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Shawn Peterson, 44, of Woonsocket, holds the diesel air filter cleaner he invented that his company is beginning to market internationally. A patent is pending on the device. (Ross Dolan/Republic)

Woonsocket company develops tool to clean ag air filters

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WOONSOCKET — The adage that necessity is the mother of invention definitely proved true in the case of a Woonsocket company that’s growing a business with international potential.

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“I guess I just saw a need,” said Shawn Peterson, 44, developer of the Diesel Air Filter Cleaner, a device that does just what its name suggests.

The company is owned by Peterson, his wife Kathleen, and partner Al Westendorf, who is also a partner with the Petersons in their Twin Lakes Sportman’s Resort.

Like many farmers who maintain farm vehicles, Peterson had used a long blowpipe with an angled end to blow out dirty air filters from the inside out using compressed air — a process individuals and companies often use to extend the life of the crucially important, but expensive cylindrical air filters that are known as radial seal filters.

The process was effective, but slow, and it also came with the danger of damaging the filter membrane by blowing pinholes in the filter — a serious side effect that could allow destructive dust to enter diesel engines.

Peterson says his Diesel Air Filter Cleaner is a faster and better way.

The cleaner features an air pipe that runs through the center of four concentric plastic disks of different sizes to accommodate different size air filters. There’s an air chuck fitting on one end of the pipe. The business end of the pipe has three, compressed air-driven orifices that spin inside dirty filters. The air pressure from the spinning head cleans filters from the inside out as the operator moves the pipe up and down.

The process takes only minutes, extends the life of the filter and saves money, Peterson said.

Clogged air filters, he explained, make engines use more fuel and large radial seal air filters can cost more than $100 each.

“The savings can be exponential,” he said, especially in cases of some mining companies, which must change filters every eight hours. Combines that operate in dusty soybean fields can also go through a number of filters, he said.

“Once people see it work, it sells itself,” he said.

The device retails for between $299 to $350, which may seem high to some, Peterson said.

“But it can pay for itself in one day in fuel savings and filter costs,” he said.

The company’s website claims diesel fuel savings as high as 3 to 5 gallons per hour.

The diesel air filter cleaner made its market debut at Dakotafest 2012; then the 2012 South Dakota State Fair and the Big Iron Farm Show in Fargo, N.D. Hundreds of units were sold after those first shows.

“It was then that we first realized we were ready to go international and across industries. We knew this had the potential to be big,” Peterson said. They incorporated in August 2012 as WePe Industry, a limited liability corporation.

Peterson declined to give any sales numbers, but he said thousands of the air cleaners have been sold since and the device is now being marketed in a dozen countries.

A patent is pending on the device.

“It was born to serve the ag industry but its appeal has jumped to other industries,” Peterson said. “The stakes are really getting high.”

The hardest part of the Petersons’ business journey has been the diesel air filter cleaner design process.

Shawn Peterson’s original idea was to have a stationary, three-way air splitter at the end of the blowpipe to spread the air in several directions, but that wasn’t as effective as he’d hoped. Eventually he hit on the idea of a spinning air head that would evenly distribute air and eliminate the danger of filter blowouts.

The inspiration to use air pressure to spin air orifices at high speed came from watching a lawn sprinkler, which used the water pressure to spin and distribute water over lawns.

During development stages, Peterson and partner Al Westendorf discussed the design and initially worked with a Chinese engineer to design a prototype spinning head.

The overseas connection was used to keep the design secret until a patent application could be completed.

Chinese machining, however, wasn’t up to the company standards and all new versions of the filter cleaner are made in the United States.

The latest version of the product features a smooth-spinning Delrin head mounted on heat-treated stainless steel. Delrin contains Teflon, which allows the head to spin easily without the need for dust-collecting lubricants.

“It may not look like much, but there’s a lot of engineering in this device,” Peterson said.

Each cleaner comes with three sets of air pipes to accommodate different size filters.

Pioneering and growing a new business has been a time-consuming, but fun experience for the Petersons who describe themselves as high school sweethearts who plan to stay in Woonsocket and raise their children, son Brayden, 18, and daughter McKenzy, 16.

The Petersons feel their entrepreneurial journey has only just begun.

Kathleen said she enjoys going to farm and trade shows, and meeting new people and pitching their product.

“It’s been pretty exciting,” she said.

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