the minimum to meet demand.

    (ObDisclosure: my employer does O&M and engineering for, among other folks, refineries.)

  3. June 29, 2006 at 06:06 | #3

    Interesting.  Thirty years ago I had a car that seemed to need a tune-up (remember those?) way too frequently.  A friend of mine who owned a car dealership that specialised in BMWs, Alfas and the occasional Citroen SM, serviced my little car.  But after several tune-ups, asked me what brand of gas I used.  I told him (it was a an internationally recognized refiner/retailer) and he said, “Do yourself a favor … buy gas from a different supplier.”  I did, and it solved the problem.

    So, this is not a recent issue, IMO.

    BTW, I have no sympathy for refiners who don’t do the right thing, despite Dave’s well-stated explanation of the challenges associated with upgrading and modernizing facilities.  While I am as cost conscious as most folks, I seek quality.  The long term cost of crap is too high.

  4. June 29, 2006 at 10:34 | #4

    “Refineries are nasty places.”
    They sure are, but one thing that would actually save us cost in the long run if we forced all refineries that are older than 50 years to shut down.  Then the government creates a program using tax revenue to help offset some of the cost of starting a new refinery for those companies with the older plants. 

    Why would this be cheaper in the long run?  Because older plants are not forced to meet any standards of plants that are newer than 50 years.  This means that all the pollutants that nobody cared about in the 1950’s are still being put directly into the atmosphere with no hindrance.  The indirect cost of this is monstrous, and certainly more than the couple hundred million that it would cost to build new plants.

  5. Ed
    June 29, 2006 at 21:06 | #5

    Would you recommend SeaFoam as a general fuel problem preventative in newer cars?  Or just for “older” models?

  6. June 29, 2006 at 22:13 | #6

    I wouldn’t be the expert but my friend does use SeaFoam on fuel-injected cars. I think it is his favorite fuel-system problem solver.  it is apparently also a good throttle-body cleaner, which makes sense now that I think about it.

    For GM cars that are still in warranty, he uses Techron instead of SeaFoam because Techron is a GM product so GM can’t complain about it.  He likes Lucas for some maintenance situations.  Those are the only three brands he uses.

    He did say, don’t be surprised if fuel filter clogs up a week later as it will knock a lot of stuff loose.  He also said that if a fuel injector is totally clogged, no additive will fix it because the fuel isn’t moving through it to deliver the additive. 

    It was a long discussion – we stood there in the lumberyard for an hour talking about fuel. 

    Since most cars’ fuel filters are mounted in the gas tank the labor will cost more than the filter itself but that’s OK.  My Chevvy van once ate a fuel pump because of a clogged filter.

    Webs, I’d review the refinery emissions standards to make sure they’re realistic and absolutely necessary, and then give the oil companies ten years to meet them however they see fit.  If that means a new refinery, well, that is the business they are in.  Also, creating a marketplace of pollution credits (companies cleaner than the law requires can sell the excess credits to other companies that would rather pay than change) has had surprisingly good results in other industries.

    The idea of subsidizing new refineries for such a profitable industry makes me ill.  But of course as a Socialist you are immune to that particular nausea.  ;-)

    WeeDram, I hear you, but that is the flip-side of the competitive market.  Since all companies advertise high quality, how would the company that really does incur higher costs get the public’s attention?  I think the fuel industry is ripe for an independent testing agency that would publicize its findings.  How that agency would be funded, I don’t know.

  7. June 29, 2006 at 22:27 | #7

    I hate the idea of subsidizing the refineries as well.  But my point for making the argument was to offset future costs, and help slow the devastation of the planet due to emissions, not to give them a free ride.  If I could offset the cost of something that was gonna be in the trillions today, by spending only a couple hundred million (which the amount may be less, instead of giving the companies with old plants money, there could be tax incentives instead), I think that is money well spent.  If politicians want to change the law so that older refineries have to comply, I am all for that too.  What I am not for, is to have people sit on their butt and say, “Well lets just let Capitalism take it’s toll.”

    If you think talking about not subsidizing profitable industries makes me nauseous, you should hear me rant sometime on reviving automobile manufacturers from the dead.

  8. June 29, 2006 at 22:33 | #8

    I guess I just don’t understand why you’d want to do it.  If you tell the company; “You meet these standards, or you can’t refine gasoline anymore” that will be all the motivation they need. 

    Boutique refineries (such as racing fuels) too small to build refineries can rent time on other companies’ cracking towers, or they can buy pollution credits from companies that exceed the standard.  Since their products will then be significantly more expensive, the actual usage will be small enough not to matter in the big picture. 

    It’s the same reason I really don’t care what gas mileage a Ferrari gets, or how much pollution it creates.  What matters is the zillion commuter cars.

  9. June 30, 2006 at 00:54 | #9

    That thinking is a little backwards.  There is no way that you could possibly get rid of the millions of cars people drive.  No one would allow their government to do such a thing.  Not that I don’t think its a grand idea, but people have become to accustomed to them.  I ride a bike or walk everyday and enjoy it, but I am one of over 6 billion people.  So saying that a polluting Ferrari, Hummer, any SUV, or old refinery doesn’t matter is HOG WASH!!!!!  Those vechicles and the refineries make a HUGE difference, and dismissing them as a polluter is non-sense.  If you cannot get rid of the problem, automobiles, then at least help solve the problem.  I think everyone would be surprised to find out home much pollutants the old refineries release into the air.  After much searching, I could not find exact numbers, but I do remember reading an article in Rolling Stone magazine about how the head of the EPA quit in 2002, and why.  This issue of old refineries came up in the article.  A few sources I found are linked below.

    If you don’t like my original idea, then surely you would accept my other proposal that you seemingly did not read, that at least the government should rewrite the law so that all refinereies are included.  Cause as the law is currently written, thanks to Bush, refineries constructed before the early 1950’s, do not have to take ANY measures to reduce pollutants.  Since as it was stated, doing so would be too expensive and force the companies to build new refineries.  If the Legislative and Executive branch cannot reach an agreement to force by law that a change be made then another sollution is needed.  To sit and say that spending any tax dollars is not worth it, does not make sense, since your tax dollars are subsidizing the oil refineries anyways.  How?  Who pays for the health care costs of the millions of Americans that live near these refineries?


  10. June 30, 2006 at 06:21 | #10

    DOF:  I understand the conundrum you mention.  It is not easy for the consumer to discern what is truly a quality product or service.  That’s why blogs, forums and other (truly open) internet sites are a great resource … not to mention the word-of-mouth discussions such as the one that prompted your post. 

    As far as a testing agency goes, an organization such as Consumers Union might have the resources to approach such a project, perhaps in partnership with some environmental organizations.

    The bottom line for me is that the Shrub administraiton has set up environmental regulations that actually discourage clean air, protection of citizens’ investments in their transporation, and health.  Shame on them.

  11. June 30, 2006 at 07:56 | #11

    Webs, the environment functions as a de-facto statistical aggregator.  What matters is the sum total of pollution that is produced.  The reason the Ferraris do not matter is that there are not enough of them to matter; their numbers are limited by their high cost and by the fact that most of them are not driven much.  Hummers do matter, because there are a lot of them.  Ford Explorers matter even more, and Toyota Corollas matter most of all.

    The same is true of oil refineries.  The bigger they are, the more they matter. 

    I did not agree with your proposal, but that is not the same as not reading it.  I suggest you do some reading on the concept of pollution credits trading.

  12. June 30, 2006 at 11:47 | #12

    So you don’t think that the law should be rewritten to cover older refineries?!?!?

  13. June 30, 2006 at 12:04 | #13

    No, the law should cover companies, not refineries.  Why do we care what equipment they use as long as they meet the standard?  We just tell them; this is how much pollution you can put out.  We don’t care how you do it.  If you can get your old equipment up to standard, great.  If not, you know what to do.

    This gets the government out of the business of dictating pollution control technologies.  We only care how much total pollution they make.  Which leads to the carrot and stick:

    In an emissions-credit trading system, company A, exceeding the standard, can sell its unused pollution credits to company B, which either can’t or won’t meet the standard.  Company B is now at a double competitive disadvantage, both because their costs are higher and because company A’s production system now yields another revenue stream – the pollution-credit purchases of company B. It now pays handsomely to be ‘Green’.

    This system works very well.  By creating a valuable commodity (emission credits) that can be traded, it harnesses the power of free-market economics to give companies an incentive to clean up, and at the same time ensures that niche products (which economies do need) can still be produced.  The important thing is that the total net pollution of the industry is reduced to whatever target was set.

  14. June 30, 2006 at 14:52 | #14

    Wow, I typed up a response and had some errans to run.  When I came back I finished up my points hit send, and it didn’t appear to post.  I do not see it.  So sorry if this is a double dip.

    I think the idea of emissions credits is good, but what do you do about the companies that pollute over the limit and do not wish to buy credits because they have high profits anyways?  I could not find an answer in the wikipedia article.  I guess that I would be fine if our country implemented such a program on a federal level.

    Another idea I forgot to mention though on the pollution topic is a carbon tax.  Have a small tax on energy sources that freey emmit carbon dioxcide.  If that is not liked, then write a law to force companies that pollute to be carbon neutral.  Have them plant trees to offset the carbon released into the air.  Have them build wind farms or other non-polluting sources of energy, which many of them might like since they could make a profit off of that energy as well.

  15. June 30, 2006 at 15:05 | #15

    what do you do about the companies that pollute over the limit and do not wish to buy credits because they have high profits anyways?

    Companies have three choices: meet (or exceed) the standards, buy excess pollution credits from your competitors who DO exceed the standards, or cease to operate.  Doesn’t matter what they “wish”.  Programs are no more voluntary than any other method of regulation – they just add a large carrot to the recipe that previously only contained a tiny stick.

    There are several programs like this in place in various countries around the world, including ours.  They work very well.  If they force the product price up high enough, somebody gets busy and invents an alternative, which operates under the same system.

    The trouble with traditional regulation is that it is not tied to economies of scale.  In many cases, the profits are so high that the company simply pays the (always small) fine and goes right on.

    I am OK with a carbon tax (which of course could be alleviated by becoming carbon-neutral).  But in essence that is what carbon credits are about – companies that produce too much C0<sub>2</sub> buy credits from companies that are carbon-negative.  The government can even auction off carbon credits, which can then be traded.  In other words, let greed do the heavy lifting, like it always has.  Only this time, on the white-hat side.

  16. June 30, 2006 at 15:25 | #16

    That would be agreeable with me.  Yes I do have some socialist ideals, you know better than anyone else DOF, but I really am more of a “countrist” (I think I made that word up).  As in, I am for what is best for this country, or whatever country I happen to live in.  Be it a capitalist measure, a socialist measure, or whatever.

    Speaking of automobiles and oil refineries… let me know when I can use you to change out my bicycle handle bars ;-) .  Also, you wouldn’t happen to know if racing tires need to be filled more constantly then regular tires would ya.  I just got new tires (I think new tubes also) about three weeks ago, and I have to refill them about every 3 or 4 days.  Kind of annoying since their PSI is 90 and all I got is a dinky hand pump.

  17. June 30, 2006 at 15:33 | #17

    Oh, that’s right – your bike has skinny tires, necessitating high pressure.  I ride fat tires, so the pressure stays around 40 PSI and I only need to check it when I have nothing better to do.

    Rubber is slightly porous.  Oxygen molecules pass through the rubber about 3 times faster than nitrogen molecules.  This effect is exaggerated at high pressures.  Since air is about 1/5 oxygen, you lose some pressure quickly, then the curve flattens out.  Try filling your tires with nitrogen only.

    Another reason that skinny tires will lose pressure faster than fat tires is that they have a higher surface-area/volume ratio.  Same reason mice lose more body heat (per gram) than elephants.

    I’ll email you about the handlebars.  This weekend would be good.

  18. June 30, 2006 at 18:28 | #18

    The problem with credits when traded globally is that companies in underdeveloped countries are at a severe economic disadvantage.  As those of us who live in the wake of midwestern acid-rain-producers know, pollution knows no boundaries.

  19. June 30, 2006 at 22:09 | #19

    If you’re hunting for a perfect way to regulate pollution, good luck.  Ditto for saving fisheries.  What somebody owns, they have an incentive to protect, be it carbon credits, or tradable fishing rights.  Credits systems are a good tool in the resources-management toolbox, along with education, public-relations, and (where necessary) plain old punitive regulations.  Probably going to take all those methods in the long run.

    Well, that and a major dope-slap upside the head, delivered by Mother Nature. Seems that’s in progress now.

    Anyway, my car continues to run great.  Wish I knew how much damage was done during the 800 miles when I was trying to figure this problem out.

  20. Michale
    September 9, 2009 at 01:10 | #20

    Oxygen molecules pass through the rubber about 3 times faster than nitrogen molecules.  This effect is exaggerated at high pressures.  Since air is about 1/5 oxygen, you lose some pressure quickly, then the curve flattens out.
    <a herf=“http://water-for-gas-reviews.com/Water4Gas.html”>hydrogen in cars</a>

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