"Well, it didn't pass," the man behind the counter said.
My heart sank. My little 1991 BMW failed its Ontario DriveClean emissions test. This test is mandatory. If your car doesn’t pass, you can't renew its licence plate sticker.
The only option is to repair the car. I decided not to let this national chain that did the DriveClean test work on the car. Instead, I took it to a specialist garage I trust. The DriveClean rules state I can spend up to $450 to get my car fixed. If I spend that much, and the car still isn't passing, it gets a conditional pass. That means I can renew my licence plate, but I can't sell the car. I can drive it, but it becomes a worthless hunk of metal in Ontario.
There used to be an exemption for cars 20 years and older, but that was revoked a few years ago. Cars from 1987 and earlier are exempt for good, but cars '88 and older need to pass the test no matter how old they get.
"There's nothing wrong with it," the mechanic at the specialist garage says after giving my car a once-over. They found the catalytic converter was a bit lazy - this car is 20 years old after all - but nothing else was wrong. They didn't change a thing. "Perhaps car was not hot enough when tested," was the verdict.
This consultation cost me $100, by the way…
The specialist recomened a nearby garage he trusted to do DriveClean testing. Sure enough, my car passed with flying colours. The numbers don't lie. The equipment is identical in every garage. The chain garage got a Hydro Carbon reading of 120 ppm (the limit is 68) in the first test. Way over the limit. The local garage which bothered to take 10 minutes and get the car up to temperature (as they’re supposed to) got a reading of just 14 ppm (limit again is 68). So 120, versus 14. That's… insane!
The manager on duty at that chain garage said his mechanic warmed up the car up until there was hot air coming out of the in-cabin vents. According to the official test procedure from the government, this is simply wrong. Section 5 of the DriveClean guide states, "The vehicle shall be at normal operating temperature prior to the start of the test. The vehicle temperature gauge, if equipped and operating, shall be checked to assess temperature."
I went back to this chain garage which screwed me. They reimbursed me the $30ish for the test after I showed them both test results, but refused to cover the cost of the $100 I needlessly spent at the other garage because of their shoddy work. This cost me time and money, and almost the entire value of my car.
The shop fails your car by not warming it up properly. Then they offer to repair it, up to a cost of $450. After the repairs, it may pass or it may not. If it doesn't, you've just lost $450, plus the cost of two tests, plus the entire value of your car. And the shop makes a profit on the repairs.
Only take your car to a garage you trust. Or, wait while the garage does the test to make sure your car is at its normal operating temperature.
Spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, Kate Jordan, had this advice:
“We would encourage and recommend any car owner who does have concerns or suspicions about the test to report that to us so we can follow up. They could call our DriveClean
office (1-888-758-2999) and they could report their concerns. Certainly there have been cases where we have done an investigation and there have been charges laid against garages in terms of doing fraudulent testing or presenting themselves as a licensed operator when in fact they were not.”
“First, we would get as much information from [the complainant] as possible. We do have investigation and enforcement officers with the Ministry and they would follow up on that tip. Before that obviously we would contact the garage or the mechanic in question. It may also involve going out and doing an inspection of the garage, and then we would try to determine if there’s enough evidence there to support an investigation. And of course we would keep the complainant in the loop.”
“For the last year, there were 78 complaints received by the Drive Clean Call Centre related to the Drive Clean Program. All of these complaints were successfully resolved and none resulted in an investigation or charges. For example, in one case the wrong vehicle identification number was entered on the drive clean test and the customer received a refund for the test and in another case, an audit of the testing equipment was done and it was determined the equipment was operating and calibrated properly.”