Local man tinkers his way to better fuel economy

Sean C. Morgan

When Clarence Mansfield bought a 1978 Ford pickup in the 1990s, it had a typical 400-cubic-inch gasoline-powered engine and a problem.

“It just didn’t run very well, but I liked the way it handled and did the work,” he said.

He used it for a while, then it sat for four or five years because Mansfield didn’t like the way it was running. He built a new engine for the truck, but it had too much compression to use gasoline, which would risk the head gasket.

He knew propane works as a fuel, he said. “I thought let’s just do that.”

He also came across a seven-day Internet course on hydrogen fuel, Mansfield said. So he took it and learned how hydrogen works with an engine.

“I decided that’s what I wanted to do – put it on propane and hydrogen,” Mansfield said. Hydrogen is something that can be added or turned off, and it can be added to any engine.

Mansfield, 60, completed the project in April after working on it all winter.

Using hydrogen, Mansfield said, a Portland man stretched his mileage in a Ford Ranger, with a V-6, from about 21 mpg to about 27 mpg.

The hydrogen is extracted from a tank of distilled water and a drain cleaner, Mansfield said. The hydrogen kit only functions while the vehicle is running.

The emissions are very clean, Mansfield said – perhaps a little moisture on the tailpipe.

He hasn’t determined whether his mileage is stretching yet, he said. A truck like his gets eight to nine miles per gallon. He would be happy if he can get it up to 12 mpg.

“I might be close to 12, but I just don’t know,” he said.

The hydrogen kit costs $850 or less, depending on the size of it.

“It’s not really complicated,” he said. “The average guy can do it easily. In a few years time if you stretch your mileage, it’ll definitely pay for itself.”

The water tank, or reservoir, feeds a hydrogen generator, which sort of acts as an inverted battery, Mansfield said. Add power to the generator, and it separates out the oxygen and hydrogen molecules, which flow into an anti-backfire device and then the “bubbler,” which is a filter device. From there, the hydrogen enters the carburetor with gas, air and fuel.

The hydrogen kit can be turned on and off with a switch, Mansfield said, but he’s going to make it safer by using a relay to switch it off in case the truck dies while the key is still in the on position, ensuring it stops making hydrogen that isn’t burned immediately. Hydrogen can be flammable and cause explosions if mixed with air in enclosed areas.

“If it was a Chevy,” Mansfield joked. “You’d have to do that.”

But the same thing can happen to a Ford, he said, if it runs out of fuel.

Propane vehicles can be purchased off the showroom floor, Mansfield said. It’s old technology, and it’s often used in school buses.

“It is cheaper per gallon than gasoline,” Mansfield said. “But you’re probably not going to gain any mileage out of it to speak of. You could even drop one or two miles per gallon.”

With newer technology though, the mileage is probably better, Mansfield said.

The advantage of propane is that the vehicle isn’t burning gasoline, he said. It burns cleaner, and it can be run inside a shop, which is dangerous with gasoline engines. Most forklifts are powered by propane for that reason.

The common criticism of propane fuel is that it doesn’t provide good performance, Mansfield said, but power is dictated by the size of the engine, not fuel.

The gasoline he would need to run the engine in his pickup would cost $10 per gallon, Mansfield said.

Retrofitting an existing engine is expensive, Mansfield said. Propane is corrosive so the valves must be reworked, but he can’t resist further performance experimentation.

He is working with an FE 390 for his Ford Fairlane, with a pair of four-barrel carburetors, he said.

“I don’t know what I’m going to get there, but we’ll see,” Mansfield said. “I don’t care. I’m just playing.”

He also wants to try a liquid injection system.

He is working with Bob Hubler of Cascadia on an injection system for liquid propane. His truck uses a propane in the gas state using a carburetor.

When in a liquid state, the molecules take up one-seventh the volume of the gas state, Mansfield said, increasing the amount of energy when it’s burned.

Mansfield plans to put an FE into a 1969 Ford Torino.

“I’ve got a funny feeling it’s going to be crazy,” Mansfield said.

That’s a situation in which he will need to be careful about getting too much compression, he said, but it’s the same sort of experimentation Roush Motors is doing with millions of dollars.

Mansfield was a landing craft engineer in the Army, where he was highly trained in diesel engines.

He also has enjoyed working on muscle cars all his life. Prior to moving to Sweet Home, he went into the freight truck business with his brother and father. He worked in maintenance at a plastic pipe plant in California. He was a mechanic for a logging company in Coquille. He owned a four-wheeler shop in Roseburg.

He then went to work with a shop that specialized in hitches, a sort of blacksmith’s shop. People would bring their RVs in and talk about problems with the refrigerator. He would take a look, and the next thing he knew, he was working on RVs, working for Country Coach, manufacturing and and dealers.

He and his wife, Mary, moved to Sweet Home from Springfield 21 years ago so they could commute to work together. He worked in Junction City, and she worked in Albany, which was problematic for carpooling while living in Springfield.

They learned that Sweet Home RV was for sale, and they purchased it.