Industry grapples with fuel tank mandate

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EPA wants evaporative emissions cut, but some believe the changes are too much, too soon

A new set of Environmental Protection Agency guidelines expected to pass this summer will likely change the fuel system on all boats, which could reduce tank capacity.

Legislation seeking to reduce evaporative fuel tank emissions could require boatbuilders who install gasoline-powered engines to comply by the year 2012, said John McKnight, the National Marine Manufacturer Association’s director of environment and safety compliance.

“It’s going to be a big rule,” McKnight said. “It’s going to require a re-engineering of the boat’s entire fuel system.”

Meeting the 2012 deadline will be a huge undertaking, said American Boat and Yacht Council technical director John Adey.

“[Environmental officials] are not listening to technical problems, they’re just rolling over us to get it passed,” Adey said. “They really want to get this finalized before a new administration comes in.”

Today, an open vent fuel system allows fumes to emit into the atmosphere, McKnight said.

The EPA wants to require builders to install a carbon canister between the vent line and the fuel tank to capture those gas fumes and cut down on pollution.

But U.S. Coast Guard regulations require boats to have unobstructed vents for safety reasons. As of press time, EPA officials were meeting with the U.S. Coast Guard, the NMMA, American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) and the Small Business Administration in an effort to hammer out details of the pending legislation.

“How this all works out for the over 2,000 gas-powered boat builders out there, we’re working that out right now,” McKnight said.

Adey and McKnight also have been lobbying for about $1.3 million for extensive testing to ensure the changes are administered without compromising boat safety. They also want funding for training and education.

“We’re going to have to teach people how to design these new fuel systems,” Adey said. “The EPA is giving $50 million to the diesel industry, and I’m struggling to get $700,000 to be able to do the research part of this. If you add the education part, I’m looking at about $1.3 million. It’s kind of a slap in the face.”

“Right now, boats have a pretty simple fuel system,” Adey added. “It’s safe, easy to install and easy to maintain. What they want to do is add components to a system where nobody is really sure how it’s going to react.”

What the EPA wants
How the system will come together, nobody is sure yet.

“That’s probably going to take a lot of different companies coming together — as far as companies making the canisters, companies making the fuel tanks and hoses — to be able to re-engineer those things into a boat in a safe manner,” McKnight said.

Consumers will benefit from a fuel system that no longer spits back fuel when the tank is full, McKnight said. But the main reason for change is that states are demanding the federal government impose more stringent controls on unregulated sources of evaporative emissions such as marine and lawn and garden equipment.

Some are skeptical the changes will significantly impact the environment.

“It’ll all result in an increased cost that has to be passed on to the consumer,” said Phil Keeter, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America. “Is the ROI (return on investment) good for the boating consumer? Does he get a better environment along with the increased cost? That’s something I don’t believe he does.”

The EPA seeks to address three pollution issues around boat fuel lines that have never been regulated:
• Diurnal emissions — or emissions released from the expansion of fuel vapor in the tank that permeate into the atmosphere through the vent.
• Fuel permeation through fuel tanks. 
• Fuel permeation through rubber hoses.

Diurnal emissions
The EPA wants boats to use carbon canisters to reduce diurnal emissions.

The carbon canister Delphi Corp. developed for the marine industry is less complex than those it manufacturers for the auto industry, but it will still meet EPA standards, said Delphi’s marketing manager Sean McDonald.

“We could do a more complex canister, but it’s new for the marine industry,” McDonald said. “I think you need to crawl before you can run.”

When canisters became required for automobiles years ago, they were also simpler. They became more complex over time as the EPA tightened regulations, McDonald said.

It works like this: In the current open fuel line, the fuel turns to vapor as it heats up during the day and emits into the air.

The carbon canister would capture those vapors. As the fuel cools at night, it would return to liquid form.

The cooling temperature would create a small vacuum effect and suck the recondensed liquid back into the tank, McKnight explained.

It’s time for boats to make the switch, McKnight added.

“Carbon canisters have been on automobiles since the early 1970s,” McKnight said. But industry leaders are hoping for enough time and resources to make the switch safely.

The canister holds about 1.5 liters and is an oval piece of plastic that’s about 13 to 14 inches long, Adey said, so fitting it into a small boat could pose a technical challenge.

“It’s kind of our job from a safety perspective to make sure this stuff doesn’t have a negative safety impact,” Adey said. Extensive testing must be done to make sure the new regulations can be implemented safely.

At press time, the EPA was pushing for a complete turnover by 2010; the NMMA and ABYC were asking for 40 percent compliance by 2012, 80 percent compliance by 2013 and 100 percent by 2014.

Fuel and hose permeation
To address permeation through fuel tanks and hoses, the EPA would require a barrier layer to reduce emissions.

Older style fuel hoses are rubber and quite porous, McKnight said, and the fuel vapor molecules are able to permeate through the hose material into the air. It is not unusual to have 30 grams of hydrocarbon emissions per square meter of hose to emit into the air each day.

“If you stick your head next to the fuel line, there is the faint smell of gas because of the permeation through the hose, which is bad for air quality,” said Jim Hardin, the compliance manager at Grady-White.

Hose manufacturers have developed new technology by adding a barrier made of nylon, for example, that greatly reduces permeation.

The affected tanks would be rotational molded plastic tanks and polyethylene fuel tanks; both would need a barrier layer of some sort to reduce emissions.

Plastic fuel tanks are often used on smaller boat models, Hardin said.

“We’re going to have to develop new technology to restrict permeation,” Hardin said. “No one’s building low-permeation fuel tanks for boats — that’s a technical challenge we have to meet.

“It’s doable, but it’s going to drive the cost of fuel tanks up significantly,” he said.

If that happens, boat builders will have to decide whether to continue using plastic tanks, or switch to aluminum, Hardin said.

The low-permeation hoses will have to be implemented by 2009, but McKnight is hoping to push that to model year 2010 since 2009 boats will already be in production when the mandate passes.

The fuel tanks would need the barrier by 2012, with a technology review in 2010 to determine if the technology is available.

Right now, “some people say they have it, some don’t,” McKnight said.

Refueling spillage
Refueling spillage is not being specifically addressed by these mandates, but will have to be addressed as a result of carbon canisters, McKnight said. EPA officials see that as a positive development.

But it’s one that will pose some challenges.

Now, when fueling a boat, sometimes a little bit of gas called spitback lands in the water because there is not the same cutoff trigger that exists in cars when the tank is full. The spitback will have to be addressed so fuel does not get inside the carbon canisters and cause blockage.

On a boat, because it is an open fuel system, it is not required to be designed to shut off automatically.

In a car, a closed-vent system, the tank is pressurized. A little spring inside the fuel nozzle pops when the fuel rises up the fill hose. This happens well before fuel can go up the vent into the canister, McKnight said. Since boat fuel tanks are often not pressurized and not designed with a shutoff, fuel can often spill out of the vent when refueling.

“If fuel gets inside of the carbon canister, that can cause the fuel tank to be pressurized, and that’s in violation of U.S. Coast Guard standards,” McKnight said. “If it’s pressurized, any kind of leak will go into the bilge of the boat and that’s a very dangerous place to have raw fuel.”

That’s because instead of leaking fuel, it could spray all over the place, Adey said.

“Another problem is getting fuel in the canister,” Adey agreed. “We test the heck out of fuel tanks because they’re going to carry a lot of fuel. We don’t test the heck out of canisters because they’re not meant to carry fuel, so if they do what’s going to happen? We don’t know.”

Adey also wants to have the effects of salt and other ocean debris in the new fuel system tested.

“There’s a regulation and there’s a technical solution, but it’s not a marine technical solution, and we need to make it one,” Adey said. “It’s not the EPA who’s going to be pulling bodies out of water when something happens, it’s the Coast Guard.”

The EPA points to other industries, such as lawn and garden, which are also being required to install evaporative emission controls when hashing out the marine mandates. Sometimes environmental officials don’t understand why it will be a bigger issue for the marine industry, Adey said.

“Lawn and garden doesn’t have the same capacity as we do,” Adey said. “Lawn and garden maybe will have a 10-gallon tank, but we’re looking at 350 gallons.”

But some will have to work fast. The California Air Resource Board is expected to rule this summer that the 300 or so boats that have more than 500-hp install canisters by January 2009, McDonald said.

For builders such as Grady-White, that have been involved in the whole regulatory process, it could be easier than it will be for companies that did not participate in the process and get taken by surprise, Hardin said.

“We’re talking about clean air and clean water,” Hardin said. “If we have that, then people like to go outside and enjoy the outdoors. But we have to educate the EPA. We’re working for a win-win negotiation.”
McKnight agreed.

“It is the modern cost of doing business,” McKnight said. “We have to comply with environmental regulations, and push the envelope on new technology.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue.

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