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Vehicle maintenance

AirCare’s future is up in the air

Emissions: Last year about 39,000 vehicles failed inspection, a drop from earlier years

If you own a 2006 or older passenger vehicle and live in the Fraser Valley you’ll also be getting a similar reminder in the mail, if not this year, then next.

An AirCare test is currently mandatory for most vehicles (2006 and older) every two years. However, next year (2014) is the final year of the AirCare program (as we know it), based on current government announcements. I doubt that too many Fraser Valley motorists, impacted by the departure of AirCare, will be shedding a tear. Yet, what’s going to happen when it’s gone?

Although running fine, I also knew that my 2004 Volkswagen Jetta had an emissions problem, as a “check engine” light on the instrument panel had come on. An OBD (on-board diagnostics) scan check, by a local repair shop, revealed an engine temperature problem and a new coolant thermostat and temperature sensor cleared the problem.

About five per cent of vehicles that fail the AirCare test have an illuminated “check engine” light, according to Steve Stewart, operations manager at AirCare. It’s a baffling statistic, as all 1998 and newer vehicles are now checked via the vehicle’s OBD link (by AirCare) to retrieve any fault codes, stored in the engine management computer. And any fault also will trigger the vehicle’s “check engine” light.

In other words, your car will not pass the AirCare test if the “check engine” light, typically an engine icon on the instrument panel, is on. Conversely, if the “check engine” light does not come on while driving, it probably will pass the inspection.
The AirCare program was started in response to a study done in 1988 that highlighted a growing smog problem in the Fraser Valley and a lot of it was caused by vehicles. During its early days, all (except brand new) vehicles were tested annually and about 150,000 vehicles were failing the inspection annually.

Last year, about 39,000 vehicles failed the AirCare inspection, according to Stewart.

Modern cars are typically 80 to 90 per cent cleaner running than cars made even 20 years ago, as long as everything under-hood is functioning well. Air quality in the Fraser Valley seems to be better these days, as air quality advisory warnings seem to be a thing of the past. However, does this just prove that the AirCare program is working?

The AirCare failure rate has dropped significantly in recent years. That’s partially due to the fact that fewer vehicles are being tested every year, because of changes to the program that included two-year certification.

You also have to wonder if more car owners, like myself, fix emission problems prior to going to an AirCare station for an inspection.

My car was running fine, other than the engine was taking a little longer to warm up than it should. It would have been easy to ignore the warning light, and put off repairs, if AirCare didn’t exist. It’s a bit like an annual dental or doc check up, you don’t look forward to it, yet you know it’s necessary.

Looking ahead, the growing popularity of diesel engine passenger vehicles might be a concern.

“Emissions from these new diesel engines are very low,” according to Stewart. “The emission controls on these engines are very sophisticated and complicated. Over time they may start to develop problems, but we don’t know yet.”

The expiry date on my car’s AirCare inspection report is January 2015 and, the way things stand right now, it’s the last clean report card that it will ever need.

Today it’s possible to even wirelessly connect to a vehicle’s on-board vehicle diagnostic system. And it’s simply a matter of transferring emissions information stored in a vehicle’s engine computer to a central (AirCare) emissions inspection mainframe computer. You would think that some form of future low-cost, no-hassle, ongoing clean air program should be possible.

Bob McHugh is a freelance automotive journalist, writing on behalf of BCAA. Contact him at to.mchugh@shaw.ca