Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fuel For The Year

I don't know if you've noticed, but during the past few months oil prices have ramped up to levels which, as the financial crisis of 2008 had demonstrated, tend to crash the global economy. Even the International Energy Agency has recently picked up on this fact and sounded an alarm. That was before Libya exploded, taking a couple of millions of barrels a day of irreplaceable light sweet crude off the market. That was also before Japan was devastated by a major earthquake and tsunami, damaging oil refineries and nuclear power plants. (Tokyo immediately started asking Moscow to start shipping more oil and coal right away.) Nobody knows how many other disruptions such as these are going to occur this year, but that number is probably greater than zero, and it won't take too many more to cause the global petrochemical supply chain to snap, resulting in high prices, shortages and rationing.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so I decided to pre-purchase all the gasoline we will need for the entire year. I put my two 20-liter jerricans on the dock cart, and wheeled them out of the marina, across the parking lot, down the street, through the pretty little gas-lit park that the Boston Freedom Trail passes through on the way to the Bunker Hill Monument, and to the filling station on the corner. I had to do this trip three times; the first two loads I emptied into the on-board tank, filling it. The remaining load will stay in the jerricans, on deck, shown above.

Sixty liters is a truly astounding amount of energy. At 9.7 kW·h/L, it's almost 600 kW·h. Rowing flat out, I can put out about 70 Watts, and so the energy I got from the gas station is equivalent to me rowing continuously for an entire year, or about five years of me rowing for five hours every day. Not only that, but at around US$1/L it is about the cheapest liquid available—cheaper than milk or bottled water or apple cider, none of which get you very far. Not only that, but this amazing substance is conveniently dispensed around the clock by a computerized machine at a clean, brightly lit facility that is within easy walking distance. It just sounds too good to be true; I don't think it will last.

We don't use gasoline all that much. We have a 10-horsepower outboard that sits in an inboard-outboard well under the transom and behaves much as an inboard engine would without the associated oil in the bilge, the diesel stink, the bother of seasonal commissioning/decomissioning or the expense. We use it to motor out of the marina and, sometimes, partway out of the harbor, and back. We sometimes motor slowly when becalmed, to maintain course and to avoid the unpleasantness of “lying ahull”—where the boat turns sideways to the swell and is rocked by it. And then there is Cape Hatteras, an evil place that, when heading south, is best circumvented by motoring down canals. Even if we sail Abemarle and Pamlico Sounds, we still have to motor down canals from Norfolk, Virginia to reach Abemarle Sound, and then again from Pamlico Sound to Beaufort, North Carolina.

This is why I decided to avoid running into any global geopolitical complications with the petroleum supply and stock up while things are still reasonable. I don't know that this was strictly necessary, but now my mind is at ease because we'll have enough gasoline for at least a year, maybe even two or three if we time the tides better, motor slowly when we do have to motor, and don't waste fuel motoring when we can just bob around until the wind picks up again. During these two years I might weld together a digester and start running the engine on gas produced from driftwood we can pick up along the beach.

And now the really cheerful part: thanks to all of these global petrochemical difficulties, there will be few, if any, large obnoxious motor boats on the water this season, just as there weren't in 2008, and the few that remain will move very slowly, to conserve fuel—too slowly to produce large annoying wakes. And that is certainly something to look forward to.


Sixbears said...

Been sailing my smallish boat in the Gulf of Mexico off west central Florida. It takes about 3/4 gallon of gas to get in waters deep enough to drop the swing keel. We've been able sail down the narrow channels, on the way back, even with the keel raised. Favorable winds.

I've noticed that once we get about 3 miles out, the power boats pretty much disappear. They are staying much closer to shore. There is the rare fishing charter that goes 6-8 miles out, but they are few and far between.

Marty said...

When I read this in Google reader, about every 65 characters there are two words stuck together, as if some unrecognized character that looks like a space, but isn't, was used. I see it is ok when I switch out of Google reader and into your blog. Strange. The first smashup is "butduring", then "levelswitch", then "crashthe", then "recentlypicked". Something is happening.

Unknown said...

How long is this fuel's storage life? I know that regular car gas needs to be spiced up with a special additive to preserve its useful qualities for even a year.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Mansour -

There is a problem with E10 (10% ethanol) fuel, which is all there is in the US now: the ethanol absorbs moisture and separates out. There are three ways to counteract this: add an enzymatic treatment such as StartTran, which keeps ethanol from separating out; use a water separation filter. These two tricks work well together. One additional trick doesn't work very well on boats in the water, because they are always in motion and there is too much mixing in the tank, but works for boats stored on the hard: siphon out water/ethanol from the bottom of the tank.

Martin - I made sure that every space is a real space character; Google Reader has bugs, ad I can't fix them.

HITPOTW said...

In Google reader it's the hard return at the end of the line which causses the problem. Maybe a unicode conversion problem carriage return =(0x000D)

subgenius said...


Ever thought of constucting a yuloh?

Jay Fitzgerald built a gaff-rigged cutter called Macha - based on an Ingrid grp hull, but with more displacement than normal I think - 38ft LOD, about 50ft LOA, and it has no engine...just have to pay a LOT of attention to tides, etc.

I am planning on replacing the engine on my 30footer with oars and a yuloh later this year when I renovate her.

tickmeister said...

Not likely that anything will run on your gas after a year, even if you stabilize it. Diesel will store a lot longer, and propane virtually forever. If you seriously want to store fuel long term, you might look into a propane carburator kit for your engine, they are available for most anything these days.

Dmitry Orlov said...

ticketmeister -

Untreated gasoline doesn't last too long. But I've used 3-year-old gasoline, treated and fed through a water separation filter, without a problem. I am not sure what the limit is, but I am sure that it's several years. And that's fuel stored on a boat, in a high-moisture environment.

tickmeister said...

Did the three year old gas have any ethanol in it? I've heard that ethanol is particularly bad about attracting water. I keep about 100 gallons on hand and rotate it, plan being to add stabilizer and ration if a crisis emerges. Would be pleased to think that I could keep it 3 years. Non-ethanol is available, but 50 miles from home.

Anonymous said...

A little off topic but I am sure your readers appreciate these words on self reliance and self teaching.

My donkey said...

North Americans are once again whining about the "high" price of gasoline but I don't understand why. Considering what gas can do, I'm amazed at how underpriced it is.

For approximately five dollars (in Canada), one gallon of gas will propel a 4,000 pound car a distance of 20 miles. Imagine hiring 5 guys to push a car 20 miles, and then paying each guy $1 for his effort. If the car was pushed at 3 miles per hour (a brisk walk), it would take almost 7 hours to go 20 miles, so you'd be paying each guy about 15 cents an hour. I don't think they'd be pleased. They'd say "No way, that was hard work! Manual labor like that is worth $15 an hour." So you pay each guy $100, for a total of $500, to do the work of one gallon of gas.

But a gallon of gas is worth much more than that because it can do the same amount of work in 20 minutes (at 60 MPH) that takes 5 guys almost 7 hours to do. Since gasoline can finish the job 20 times faster (and Time Is Money), $500 x 20 = $10,000.

Therefore, a reasonable price for one gallon of gas is about $10,000. That's about twice the price of HP printer ink, which is only fair, as gasoline is definitely more valuable than ink.

If I was the Grand Poobah of this land, I would punish anyone who complained about the price of gas at anything less than $10,000/gallon. The punishment? Push a car 20 miles.

jpwhite said...

I was amused when I read this, for I had made a similar sojourn to the fuel dock in Seattle, right before I left for Costa Rica. In my case, though, the fuel is diesel. Eighteen gallons in the main tank, seven in reserve. I don't know if it's a year's worth, but I'm hoping it will get me at least part of the way back to Costa Rica.

The boat is a 27-foot Island Packet. She's almost ready to go. I had new roller furling put on before I left, and the rigging guy is going to help me with a setup for single handing (I'm hoping to come back from CR with a sailing partner, though. Any tips, Dmitri, on how to sweet talk a lady into life as a live-aboard?).

I'd hoped to get out last year, but life intervened in the form of health problems. But soon, very soon, I will hit the ocean trail to another (hopefully better) life.

I'm not so sure about seasteading, though. I took a fishing tour in Guanacaste and was amazed at how easy it is to catch black tuna out in the Pacific. But what have the poor things been eating? I was sold on the idea a year ago, but now I'm wondering if a nice plot of land might be a better idea. Well, there are worse place to look than Costa Rica.

It's only country in the world, by the way, that has no military. Oh, and they also have universal health care (I'm sure it's just a coincidence).

Dmitry Orlov said...

jpwhite -

I'll leave the sweet-talking to you, but, as far as practical matters, if you want to find a woman to live aboard a 27' Island Packet with you, think small and short: nothing over 5'5". Then up your freshwater capacity. Mine is 800 liters. Install a cockpit shower with an inline propane heater; there's one out there for around $100. Get a good dink with a reliable outboard so she can come and go as she pleases. Put down a fresh slab of memory foam in the v-berth. Have an escape plan for her, in case she really wants to get off the damn boat for a while. These things all make a big difference.

tickmeister said...

The old "push your car 20 miles" argument is excellent, but overstated. Use a team of heavy horses, they can do the 20 miles in maybe 5 hours.

In addition, the produce fertilizer, more horses, and meat when they get old. Plus, they will replace all the high priced "companion animals" that we waste money on. (OK, maybe meat and companionship are incompatible.) I think you could hire a team and teamster for no more than $40 per hour depending on location. So now the cost is $200 times a 10 to 1 speed factor or $2000.

I think I am justified in complaining about gas when it hits that price.

Actually I am never justified in complaining as long as I continue to voluntarily buy the stuff.

SolarBob said...

Check out for an open source wood gasifier and engine genset.
Aviation gas, readily available in small airports, has a longer shelf life, doesn't contain ethanol but has a higher octane. My chainsaw guy recommends it for all chainsaws to avoid ethanol problems.

Anonymous said...

The ethanol problems are only going to get worse with E15 supplanting E10 this year. All the questions and comments about ethanol-gas attracting water are absolutely correct. You don't necessarily need an "enzymatic" treatment, you need something with a surfactant package that will suspend water and pass it through to the combustion chamber. There are literally hundreds of products in the market that will claim to do that; whether they all work is a different story, especially if the product itself also contains alcohol. Bell Performance makes a product called Marine MXO which is a sister product to their gasoline additive called Mix-I-Go, which has been around in one form or another since the 1920s.