New life for old engines
Chico company creates innovative filter allowing older diesel engines to meet new emissions standards
Two years ago, in October 2008, Bill Gaines, the chairman of TransferFlow, a Chico manufacturing facility, and some of his engineers began thinking about diesel engines—specifically, stationary and portable engines, the kinds on agricultural pumps and farm equipment.
There are hundreds of such engines in Butte County alone, and thousands in California.
Because of new California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulations, most of these engines are out of compliance. They emit too many particulates, or soot—that lung-damaging, carcinogenic black stuff diesel engines give off. To come into compliance, their owners face costs in the range of $38,000, which is the price of buying a new engine with a diesel-particulate filter (DPF) on it.
Diesel engines last a long time. Older engines are well worth saving. Gaines and his crew saw an opportunity. “I thought the cost was exorbitant,” Gaines says. “It didn’t make sense.”
Gaines, who co-founded the company in 1983, thought he could build a “plug-and-play” filter system for older engines that would enable them to meet CARB standards—and sell the filters for just $5,000 each. As it turned out, when his Cleanmax Diesel Particulate Filter launched on Oct. 7, it was priced at $6,400, fully installed. “I was off by $1,400,” he now says, chuckling.
Gaines grew up in Red Bluff and attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, majoring in mechanical engineering. While a student, he did internships at two General Motors assembly plants in Southern California. After graduation he went to work for the company as a senior manufacturing and tooling engineer.
Several years later, he returned to Northern California to work at Travel Accessories, an Orland company that made a variety of vehicle aftermarket products, including fuel systems. Three years later, the company sold its fuel-systems business to an outfit in Wisconsin.
Seeing an opportunity to go into business for himself, Gaines hooked up with a partner and started TransferFlow in 1983, building aftermarket fuel systems designed to give longer driving range to large pickups used to haul RVs and fifth wheels. The company operated out of a 3,000-square-foot facility on Ryan Street at the Chico airport. In 1987, Gaines bought out his partner. His wife, Jeanne, became CEO.
It’s very much a family business. When Jeanne retired, their daughter Lisa Johnson became CEO; her husband, Warren Johnson, heads up marketing and advertising. Another daughter, Laurie LaPant, is the chief financial officer, and her husband, Todd, is engineering manager. Gaines’ brother Rocky works in sales.
A family feeling pervades the company. Gaines is easygoing and friendly but runs a tight ship. People like working there. The average employee has put in 13 years. For engineers, especially, “this is like a candy shop,” Gaines said.
During my interview with him, Chris Bovia, the director of the DPF project, sat in. “This has been the best company I’ve ever worked for,” he said.
The company has grown greatly, and today it occupies 70,000 square feet of warehouse and manufacturing space on Fortress Street, just off Ryan, and has around 60 employees. It offers a wide range of products for both the pickup aftermarket and as original equipment on motorhomes, vans and trailers. As it’s grown, it has religiously embraced new technologies—“For us to survive, we must grasp the latest technology,” Gaines says—and also invented some of its own.
The company’s production process is highly organized to maximize efficiency and save time. Computers know where all the parts are, exactly where they are in the process, and how best to send them down the line to minimize energy costs. Robots flawlessly weld the pieces together.
“We must manage time,” Gaines says. “Time is everything to us.” He relies on his engineers, all of them Chico State University grads, to keep the system moving smoothly.
A lot of parts go into a vehicle fuel system. TransferFlow makes the tanks, but it buys most of the other parts from outside vendors. When the company began putting together the diesel-particulate filter, that was an advantage: It knew exactly where to go for the parts.
It also had several eager partners, including the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the university. Thanks to a grant to its Agriculture Research Unit, the department was able to free up some time for Professor Greg Kallio and his students to help with the design of the DPF.
The result is a relatively inexpensive filter that is self-cleaning—it turns the collected soot into ash that can easily be removed—and removes 85 percent or more of the particulate matter from the exhaust, sufficient to meet CARB and Butte County Air Quality Management District standards.
The first practical use of a TransferFlow DPF is on a large, rotating composting bin owned by the city of Chico and used at its composting yard at the airport. At the launch press conference Oct. 7, Erik Gustafson, city fleet manager, sang the praises of the filter and TransferFlow. The company, he said, keeps customers up to date and is efficient and results driven. So far the filter has worked just as intended, he said.
For his part, Gaines sees the filter as a contribution to clean air and to local farmers. He is happy to have found a way to meet the CARB standards and make money for his company.
Now he’s working to develop a couple of other eco-friendly products: gas hybrid systems for large vehicles (he’s already built some for the Long Beach bus system) and a DPF for biodiesel engines. He’s working with SpringBoard Biodiesel, a Chico company that makes small biodiesel processors, to develop a filter that cleans biodiesel emissions. The goal is to give farmers the ability to manufacture their own diesel fuel onsite, using crops they grow, and thereby free them from dependence on petroleum—and foreign oil.