A frequent cause of heartache for technicians, and car owners alike, is the failed E-test. Truth be told, just about any properly running vehicle will pass emission testing. This post will not be a laundry list of cheats. Rather, this post will be a comprehensive list of repair information, to aid in actually repairing the vehicle so it is in accordance with emission standards.
First and foremost, make sure your catalytic converter (cat) is hot before you go to emission testing. A cat is just a honeycomb of metal that becomes so hot it burns any left over fuel the motor was unable to burn. In order to incinerate the left-overs, the cat must become extremely hot.
The best way to ensure your cat is hot, is to cruise your car down the highway for 15 to 20 minutes before you go to test the vehicle. The exhaust temperature is the hottest during light throttle cruise. Running the car down the highway will heat soak the cat, to ensure it will “lite off” during testing.
A good old fashioned top end de-carb is always a good idea before emission testing a vehicle. If you can get a full injector purge, that is best. Simply adding BG’s 44k to the gas tank and sucking a bottle of de-carb through a vacuum line also works well. The carbon in a motor becomes hotter than the normal parts of the motor, which can lead to detonation, misfire, or high NOX due to elevated combustion chamber temperatures.
Check your cooling system. A faulty cooling system can cause pre-detonation, and high nox. Let your car cool down, and make sure the coolant is full. Low coolant levels can casue multiple problems. As recommended here replace your radiator cap every spring.
Understanding emission fialures requires undersanding the 5 gases that result from internal combustion. The 5 gases we measuer are HC, CO, CO2, O2 and NOX.
Common causes of high nox are:
HC is generally a sign of misfire, but can also be that the engine is just way too rich. Common causes of HC are:
** A fuel leak (even a fuel vapor leak) near the tail pipe can also cause HC failure. The machines that suck the exhaust in and test it will also suck in the raw fuel and cause a HC failure.
Common causes include
An O2 level over 1% indicates a lean condition.
If CO2 is not over 13.5 % you have a general engine performance problem. Low compresion, poor ignition, faulty air fuel metering or the like.
You’ve probably noticed a pattern here. Honestly, there are a handful of systems which keep the car running properly, and the emissions low. As long as all the systems are working properly, you should be fine, the trick is determining which systems have failed.
You have to look at all five gasses to get an idea of what is going on. For example, if NOX and HC are both high, CO are low, and the idle is too high, I’d check for a vacuum leak causing lean misfire. To really hone in on the problem, you will also need a proper scan tool to watch data streams, and a 5 gas analyzer.
This is a relatively inexpensive scan tool made by autolink. It pulls codes as well as reads and displays your basic drive-ability data. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to repair any modern car (1996 or newer). I have one, and i use it all day long.
Check your easy stuff first. Plug in a scan tool and run through your basic data, engine coolant temperature, MAF grams per second, baro pressure, intake air temperature, etc. and make sure nothing is out to lunch. For example, is the coolant temperature stuck at 0 degrees Celsius, causing the vehicle to permanently stay in cold start enrichment?
Make sure your vehicle is in fuel control. Modern cars have two fuel control modes, closed loop and open loop. When the car is in open loop, it is simply running a pre-made map, and makes little to no changes to the amount of fuel it delivers. When a vehicle is in closed loop, it is closely monitoring the engine and adjusting fuel and timing to create the proper air fuel ratio, and a good clean burn.
Learn more about closed loop Vs. Open loop by understnading how check engien lights work.
Watch your front oxygen sensor/s. The sensors should switch back and forth between high and low values. Many oxygen sensors are one volt systems, and will therefore switch between .02 and .98 volts. Other systems are five volt, some are 1.5 volt. The main thing to look for is rapid switching (every second or so) between low and high values. If the oxygen sensor is switching, then the ECU (engine control unit) is adjusting fuel. If an oxygen sensor is switching slowly, or sticking at a value, then there is a gross failure in the fuel control system (MAF, engine coolant temperature sensor, Oxygen sensor, etc.)
If the car is equipped with a MAF, check to make sure it is clean. A dirty MAF can cause a lean condition.
If you have an old style MAF, such as this:
You can actually open these old MAF’s up and tune them. They are a simple flapper door that swings open as the engine draws more air in. The main downfall of these early MAF’s is that the spring wears out. As the spring wears out, the door will open further than it should, and the car will run rich. Watch your five gas analyzer and adjust it one click at a time. If you don’t have a five gas, you can always adjust a few clicks and then run it back through emission testing, it’s just far more time consuming. Generally speaking, you will need to tighten the spring two or three clicks per 100,000 miles.
If you have a distributor on the car, set your timing. Ignition timing that is too far advanced will result in high NOX. Ignition timing that is too far retarded may result in high HC or CO.
While you are at it, also inspect your spark plugs to ensure they are new. Always, make sure you have the proper spark plug in your vehicle. Teh factory spark plug is always the best spark plug. If you are not sure what plugs to use, get a set form the dealership.
You can sometimes find a faulty ignition system by soaking the engine with water. The water will make it easier for the ignition system to arc to ground rather than going through the spark plug. If your car has coil on plug ignition, you can stress test the coils by making them jump a gap before the spark plug.
This is a tester you can put in line in your ignition system. By making the spark jump a gap, you can stress the ignition system and find a failing system. Very handy.
As a last ditch effort, you can also check and ensure the crankshaft/ camshaft timing is correct. I have heard rumor of a new timing belt bringing a NOX failure back in line, once, but that would be fairly rare.
You can also test your cat to verify it is working properly. First, you can install a back pressure tester in a pre-cat oxygen sensor bung. Rev the motor while in park or neutral and ensure the back pressure is low enough. If the back pressure is too high, you car is plugged, and requires replacement. You can also watch the front and rear O2 sensors to get an idea if the cat is working.
Further more, watch your five gas analyzer to verify the cat is working. Watch the five gas as the car warms up. Once the cold start enrichment has leveled off, drive the vehicle and watch the emissions. Before the cat is hot enough to light off, you will see all the emissions the car produces. At a certain point, if the cat is working, you will see the emissions drop as soon as the cat lites off.
Check your EGR system (if equipped), which recirculates exhaust gas to lower combustion chamber temperatures, and mainly lower NOX. Most EGR valves are opened by engine vacuum and a solenoid. With the engine running, apply vacuum to the EGR valve. If the valve works and the ports are clear, the engine should stumble and die. If the engine remains running, you have a faulty EGR system. If the Valve holds vacuum, but the engine doesn’t die, the ports are most likely clogged. If the EGR valve doesn’t hold vacuum, the valve is most likely bad. Certainly, the valve can be bad AND you have clogged ports.
Similarly, check the vacuum supply going into the EGR solenoid. if the solenoid has proper engine vacuum going into it, check the power and ground at the solenoid. Also, supply power and ground to the solenoid with the engine running. If the solenoid works, it will open and send vacuum over to the EGR valve.
Also check your secondary air system, if equipped. Secondary air system pumps air into pre-cat exhaust to help the cat light off. If your secondary air pump is electric, power it up and check to make sure it flows air. If your air pump is mechanical, let the engine idle and check to see if the air pump works. Mechanical air pumps often also utilize a solenoid which opens when the secondary air is required. Power up this solenoid and ensure it is working.
See also: Check engine light causes.