What You Need to Do If Your Car Fails Mandatory Emissions Tests

If you have taken your car, truck, or SUV in to state-licensed inspection centers for emissions or smog tests only to have your vehicle fail, don’t feel alone. In some states, as many as 20% of vehicles fail on their first pass. The more important issue becomes what you need to do to get your car to pass the test so you can keep driving it.

The problem voiced by many car owners is that many of these emissions and smog tests mandated by state law are practically impossible to understand, at least from the standpoint of knowing what is expected for a vehicle to pass the test without problems. In fact, between even neighboring states, the requirements for a successful test pass can widely differ. You can even see strangely varying standards between different test stations.

The latter happens because test stations may use different test equipment or have state rules that are then beefed up by passage of local standards that are stricter than state tests require. For example, in my home state of Vermont, I’ve had the same SUV fail at one test station – which here usually means an authorized repair garage – only to drive it immediately to another where it passed with flying colors. When I tried to learn why, the station owner simply winked, grinned, and told me not to question my good fortune.

The garage owner was not trying to give me a hard time, of course. It was a nice sentiment. Yet it did nothing to help me understand. I happen to be someone who knows something about what goes on under the hood and I also know about air pollution. What hope then does a less knowledgeable vehicle owner with a mite less car savvy have?

What you are about to read summarizes what I learned when I checked around between different states, different automotive maintenance experts and technicians, and various emission control programs. Use it wisely to avoid the hassles of an emissions test failure with your car, while also recognizing your need as a global citizen to cut harmful emissions.

First, there is wide acknowledgement among at least some experts that some states require emissions standards not just because the federal government – at least at one time – wanted to push them to do so, but also to boost revenue for the state transportation departments. This is not universally true; many programs actually have their costs largely underwritten by other state and federal revenue rather than forcing all the costs onto the vehicle owner consumer. But a few states do see these once-a-year tests as money makers, either directly back to the state itself or to the companies that contract to perform these tests for the state.

Unfortunately, where you have a profit motivation for emissions testing, the system in place may not work well. For example, you may stand a greater chance of emission test failure because such failure adds fees. You also may not see a program that checks for the kind of car-based pollution apt to do the most damage to the environment, which begs the question of why a state would bother to require vehicles to be tested at all.

Second, different states institute very different programs. In some, all testing equipment must be uniform and conform to the exact same standards for testing which is generally how the system should operate. But not all states demand this which means you are apt to see varying pass/fail ratings between testing centers. This in turn means you engage in a bit of a crap shoot in terms of which test station you take your vehicle into for testing. Likewise, the experience of test technicians between testing stations also varies.

But let’s move to a third and more relevant issue since it involves aspects of your car maintenance that you can do something about, versus a statewide emissions testing program you may not be able to change short of lobbying the legislature. Normally, the same maintenance efforts that keep your car running well will also lead your car, truck, or SUV to ace an emissions test. These include:

– regular tune-ups
– a vehicle exhaust system kept in near perfect operating order; a damaged catalytic converter or a hole-punched muffler can drive up harmful emissions
– using the right kind of fuel for your car, truck, or SUV
– regular oil changes; failure to do this can lead to engine problems that in turn lead to higher levels of nasty emissions

Other factors crop up as well. The cleaner you can make the air and fuel mix that enters your vehicle for the all-critical combustion process, the more apt your vehicle is to stay within acceptable range for emission production.

With this in mind, as part of a tune-up, you always want to change a dirty air filter. If you don’t, you risk bringing more debris into the carburetor. A tune-up should also involve cleaning up if not full replacement of spark plugs. These plugs are key in making the engine fire properly. Dirty or damaged plugs can foul combustion and eventually, affect emissions levels. Likewise, every oil change you perform needs to include the installation of a replacement oil filter and you also need to regularly replace your fuel filter.

Whenever you perform routine car maintenance, be sure to check the different components of your exhaust system from the catalytic converter to the muffler to the tailpipe(s). All of these play a role in filtering noxious material from your engine before it gets released into the air which means they factor into every emissions test.

Any problems, such as looseness or holes, should be repaired as soon as possible. Understand, too, that an improperly installed muffler or tailpipe not only leads to noise and a potential rise in operating temperature, it can cause your car to fail its emission test. Have exhaust work done by a qualified, experienced mechanic rather than the cheapest garage you can find.

You also should keep up on any possible warnings or recalls from your vehicle manufacturer. For example, I had a nearly new SUV repeatedly fail emissions tests until I discovered that the catalytic converter had big problems and was the subject of a recall. Once the catalytic converter was replaced by the local dealer, my SUV passed emissions with flying colors.

On another car, I started failing emissions test after I let my garage, which also performed my emissions tests, cut off a small part of the catalytic converter that made a scraping noise. It turned out the garage took off too much and left a gaping hole in the component. Once repaired, my emissions test failures were history.

However, on the same car, I had failed one earlier emissions test for the silliest possible reason: a mouse nest left behind in my air filter; this car was often garaged during winter months and an industrious mouse had built himself a home. The nest created just enough blockage that, for whatever reason, it threw off air intake sufficiently to throw off the test. I did nothing more than replace the air filter when – voile! – the car passed an hour after it failed.

If you fail your emissions test, you want to do the following:

– ask for a complete report; this document may specify what parts of the test the vehicle failed and why
– ask the time frame in which you can have the test performed again; some states do not allow you to re-take the test on the same day while others will let you re-take the test free of charge so long as you do it within 7 or 10 days of the initial failure
– determine what the rules are if your vehicle fails to pass on the re-take; some states will automatically cancel the registration of failed vehicles
– inspect your car, truck, or SUV to try to find the cause of the problem
– perform a tune-up or other types of maintenance as needed

Also check with your local garage to see if you can have your vehicle unofficially tested on the equipment after you’ve made needed changes and before you go back through the official emissions test. This pre-test lets you get a sense of whether the repairs and maintenance you’ve already done is sufficient to get your car, truck, or SUV to pass on a second try. The cost for this is often between $5 and $25.

What if all your efforts fail or you learn it would cost hundreds to repair your vehicle to do better on emissions tests? In some states, you can request, usually in writing, a waiver for emissions testing for vehicles that simply can’t be re-engineered to pass emissions tests. The rules and exclusions for this vary. For example, you may be able to obtain a waiver if your garage agrees it would be prohibitively expensive for you to make the corrections needed to get your vehicle to pass the test. Your test station or your regular garage should be able to give you the details on this and how to apply.

To learn more about your car and auto emissions, see another article on Associated Content entitled, “Emissions and Your Car: Know What is There Even If You Can’t Smell It”.

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