Preaching to the converted: How ordinary cars turn into flex-fuel vehicles

A 2007 federal law brought us a new fleet of flex-fuel vehicles, capable of running on any mixture of gasoline and ethanol, all the way up to 85 percent ethanol.

That law, which provided credits to automakers to help them meet federal fuel-economy standards, resulted in nearly 20 million FFVs on the road in the United States today.

But that spirit of innovation didn’t end there: Many American entrepreneurs in recent years have developed systems that help car owners convert their gasoline-only vehicles to run on higher ethanol blends, up to E85.

While Fuel Freedom can’t endorse any particular product and does not recommend modifying your car without ensuring you’re covered by a warranty, we get asked about conversions frequently. When drivers do decide to convert their cars to use multiple fuels, they do it for many reasons, among them saving money, creating American jobs, and protecting U.S. national security.

“It’s all walks of life,” says David Virtue, founder of Change2E85.com, which sells flex-fuel conversion kits. “I have customers who say, ‘I thought ethanol was evil. I watched the [2014 documentary] PUMP movie, and I want to convert.’ The reasons can be, ‘I want to save money at the pump.’ Other people say ‘I want to reduce my carbon footprint.’ Other people say, ‘You know, I’m really tired of money going into Middle Eastern pockets. Why can’t my local farmer drive a Lamborghini, but these oil tycoons do?’ ”

Fuel Flex-gadgetChange2E85, based in Littleton, Colorado, markets a conversion kit developed by Alex Conger, who showed it off in his bright yellow Hummer in the PUMP. Conger’s company, Meridian, Idaho-based Fuel Flex International (FFI), started working with Virtue’s Change2E85 about a decade ago. Change2E85 is now the exclusive supplier of this device. Together the two men have sold about 150,000 units worldwide.

The device is used with vehicles that have electronic fuel injection, controlled by an on-board computer. For older cars whose fuel-oxygen mixture is regulated by an analog carburetor, there are options as well. Rob Mix of St. Paul, Minnesota, runs a website called E85Carbs.com that sells customized carburetors for older vehicles, among them hot rods and muscle cars.

Mix first became aware of E85 around 2000, when the state of Minnesota began mandating E85 for all state-owned vehicles (his wife works for the state Department of Natural Resources).

“I was curious,” he said. “I’d been building race cars and carburetors and everything else to do with cars, I said ‘That sounds interesting.’ There’s an E85 carbsE85 pump about three blocks from my house, that the state was using to fuel their vehicles, and posted on the pump it said 105 octane. Right away I said, ‘We need to get some of that.’ ”

There are plenty of other E85 conversion kits out there, delivering both hardware and software solutions. Car owners who are interested should familiarize themselves with any such product, and find out whether any warranties apply.

Bringing an individual consumer around to the benefits of ethanol, after decades of gasoline enjoying an entrenched monopoly and low prices, is a challenge, Virtue acknowledges. “You could put the most beautiful spokesmodels out there, and there’s nothing you can do to convince them to convert. It has to be their own crazy idea. Where they end up saying, ‘Hey, can I convert?’ ”

But when people do decide to convert, Virtue, Mix and others are ready to provide them with all the tools they need to give themselves a choice at the pump.

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