When Michael O'Keeffe's Stihl chain saw gave out last year after 17 years of cutting wood, he decided to invest in another.

In April, the Southeast Portland man plunked down $1,040 for an MS 660 - a big honkin' professional logger's saw, for those of us out of the power tool loop. A reliable saw mattered, he said, because not only does he cut wood for his family, but also for the families of military members deployed overseas.

But on its third use, he said, the new saw seized. He took it to an authorized dealer and was soon told his 6-week-old machine had suffered major engine damage and had to be rebuilt.

O'Keeffe, 60, said he was told the problem arose from bad fuel.

The company agreed to pay $440 for new parts, but he had to pay $100 for the labor. O'Keeffe agreed, but argued that any repairs really should be covered by his warranty.

Ah, the warranty. It's either your best friend or a frustrating false hope. Since he's talking to The Desk, you can guess how O'Keeffe feels on the subject.

Indeed, when O'Keeffe revved up his saw for the first use after the rebuild, after a few cuts the engine died again. After a second trip to Stihl, the saw came back disassembled with a note from the company saying that bad fuel had again been an issue, along with a too-tightly adjusted carburetor and a dull blade.

This is the second time The Desk has covered a warranty issue associated with the use of ethanol-laced fuel. But the situation hasn't gotten any better over the past two years and, in fact, could get worse.

The corn-based fuel has been a part of Oregon's winter gasoline blend for about 15 years. In a move to reduce emissions, lawmakers nationwide have allowed gas to be diluted with as much as 10 percent ethanol. A year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency upped the limit to 15 percent.

That was bad news for power-tool manufacturers. They say the fuel can harm engines, especially if left in tanks for long periods of storage. They say they've seen warranty requests and repairs grow in recent years.

J.D. Fernstrom, Stihl's technical services manager who dealt with O'Keeffe's issues, said his company has scrambled to make engines that better handle less-than-pure fuel. Still, he said, the increase to 15 percent ethanol, along with a range of other additives turning up in gas, is creating a warranty headache.

"I've worked in this industry for 30 years, and these past few years have been the worst," he said. "Customers and I are in the same situation: We have no control over the fuel the government makes us purchase."

Yet his sympathies have a limit.

Fernstrom says O'Keeffe's problems fall outside the warranty because he caused them. As Fernstrom mulled the warranty decision on O'Keeffe's saw, he considered that the shop had warned the customer the first time to steer clear of gas with ethanol. He also says O'Keeffe adjusted the saw's carburetor and let its blade go dull, things that stress the engine.

The Desk just loves these he-said, he-saids.

O'Keeffe maintains that he didn't touch the carburetor, that he used a different brand of fuel and "religiously" cares for his tools. It does seem an untenable situation that a company could sell a product that the average consumer can't use without breaking, and then won't honor the warranty. On top of that, O'Keeffe isn't average, it seems, but a regular saw user.

And yet Fernstrom says that of the thousands of saws Stihl sells each year, he typically hears of problems from fewer than 100.

So what can you do about fuel for your power tools?

Though Stihl saws can handle ethanol gas blends, the company does sells ethanol-free fuel for its saws. Fernstrom doesn't recall offering that product as a solution for O'Keeffe.

And the Oregon State Marine Board provides an interactive map online identifying retailers that sell ethanol-free gas (or you can call for a faxed copy of the list at 503-378-8587).

The reasons for O'Keeffe's saw saga may remain a mystery - or not, if you ask either O'Keeffe or Fernstrom. But Fernstrom said Stihl will agree to fix the machine one more time and that he'll personally give the saw a spin.

source: blog.oregonlive


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