Electronic Design

What's All This Smog Stuff, Anyhow?

NOW some of you folks who live in other states or in other parts of the world may wonder, "What's all the fuss about smog? We don't have much smog around here." But this may affect you, too. Don't be so quick to dismiss this topic.

For a couple dozen years, California drivers have had to worry about getting their car through an emissions or "smog" inspection every two years. Oftentimes, just keeping the car tuned up properly was adequate to get you through the smog test just fine. Or, if you failed, you could get it fixed up, and try again. Recently, a number of bureaucrats agreed on some new procedures to decrease the emissions, pollution, and smog still further. It's called "Smogcheck II." These regulations were apparently not approved or voted on by any elected lawmakers, just approved by bureaucrats. They also seem, in some respects, to have been put together by people so as to not make any sense. It also seems they are not FAIR ... or rational.

Some of the earliest warnings turned up on the Internet. People claimed they had seen these regulations that were cleverly worded to get all the old cars off of the road and confiscate them. Some of the laws specially written for New Jersey were (allegedly) worded so that you could not even sell your car out of state; it would be illegal to even keep your own car in your driveway after it failed a smog test. Needless to say, a great amount of screaming and worrying went on that this was completely unfair. Yet other bureaucrats argued that these fears were exaggerated — nobody was actually going to do any confiscating. But they never honestly told us what the laws and regulations were going to do. Very sneaky. All this stuff made me very nervous.

Finally, here in California, similar rules were put into effect without any warning — with no real notification — and with poor planning. We began to read about these new regulations in the newspapers. "All these regulations are trying to do, is to get Gross Polluters off the road. Surely no one would disagree with that." Well, that sounds plausible. That sounds reasonable. Hmmmm.... Then we began hearing people complain —"My car went in for a smog test, and even though I had it tuned up pretty well, it failed the test limits by just a few percent — and it was labelled a Gross Polluter."

Soon after, we began to learn other little "details." If your car is labelled as a "Gross Polluter," you cannot just get it repaired yourself. You have to take it to an Official State Repair Shop, where they do the repairs AND the testing. Furthermore, the bureaucrats underestimated the amount of repair work needed. There were not many Official State Repair Shops, and the waiting list to get your "Gross Polluter" into one soon got up to two, four, or even six weeks. The State Repair Shops were so overloaded, they did not even answer their phones. They just played a recorded message, "Tell us your phone number and we will call you back." Some people observed that after 10 days, nobody ever called back. In other words, bad estimating, bad planning, and too much bureaucracy.

Why is it that a failure by a mere factor of a few percent causes a "Gross Failure?" Other people were saying that a car has to fail by a factor of two to make a "Gross Polluter." WELL, it turns out that there are two ways to get in trouble — if your car fails by a factor of two, then it is declared, instantly, a Gross Polluter. Or, even if it is not a Gross (factor-of-two) Failure, if it fails the Pass Limits twice, even by a small margin, then THAT makes it a Gross Polluter, too.

NOW if failing twice gets you into real trouble, then it is worth a lot of effort to make sure you do not fail. You want to get your car tuned up as carefully as possible. But the Fearmongers — and the newspapers — all said that the smog testers are all connected by a computer link to the main DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) computer in Sacramento. Any failure is reported instantly. So you can't even use a smog tester to tune up your car to make sure it will pass. What a mess! No wonder the Fearmongers were worried! No wonder that hundreds of motorists turned out at rallies in Sacramento to protest.

It turns out there are a lot of gripes and allegations that are not accurately stated — not quite true — quite misleading. It is NOT LITERALLY TRUE that all emissions testers are linked up to Sacramento. If you go to a tune-up shop, or any good repair shop, you can get your car tested and checked to see if it is passing. If it is, then you can take it in to an official Smog Test Shop, and your car is likely to pass. Since it is worth a lot to avoid even one Fail, then it is VERY advisable, to get your car checked — and adjusted —before you take it in for the official smog test.

However, if there is a little miscalibration between one sensor and the other, you could have your car pass at the tune-up shop, and fail during the official test. THIS would be annoying. But it can happen. Some people have griped that many old cars — like a TR-6, a Jensen-Healey, a rare old Thunderbird, or a '70 Corvette — are just on the margin of passing on a good day. And any tiny glitch — or sensor miscalibration — can cause them to fail. NOW, if YOU do not own a TR-6 or an old Thunderbird, you might say that you are not concerned. Don't be too sure about that.

The bureaucrats say, "We are not confiscating any cars." And the Fearmongers say, "We have proof that the Government is confiscating old cars — but we have promised not to tell the names." Very puzzling.

It is a fact that if you own a car that is a Gross Polluter, and you give up on trying to repair it, and you don't want to sell it out of state, you can sell it to the state — for $450. And they will crush that car. Then they will sell the right to that pollution to some industrial company. Maybe that is fair. Maybe not.

But why can't I form an "industrial company" whose purpose is to enable cars to run? I'm sure a guy with a Ferrari, or other car that is being persecuted because of these new rules, would be happy to buy a polluting chemical factory and take that off the road. He would like to make that trade-off work backwards ... Why not??

Maybe one of these days someone will bring in a '94 Rolls Royce that is a "lemon," and cannot be made to pass the smog test. The state will buy it for $450, crush it, and the ensuing publicity will make the whole thing look foolish.

But it already looks pretty foolish. If the government tells you, "You failed your test by 10%, two times, and that makes you a Gross Polluter," that seems a little unfair. Then when the bureaucrats say, "And you cannot repair it yourself, you cannot get it repaired by anybody but the Official State Shop," that is really LOUSY. I cannot see the reasoning behind that.

THEN when it turns out that the Official State Repair Shop is booked solid for the next five weeks, and you are not supposed to put your car on the road until it is fixed — that is really unfair — that is de facto CONFISCATION. I don't like it at all. I don't know how to fix it. The people that are enforcing these rules are completely insulated from criticism or complaint. Maybe somebody who is in business will take these idiots to court. Sue those idiots! That sounds good to me — throw out that arbitrary stuff.

OK, now I know about all these rules. Can I get my car through "Smog?" My 1968 VW Beetle with 340,100 miles on it?? I tuned it up. The engine has pretty good compression. The (platinum) spark plugs are almost new — only 105,000 miles old. I checked the gaps at 0.028 in., I cleaned off their insulators, and put them back in. I set the timing. I took it in to Mt. View Foreign Car.

The first thing I noticed was that the limits for a Gross Polluter are NOT always 2x the Pass Limit. For some model years, the Gross Polluter Limit was 1.2x the Pass Limit. For others it was 1.5x, or 2x, and for other models, 2.5x. So it seems that these regulations are arbitrary, and not a fixed constant factor or value. H'mmmm, arbitrary....

My carburetor was set a little rich. The CO percentage was running up near 4%, just barely inside the test limit of 4.5%. Not a very safe margin. So Aram, the technician, tweaked the idle volume control screw to get 1.5% — a little too lean — and then pushed it back up to 3%. Pretty safe. Stable.

I took it in to one of the smog test shops — "SmogPros." After the usual 40 minute wait, they got through with testing it. I asked, "Can I pay?" The guy said, "We have to wait to get the report back from Sacramento." I had to cool my heels for another half hour. "We don't know how long it will take, because the computers in Sacramento are overloaded." I bet....

After the half hour, the guy said, "You can see the report." The car did not pass. The emissions were OK. But the print-out from Sacramento said, "Emission equipment missing ... hole in air cleaner." Well, I had taken that car in there and passed smog several times before, and never had any problem. The guy pointed out, "A 1968 VW is supposed to have a throttle positioner." Well, I've had the car over 12 years, and it never had a throttle positioner on it, and they passed it every time previously. So, this was just a sign that they are being VERY picky. Very METICULOUS ... very TOUGH. As for the hole in the air cleaner, well, I could have put on some tape, so nobody could see that there was a hole. But that was not the major problem.

That was Thursday. I got the guys at Mt. View to order a throttle positioner. They installed it. That was Friday. On Monday, it passed. I pointed out to the smog testers after I passed, "The new regulations are supposed to fail old cars. I bet you haven't passed many with 340,000 miles on them."

So, anybody who owns a car in California, or some of the eastern states such as Massachusetts or New Jersey where these "Regulations" are being imposed, had better watch out. The rules, and the INTERPRETATIONS of those rules, are really pretty nasty and unfair. Don't be trapped or caught by rules you are not aware of. When your car needs a smog test, you should probably get your car tuned up and checked out EARLY. Then, when you have a safety margin — and when it is properly equipped with all required equipment — get it through the test EARLY. If your car needs a throttle positioner, make sure it has all the necessary equipment installed before you go for your test — avoid wasting time.

I have no idea why the rules do not let a guy get anybody who he wants to repair and tune up his car to be clean, and then come in later for an "official" test. In fact, even though they tell you that you MUST bring it in to an official repair shop, well, if you fixed it yourself, and then brought it in for an "official repair," and it just happened to test perfectly clean, you could tell them, gee, they must have made an error when they tested it....

I don't know why a 10% failure has to be considered "gross." But I guess that's because I am not a bureaucrat. If I were, all this stupidity would surely become perfectly clear.

What does this mean for people who live in different states? It seems that all cars will have lower value, because some old cars have to be sold "out of state." In other words, if you live in Montana, and you have a good old 1986 Cadillac, you may think it is worth several thousand dollars. But if the guy next door is able to buy a 1987 Cadillac for $1000 because a guy in California (or New Jersey or Connecticut) had to get rid of it — then your car is NOT worth nearly as much as you thought it was.

The guys who sell cars are going to love this. They think you will cheerfully buy a new car to replace that 10-year-old lemon that nobody can get through smog. Well, if I just had to sell off a perfectly good, reliable, comfortable old 1986 car for $1000 because nobody — not even the Agency — could get it to pass smog, then I am surely not going to cheerfully buy a new car. I may not be able to afford one....

Will the lines at the Official State Repair Stations get any better? I doubt it. Maybe if they let you get your own car repaired, that will help. But for the next 1.6 years, there will be a LOT of cars every month that are introduced to tough tests. Only after all cars have been through the new system once will the repair mess get better.

Will it be true that some cars are more valuable, because it IS possible to keep them well tuned up, and in spec? I guess so. What kind will that be? I don't know. But obviously, my old Beetle seems to be doing OK. If you know a mechanic who can get your Beetle through the test by twisting a screw in the right way — that sounds good to me. What are the test limits for a 1968 VW?

— So — don't just tell me that all old cars are dirty and fouling and polluting. A well-maintained old car can be both fairly clean and economical.

Anyhow, while this story is copyrighted, please feel free to pass it around to your friends as a public service. There is entirely TOO MUCH misinformation, disinformation, and ignorance on this subject. And if anybody learns stuff, let me know. I KNOW that I don't know the whole story, but I know enough to be of some help.

I wish the bureaucrats and legislators would level with us. I wish they did not try to argue that a car that is 4% less than the Spec is GREAT, but a car that is 4% over spec is a GROSS POLLUTER. I wish they did not try to pretend that when the DMV tries to order you off the road until their 2-month-backlogged repair station can look at your car, that is not a form of CONFISCATION. Even if you could get your car fixed, they won't let you. And they will not tell you what you need to know. That is the WORST kind of bureaucracy.

I wish the Smog Fearmongers did not exaggerate so much. They bend the truth, and tell partially-true stories, almost as badly as the bureaucrats do. I wish not so much Bullbleep was going on....

Latest developments: In Sacramento, 46 legislators said they want to put these regulations on hold until they can rewrite them. The bureaucrats just say, No Way. I think I'll go chew on my representative's ankles.

Also, one guy pointed out that some lawyers are putting together class-action suits. They are zeroing in on the administrative errors of depriving people of their property, WITHOUT due process, AND with no right of judicial review, because of the insufficient repair facilities. Hmmmm.... They also are working on the aspect of discrimination based on unequal treatment of property based on age. Why are some of the Gross Polluter limits set arbitrarily high — or low?? Such a mess!

And as Anatole France said, "The law, in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges...." It sure is strange when we find ourselves pulling for the lawyers!

I'm in favor of clean air and low pollution as much as anybody. But let's be fair about how we do it.

All for now. / Comments invited! ([email protected])
RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer

Mail Stop D2597A
National Semiconductor
P.O. Box 58090
Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090

Originally published in Electronic Design, October 24, 1996.

RAP's comments:

The continuing skeptical observations of RAP (and of my readers) show that there are still terrible CONFLICTS and INFORMATION GAPS between bureaucrats and drivers — in California and other states and Provinces.

The official smog-check announcements still bleat that a "Gross Polluter" is a car that emits MUCH more pollution than cars that pass — but ignore the fact that a car that is 5% under the limit is "just fine", but a car that is 5% over is "a Gross Polluter".

Oh, the bureaucrats still tell us that "The State of California can not confiscate your car. The fearmongers are exaggerating". Well, here in California that is literally and technically true: the State of California cannot confiscate my car because it failed its smog tests. But in some cities (such as San Jose or Santa Cruz) there are "Abatement Officers" who can ABATE your un-registered car right out of your DRIVEWAY. If you can tell the difference between that and confiscation, I'd like to hear it.

The case that bothered me was a guy who told the Smog Technician, "Just do a test without the computer connected to Sacramento." He suspected there were some leaky hoses that would prevent it from passing. But the technician decided to leave the computers connected, because he thought it would pass. It failed. Now this car is flagged as a Gross Polluter, and the owner has to take it in for a treadmill test every year (not just every second year).

The owner asked the DMV to remove the "Gross Polluter" label, because the Technician had gone against his instructions. "Impossible".

I suggested that he should take the Technician to Small Claims Court. Sue him for $1000. Or whatever he can get. After all, would YOU buy a car that is a "Gross Polluter"? (Even though it is now perfectly clean....)

Some cars are hard to get into spec. My advice is still to sell the car out of state, and find a comparable car that can be made to pass.

A vehicle (such as an RV) that has been parked for a long while will have its gas tank full of fuel without the volatile ingredients in the gasoline. When you start it up, it will run LOUSY. If it doesn't clog its carburetor or injectors, it's a miracle. Its chances of passing any smog test are tiny. So park your RV with an empty tank. Add new gas when you want to get it through the Smog Test. And always get it PRE-tested, to be sure it will pass, before the OFFICIAL test. Even if it was passing, the last time you ran it.

Further, if you are storing a car, it's a good idea to leave it with the gas tank empty, because a full tank will soon be separated into the volatile stuff that boils off and goes into the air and turns into bad smog, and the sludge that sits in your tank and won't run the car.

What if you want to keep the gas tank from rusting? Then you need a dessicant. Where do you buy that? GOOD QUESTION. When I find out, I'll list it HERE: __________________

You guys who don't live in California think you got no problems. Maybe this year. Beware of the future. Beware of bureaucrats. They are getting closer to almost all of us, every year. / RAP

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