No more free passes for Vt. cars with check engine lights on

Published: Jul. 13, 2018 at 3:02 PM EDT
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If you're one of about 14 percent of Vermonters, your car didn't pass inspection last year because your check engine light was on. However, you might have gotten a conditional pass even though your car didn't technically meet state emissions standards. But in January, that's ending.

For auto shop owner Brian Moegelin, that can't come soon enough.

"I disagree with the whole check engine light thing," he said.

WCAX News introduced you to Moegelin this spring while investigating changes to the DMV's inspection manuals. He asked us to look into the state's emissions requirements and the conditional pass program. He wanted to know why some drivers are getting away with extra pollution.

"The reality of it is that every single time the check engine light comes on-- no matter on what vehicle-- it is producing too much emissions," said Moegelin of Brian's North End Automotive.

"Emissions from vehicles are our largest source of air pollution," said Emily Boedecker, the commissioner of the Vt. Department of Environmental Conservation.

Boedecker says emissions standards haven't changed. The reason more than 68,000 cars got a conditional pass last year was to let both inspection stations and drivers get used to the state's new digital inspection system. Data from that system showed 14 percent emissions failure rate statewide.

"If we look at states that have had this electronic system in place for a number of years, they're in the region of 3 to 4 percent," Boedecker said.

But half of those cars also weren't "ready," meaning the car's onboard computer didn't have the right diagnostic codes in it. So it's possible they weren't all big polluters.

"That's a group of cars that we really don't know what the issue was," Boedecker said.

Ready or not, the Vermont Legislature and federal government both say drivers can't keep getting a pass. But there's help for fixes that could be hundreds of dollars.

"Vermonters have access to one of the best warranties in the country," Boedecker said.

In Vermont, all emissions-related parts for your car are covered for three years and other parts up to seven or eight years. Some cars are even covered for 15 years. Which is important because inspections data showed emissions issues weren't limited to older cars.

The numbers:

-All emissions components covered for 3 years or 50,000 miles.

-High cost components covered for 7 years or 70,000 miles.

-Computer and catalytic converter covered for 8 years or 80,000 miles.

-20 percent of the cars sold in Vermont have a 15-year or 150,000-mile warranty for emissions components.

Boedecker says knowing what's covered on your car is key, because if you didn't have to pay for fixes this year, you likely will next year.

"As of January, the conditional pass will end and there will be a waiver program in place, but it will be for a smaller subset of vehicles and vehicle owners," she said.

Of course, the devil is in the details with any waiver program, like which drivers are included and what those drivers will have to pay. The DEC says it still doesn't have the details. They're working on that right now. But they hope to have them in the coming months. We will update you when we get them.

So how do you find out what's covered on your car? The DEC has a detailed list on its website with specific make, model and engines.

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