It’s not surprising that as we live in a modern society, we’re subject to a gamut of rules and regulations promoting public health and safety. Ontario’s Drive Clean emission-testing program entered its third phase beginning in July, expanding and filling untested open holes in Southern Ontario’s smog corridor east of the “Golden Horseshoe” (Toronto, Hamilton, etc.) to Ottawa and west to Windsor.
While some might see it as Big Brother peering further into our personal goings-on, the fact remains that motor vehicle pollution ranks way up there relative to other smog sources. Ministry stats, for example, peg transportation-sourced nitrogen oxide or NOx contribution at around 40 per cent of the total. Drive Clean expects 200 to 300 new testing facilities in the expansion areas, and so far there are about 200 new garages signed on with more to come.
“We’re not putting an upper limit” (on how many garages can sign up for the program), says Charles Ross, communications coordinator for Drive Clean.
“It’s their own business decision whether they want to become part of the program, with reasons ranging from trying to attract new business to providing a full range of services for existing clients,” he adds, referring to all-important customer retention.
But be careful, warns Roydon Rump, son of Roy Rump Sr. and manager of Roy Rump and Sons Tire and Auto Centre in Ottawa. The 46-year-old family business is one of 34 accredited facilities now serving the city.
“I’m freaked out right now,” he says, ‘now’ being a few months into the program.
“The extra traffic Drive Clean brings though the shop is sometimes unbearable if you don’t have the proper space. I mean, parking, proper customer facilities and cars bottlenecking everywhere else. You arrive in the morning and bang, the next thing you know the day’s over. Definitely be prepared for these things. I wasn’t.”
In a month, Roy Rump and Sons punched out roughly 350 work orders just for Drive Clean alone. And like so many others, the shop took on Drive Clean to service existing customers.
“It’s so backed up sometimes that I forget the whole reason why we’re doing this – to serve our clients. But on occasion, I don’t have time for them (due to the hoards of ‘walk-ins’),” Rump says. “The phone’s also constantly ringing. But like anything, it’s an adjustment thing. We’re getting a handle on it.” The business has invested about $75,000 into testing equipment and staff accreditation training.
Ross empathises with shops like Roy Rump and Sons shelling out for Drive Clean, it’s critical to maintain customer bases: “Customers might go to another garage and never come back.” Almost always, testing garages repair failed cars.
Along with Phase 3 (Phases 1 and 2 came on-line in January, 1999 and January, 2001, respectively), the Ministry added the new “curb-idle” element to the basic ASM 2525 test or the dyno-simulated acceleration and cruise conditions to and at 40 km/h. An inspector lets the drivetrain coast back down from 40 km/h to idle for a period while the exhaust probe sniffs for hydrocarbons (HC) and carbon monoxide (CO). NOx is not checked under this test because it isn’t present under high-vacuum, near-zero load conditions.
The curb-idle element simulates vehicles trapped in conditions like rush-hour gridlock, cruising the ‘strip’, leaving the game/concert and exiting the shopping-plaza. “We think these vehicles are a problem in heavy traffic and this will catch them,” Ross adds.
Art French nabbed one of these curb-idle polluters, a 1987 Jag XJ6 pushing 150,000 kilometres. The owner of AML Auto Service in Toronto took a break from diagnosing the car’s high CO problem to talk with SSGM. “It’s likely a mixture issue,” he says, having been involved in Drive Clean from its inception three-and-half years prior.
“To me Drive Clean was a necessary thing to do (for air pollution and customer retention). And after all, I’m a primarily a drivability tech so emission problems seemed second-nature,” French says.
As another family business (French’s father started AML in 1960), he says 15 to 20 tests per day and a good amount of related repairs are the norm, but the program does bite into the bottom line – about $500 per month running the testing equipment and around $4,000 per year just in maintenance. That’s on top of the near-six-figure initial capital and training investment at the start. For each tech, the Ministry charges $149 for the one-day inspection-only course, $349 for the two-day repair-only course and $399 for both plus a written exam, all GST applicable. There’s also a five-day advanced course for $999 plus GST that “significantly increases the technician’s ability to grasp the subtleties of advanced emission diagnosis,” according to Ministry literature.
French’s advice for shops new to Drive Clean is simple: “You’ve got to do market research. You’ll find it difficult being one of a glut of Drive Clean shops along you area’s ‘Gasoline Alley’,” crediting his success to getting a market foothold early on by being one of the first in the neighbourhood.
The Ministry approved another change on July 24 that might be a small token of cost relief for shop owners’ bottom lines starting October 1. As of that date, the test fee climbs to $35 from $30, grossing an extra $3.33 per test for shops and $1.67 for the Ministry. It’ll use its portion to beef up the on-road “Smog-Patrol” adding 30 new inspectors to hunt down super stinkers. Retesting fees will be $17.50 up from $15.
Through all this, Ross states that the Ministry realizes that some consumers will be burdened more than others in keeping pace financially with emission inspections and repairs. Ross acknowledges the conundrum, but notes the repair-cost limits of $200 for the first two years of a Phase and $450 thereafter – for good-will, conditional passes for people struggling with old cars.
Drive Clean is bigger, and more Ontario drivers will have to get used to keeping their vehicles in tune. As Charles Ross declares: “One of Drive Clean’s main goals is promoting awareness of the air-pollution problem. We have to keep reminding people that if your car is running better, you’ll save on gas and your car will last longer. We’re targeting excessively-polluting cars, and that’s all we can say about it.”