MAX Update No. 77: MAX Gets Smogged

Reader Contribution by Staff
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There have been a few questions about MAX’s legality among the Comments on these updates. Now I don’t think of myself as a scofflaw, and I sure don’t think rules are meant to be broken, but I often let the reason for the rule guide my interpretation of the rule.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency, if you’re new here) has some very strong words regarding tampering with vehicles and their engines, and there are plenty of good reasons to prohibit tampering, regardless of the intent of the tamperer. However, there are some inconsistencies in enforcement; some are based on getting the most bang for the enforcement buck, and some appear to be the result of just plain good sense. I have had many conversations with EPA engineers and execs over these last few decades…

Well yeah, I was one of the home brewed alcohol fuel folks back when Mother Earth News was first spreading the word about alternative fuels, back in the late ’70s, and here’s a big surprise: the EPA did not recognize ethanol as a motor fuel back then. Everybody who was running ethanol blends back in The Day was violating the Clean Air Act; we were all a bunch of tamperers, violating the letter of a law that had gone into effect in 1963, when gasoline was 29 cents a gallon and we exported more gallons than we imported.

I expect every EPA official I talked with back then has retired, so if I may grossly paraphrase the off-the-record consensus of the era, it was: yeah, technically you’re in violation, but we have better things to do than throw the book at a handful of conservationists who are doing now what we’ll all be doing in the future, so keep up the good work and maybe we’ll all learn something.

Half a lifetime later, I’m playing canary-in-the-coal-mine again, with an unconventional car with an unconventional engine burning an unconventional fuel — straight vegetable oil. As with ethanol 30 years ago, the EPA does not recognize straight vegetable oil as a motor fuel today (And they only got around the legal problem of biodiesel fuel by redefining diesel fuel as petroleum or vegetable based. There’s not much sulfur in vegetable oil; that’s a plus.), yet people have been converting their diesel cars and trucks (and selling conversion kits, and writing books on how to do the conversion yourself) for years and I don’t think any of those people have been carted off in handcuffs.

Part of the issue is it costs several kajillion dollars to get EPA approval for an engine or a fuel…or did until recently. On April 8, 2011, CleanAlternative Fuel Vehicle and Engine Conversions; Final Rule hit the Federal Register. Make yourself a big pot of coffee before you read it, it’s 45,000 words long and there are no pictures. There’s an easy to read summary at EPA Announces Final Rulemaking for Clean Alternative Fuel Vehicleand Engine Conversions but the point is, the EPA is making an effort to make it easier to demonstrate (and market) adaptations that reduce petroleum consumption, provided they do not increase harmful emissions.

Armed with this knowledge, I decided to get a baseline exhaust emissions reading for MAX, and you’ll be pleased to see that if MAX was a modern production car (which it isn’t) with an EPA certified automobile engine (which it hasn’t) it would pass the Oregon DEQ metropolitan vehicle emissions test (which it needn’t) with flying colors.

An interesting bureaucratic challenge arose, and it’s why it took me about three months to get smogged: while the DMV has heard every story imaginable why this or that person’s car should be exempt from smog testing, I was apparently the first guy with a legitimate exemption that wanted to get a smog test anyway. I went through several, “I’m sorry, it can’t be done” conversations before I found someone willing to find a solution — I could come in early, before the DEQ Vehicle Testing Station opened for business, and we could run it as a training exercise.

So in I snuck, in the wee hours of the morning. The probe went up the tailpipe, and out came the results: no detectable smoke, no unusual or excessive noise, no detectable carbon monoxide (CO), and a CO2 reading of 2.2 out of an allowable 6 for CO and CO2 combined. Not a hugely sophisticated test, but good enough for anybody else, anywhere in Oregon, so I guess I can sleep nights now, no longer wracked with guilt.

Next step is to see if I can get MAX smogged in California.

Photos by Jack McCornack