Car care = air care

By Ashley Miller

Passing an emissions test has been a requirement for registering a passenger car or truck in Salt Lake County since April 1, 1984. Nonetheless, pollution coming from the tailpipes of cars and trucks makes up roughly half of the air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley. The exhaust from vehicles contains precursor pollutants like NOx and VOCs that lead to the formation of both summertime ozone and wintertime particulate (PM2.5) pollution.

Manufacturers install emissions control equipment in gas- and diesel-run vehicles to reduce the amount of pollutants that end up in the atmosphere. Emissions testing programs like Salt Lake County’s Inspection and Maintenance (I/M) program test a vehicle’s emissions system to make sure it’s doing its job. This applies to cars older than 1996. Exhaust emissions  are also tested. Cars 1996 and newer are also inspected in this way, along with their computers.

Every day the emissions testing program in Salt Lake County keeps tons of pollutants out of the air: 82 tons of carbon monoxide (CO), four tons of hydrocarbons (HC), and four tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx).

Properly tuned and well-maintained vehicles provide better performance and gas mileage, resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions as well. Testing for problems with your emissions controls is often the only way you would ever know those controls aren’t working properly—another reason it’s crucial to have your car checked out when the check engine light comes on!

A failing vehicle can emit 100 times (or more) the amount of pollution it would emit if it were working properly, says Corbin Anderson, the Environmental Health Supervisor from the Air Quality Bureau of the Salt Lake County Health Department.

I sat down with Anderson to learn about the County’s three-and-a-half year old Vehicle Repair Assistance Program, where qualifying low-income drivers can receive help paying for pollution-related repairs.

The most common failure in older cars is with the catalyst, says Anderson. Catalysts, whether a catalytic converter in a gasoline model or the selective catalytic reduction system (SCR) in a diesel engine, break down car exhaust into water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. They contain small amounts of precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, to speed up the reactions of carbon monoxide and NOx within the exhaust and convert them into less harmful gases before being forced out through the tailpipe. Over time, for a variety of reasons, the catalytic converter can break down.

Catalytic converters and SCR systems aren’t cheap—replacements can cost from $300 to $1,000 or more. “It’s imperative that the problem that caused the catalyst to fail is fixed, as well. If it’s not, that same problem will likely destroy a replacement catalytic converter as well,” says Anderson.

What happens when repairs simply cost too much for some car owners?

When repairs are too costly, an owner can apply for a hardship waiver allowing the owner, under certain circumstances, to register the vehicle despite the failed emissions test. While a hardship waiver solves one problem for the owner of the vehicle, it leaves one more car on the road emitting excess pollution that could otherwise have been repaired.

Many of the cars that end up with a hardship waiver have problems that have been identified and can be fixed, but decent repairs simply cost too much for the owners. Sometimes  these owners sought quick fixes that didn’t quite do the job, resulting in good money thrown away on bad repairs.

Health Department employees within the Air Quality Bureau and local mechanics  wanted to come up with a better solution. “We wanted to find a way to help these people pay for good repairs from facilities we have approved to do the necessary work. We want the repairs to last, not fail by the next year’s test,” says Anderson.

Helping with the repair cost would ultimately reduce emissions and benefit the entire community.

The Vehicle Repair Assistance Program, or VRAP, was initiated as a pilot program in July 2014. The Health Department developed this program, funded by a large grant from a local business, to help low-income drivers who would otherwise qualify for a hardship waiver apply for financial assistance to make the diagnosed repairs. 100% of the funds are used for diagnostics and repairs, which makes the VRAP such an effective and viable part of the I/M program.

The primary goal of the VRAP is to reduce the number of hardship waivers granted, and the program has been successful in achieving this goal. Since its inception the VRAP has successfully repaired 413 vehicles, roughly 118 per year. Through this program, qualifying low-income drivers can have the proper diagnostics performed to determine exactly where the problem lies, and then have their cars repaired at an approved, licensed repair facility, and the VRAP pays the bill.

Each year the Department assesses the program and makes adjustments to maximize its success. “Last year we narrowed the scope of qualifying vehicles based on results from the first three years. We limited the qualifying vehicles to Class 1 light duty passenger cars, 20 years old and newer with less than 200,000 miles, because we knew from our data that cars and trucks outside of these parameters often resulted in repairs that were short-lived, and the emissions reductions achieved were less. We want the program to be as successful as possible, and not invest program money in cars that have a high po­tential for engine failure.”

The Salt Lake County Health Department anticipates the VRAP to remain an effective and viable part of the I/M program. The program will continue to aid qualifying cars, providing owners access to expert repair service.

Learn more about the VRAP or apply for assistance at or in person at the Health Department Environmental Health Vehicle Technical Center in Murray.

Ashley Miller, J.D., is the vice-chair of Breathe Utah. She is the vice-chair of Utah’s Air Quality Policy Advisory Board and a member of the Salt Lake County Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.

This article was originally published on November 1, 2019.