Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2006   by Jim Anderton, Technical Editor

Emissions Testing on the Brink

New rules and new technology mean changes are coming to Ontario's Drive Clean and British Columbia's AirCare programs.

Mandatory auto emissions testing, especially in the heavily populated Southern Ontario and British Columbia Fraser Valley regions, has a checkered history. Like many environmental initiatives, Canadian I/M programs are not enough for environmentalists, cost too much for cash-strapped consumers and confusing and complex for the repair aftermarket. Upcoming rules changes as a result of new vehicle technologies, however, may make the emissions test as we know it a thing of the past.

There are differences between the Vancouver/Fraser Valley program and the Ontario initiative, both political and geographic. The British Columbia environment experiences the roughly 1.2 million vehicles operating in the region as the biggest single contributor to air quality issues, according to the AirCare program. The situation in heavily industrialized Southern Ontario is less certain, as industrial sources and significant pollution originating in the northeastern U.S. states makes the relative ranking of motor vehicles as gross polluters difficult to assess.

In Ontario, the Drive Clean program moves forward with changes that will shift the consumer burden towards the owners of older vehicles. As of January 1st, 2006 the first mandatory test moved to five year old vehicles, rather than the previous three. The rules apply to all program vehicles, both light and heavy duty. The current twenty-year limit for test eligibility has been dropped starting with the 1988 model year, so those vehicles will require periodic testing indefinitely. Proposed changes include mandatory annual testing for vehicles 12 years old and older back to the 1987 model year and an increase in the repair cost limit for a conditional pass from $450 to $600.

In British Columbia, AirCare is undergoing even more significant changes. Starting on January 1st, 2007, the current new vehicle exemption period extends from four years to seven, reflecting the very low failure rates recorded in late model vehicles. The result will be a decrease in the number of vehicles tested, from 1.2 million in 1999 to 514,000 in 2007. By 2011, the number is expected to fall to 491,000. 2011 is a significant year, as AirCare expects the program to end. While the trends show that the effects of vehicle-derived pollution are dropping with the turnover of the light duty fleet and the durability of modern emissions systems, the reason that may make inspection/maintenance programs obsolete is also part of the AirCare revisions: OBD II. 1998 and newer vehicles will use a code scan as a test methodology, while 1992-1997 vehicles will continue to be dyno tested to the I/M240 standard. Older vehicles will undergo the simpler ASM idle test. Post 2011, the use of OBD II opens three possibilities for emissions testing: the elimination of all testing, a new, simple scan at a government test lane, or the possibility that independents may perform the scan.

While there’s little downside for Vancouver/Fraser Valley repair businesses in the windup of AirCare given the high pass rate, in Ontario the situation is different. With many shops making six-figure investments in dedicated emission test bays, the prospect that a handheld scan tool can replace a dynamometer isn’t comforting, especially given the marginal economics resulting from the fixed $35 test/$17.50 retest fees and $450 repair cost limit for a conditional pass. Whether Ontario’s provincial government will continue to mandate dyno testing in the face of AirCare’s changes suggests that shop profitability will continue to be trumped by the political need for low prices and high pass rates.

Is it working?

While British Columbia’s AirCare program is successful enough to predict its own demise in 2011, what about smog-bound Southern Ontario, where Drive Clean operates? A 2005 independent report by Stewart Brown and Associates covering data from 1999 to 2003 describes how much Drive Clean reduces pollution in crowded central Canada. According to the report, the combination of vehicle fleet turnover, tighter new car emissions standards, cleaner gasoline formulations and repairs driven by Drive Clean, reduced smog-causing emissions by 140,000 tonnes between 1999 and 2003. The portion directly attributable to Drive Clean is 81,200 tonnes, about 60 per cent. According to the report, in 2003 alone, emissions reductions were the equivalent to the removal of over 600,000 cars and light trucks from Ontario roads. Between 1999 and 2003, HC and NOx emissions dropped 35.5 per cent and CO by 27.9 per cent. In terms of the greenhouse gas CO2, between 1999 and 2003 emissions were reduced by over 100,000 tonnes as a result of Drive Clean-driven light duty vehicle emission system repairs. The full text of the report is available at

Disappearing exemptions

Hot rods, sport compacts and collector cars in Canada have traditionally enjoyed the latitude they need in vehicle licensing terms, but that situation may be changing. New rules in Ontario as of January 1st, 2006 eliminated the rolling emissions testing exemption for light duty vehicles, starting with the 1988 model year. This means that 1988 and newer vehicles will stay in the program indefinitely. 1987 and earlier models are still exempt. Proposed changes include annual testing for vehicles 12 years old and older back to the 1987 model year. In the AirCare region of British Columbia, collector-status vehicles registered after September 1, 2000 require an idle test, but replicar, kit car and custom builders face a tougher challenge. If built before August 31, 1994, homebuilts must pass 1972 model year standards, without a visual anti-tampering inspection. Most cars falling under this standard can pass with little more than a closed crankcase PCV system and reasonable ignition timing, but vehicles registered after the August 1994 date are tested to 1988 standards. The basic requirements are 0.25g/kilometer of HC, 2.1g/kilometer of CO and 0.6g/kilometer of NOx as measured by the U.S. EPA’s EPA75 test procedure. Running on gasoline, to meet this standard will require at the minimum, EFI or a feedback carburetor plus a three-way converter. Don’t be surprised if EGR is necessary as well. The result of these regulations will be premium pricing for specialty vehicles with the earlier registration dates, or the end of true new-build replicars like 427 Cobras or flathead Deuces, at least until the end of the program.

The other possibility, especially in Ontario, is a black market in emissions testing, where underground shops will test modified vehicles to pass, for a price. The Ontario government has acknowledged this possibility with tougher penalties for fraudulent certification and a streamlined process to decertify inspectors involved in black market testing.

B.C’s AirCare program is run under contract by Envirotest Canada, but in Ontario test only and test and repair services are performed by certified dealerships and aftermarket repair businesses. Is fraud a factor in Ontario? Drive Clean publishes the identities of facilities that are under suspension or have been terminated and the stats show that independent, banner and new car dealerships are represented on the lists. At press time, 50 light duty vehicle facilities were on the termination list, with 11 identified with banner programs and nine new car dealerships. The suspension list contains 22 businesses, with two new car dealerships and four banners. While suspension or termination is possible for reasons other than criminal activity, such as inadequate insurance coverage or failure to remit the facility licensing fees, the total of 72 businesses on both lists is extremely small given the size of the program, suggesting that bogus pass certificates are not a widespread problem at the current repair cost limit, although the proposed higher $600 limit may stimulate the underground market in the future.

As on-board diagnostic technology expands, the need for inspection maintenance programs should decrease, especially as wireless services like GM’s OnStar allow real time remote monitoring of engine systems. Unfortunately for the repair aftermarket as well as the environment, many system failures that set codes don’t compromise driveabilty enough to drive consumers into the bays immediately. For the repair aftermarket, the challenge will be to make sure that “check engine” translates to “check in with your garage”, before test time.

Fit to Test?

Dynamometer testing is basically a rolling road; keeping repairers safe and the equipment intact means that test vehicles have to be mechanically fit before testing. Do you perform a thorough vehicle check before each test? AirCare lists the following reasons for rejecting a vehicle at their test lanes on the consumer website:

Visible smoke: vehicles must not smoke visibly before the test

Excessive exhaust leakage: Leakage can dilute the exhaust sample or provide insufficient volume for an accurate test.

Inaccessible exhaust opening: The tailpipe must exit at the perimeter of light duty vehicles

Fuel leaks: even small leaks are serious safety issues on a chassis dyno, where temperatures are high and airflow under the vehicle limited.

Damaged tires: Cord breakage, tread separation or leaks are not permitted, and tires must be the same size on each side of each axle. Missing or loose studs, lugs or bolts are not permitted.

Unstable idle: Engine stalling or erratic idle makes the idle portion of the test inaccurate.

Steering/suspension/brakes: the same rules for road driving apply at the dyno. If the vehicle can’t be safely controlled, it can’t be safely tested.

Excessive fluid leaks: it may seem self evident, but coolant, oil or transmission fluid loss can cause anything from a blown engine to a nasty slip-and-fall injury in the test bay.

Who’s in the penalty box?

The distribution of offenders on Ontario’s Drive Clean suspension and termination lists shows that independents, banners and new car dealerships are represented. Stats from Drive Clean as of June 16, 2006.

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