My Adventures in Flex-Fuels

By Bill Moore

Posted: 16 Jan 2010

I decided some months ago that after converting our 2009 Prius into a plug-in hybrid through the generous support of Kim Adelman's Plug In Conversions Corporation in San Diego, California, I would convert the S10 I bought late last year to run on flex fuel, giving it the flexibility to burn any combination and ratio of fuels from straight gasoline to E-85, itself a blend of 15% gasoline and 85% American-made ethanol.

My purpose in doing this, as I explain in the self-shot video above, is really three-fold: as a journalistic research project with one of the more popular conversion modules since there isn't a lot of corroborative data about these kits and their effectiveness; to personally get my hands dirty doing such a conversion to see what that involves; and, if it all works, to reduce our family's personal dependence on petroleum.

Two books I've recently read served as the catalysts for this experiment: Gal Luft and Anne Korin's "Turning Oil Into Salt," and Robert Zubrin's "Energy Victory," both of which urge the greater utilization of alternative and renewably produced fuels: Luft and Korin generally advocating for cellulosic ethanol, and Zubrin a strong proponent of methanol, as well as cellulosic ethanol, including that which could be produced by impoverished third-world rural communities. All three argue that this is the only practical and nearly immediate way to thwart OPEC's increasingly monopolistic control of petroleum resources.

Because I live in the American "corn-belt," I have used E10 (a blend of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline) in my vehicles for years now. However, only recently did E85 become readily available in my community. Once I discovered this, I began my search for a way to use it. I found a couple used Flex-Fuel Ford Rangers that would meet my needs, but they were 4x4s and far too expensive. I found the 1998 Chevy S10 languishing on a used car lot here in town. It leaked hydraulic fluid, it pulled to the left and the driver's seat was propped up by a pillow stuffed under it; the fabric was worn through on the driver's side as well. And while it had 155,000 miles on it, the 4.3L Vortec seemed to run strong. The price was right too and after a bit of negotiating, I picked it up for US$2,550. My budget was around $4000, so that left me money to make the repairs and do the conversion.

However, the project nearly derailed when I was told by one vendor highlighted in "Turning Oil Into Salt" that he wouldn't sell me his kit because he'd had too many customers complaining about GM's 4.3L Vortec engine. He admitted I wouldn't be happy with it. I thanked him for his candor and nearly gave up the idea. However, I decided to make another call, this one to Dave Virtue in Colorado. He also sells a similar kit and in his case, he promised his would work and that if it didn't I get my money back, plus he gave me a nice discount on the price.

With a bit of hesitancy, I ordered the kit and set up an appointment to do the conversion at Omaha's Metropolitan Community College, the same location where Plug In Conversions Corporation had converted our Prius to plug-in. The faculty and staff there are always interested in alternative vehicle technologies -- we also held a press conference there this last summer when the Renew America Roadtrip Tesla Roadster came through -- and generously offered to give me an open bay in which to work.

Of course, not being much of an automotive mechanic, as soon as I opened the hood of the S10, I was lost. I had no idea where the wires were that I'd have to tap into. Fortunately, the shop manager, Ben Carlson did. He immediately showed me where they were and how to splice into them using heat shrink connectors. After doing the first of six wires, he left me to my own devices. This is where the video picks up.

As I write this the day after the conversion, I have only put a few miles on the truck since filling the tank with a rough ratio equivalent to E50 as directed. I decided before I finish this, I'd see if the truck started after sitting nearly 24 hours. I am pleased to report the S10 -- now sporting new Nebraska license plates "SUN POWR" -- fired right up. So far, so good.

I'll let you know how it goes in the coming weeks and months.

Finally, I installed a Kiwi MPG gauge to monitor my fuel economy and right now the truck is averaging, since the conversion, right at 15 mpg, give or take a couple tenths. The current price of E-85 here in Papillion is US$2.15 a gallon; the station is about two miles from our house.

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