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Air Quality Concerns May Mean More Work for Vehicle Emissions Technicians

Dirty air has at least one upside. If you're a vehicle emissions technician, dirty air means lots of work.

It's no secret that vehicles are major polluters. Vehicle exhaust contains chemicals and particles that contribute to smog. Besides being unpleasant, smog can be irritating and even dangerous for those with respiratory ailments.

"The commonly accepted figure is that one seriously polluting car puts out as much emissions as 20 well-maintained cars," says Charlie Ross. He's with a testing program called Drive Clean.

Many states have programs aimed at reducing pollution from vehicles. These programs test the dirtiness of a vehicle's exhaust.

If limits are exceeded, the owner must have the vehicle repaired. If the owner lives within the testing area and the car is over a specified age (such as three years), emissions testing is mandatory.

Some programs are statewide. Many just concentrate on the dirtiest areas. For example, in Colorado, emissions testing is only done in the Denver area. In Oregon, testing is done in Portland but not in Salem.

More than 30 states have emissions testing programs. In Canada, testing is not as widespread.

"There are only two provinces with legislated emissions testing, and that's British Columbia and Ontario," says Jennifer Steeves. She's with the Canadian Automotive Repair and Service Council.

"They've said, 'These are the levels that are allowed in a vehicle emission,'" Steeves explains, "and if [the vehicle] doesn't meet them, then there are certain repairs that need to be made."

In British Columbia, testing is done in the Vancouver area. The program is called AirCare. It started in 1992. Since then, more than 8.5 million vehicle inspections have been completed. And each year, more than 100,000 vehicles are found to be excessively dirty.

Ontario's Drive Clean program began in 1999. So far, 4.2 million vehicles have been tested. The program is based in southern Ontario and includes the area between Toronto and Ottawa.

Generally, a vehicle emissions technician is a mechanic (automotive service technician) who has completed an emissions training program. The technician diagnoses the problems and makes the necessary repairs.

In Canada, the AirCare and Drive Clean programs have contracts with private companies to provide emissions training. The training is often conducted at community colleges.

The certification program for Drive Clean takes two days. It's called the Repair Technician Orientation Certification. A written test must be passed at the end. The mechanic's employer usually covers the cost of the program.

Emissions testing and repairs in Ontario are done by independent garages. Garages that do the testing are required to have certified inspectors. An inspector does not necessarily have to be a licensed mechanic.

The inspector learns how to safely put the vehicle on the dynamometer, which is like a treadmill. It lets the car "drive" at a fixed speed while the emission levels are tested. A probe is placed in the tailpipe. The probe is connected to a gas analyzer and computer.

In the U.S., "vehicle emissions technician" is a title also used for some inspectors. For example, in Oregon, the people who test emission levels are called vehicle emissions technicians. They don't have to be licensed mechanics.

"There aren't really too many qualifications," says Frank Reed. He worked with Oregon's vehicle inspection program until fall 2002. "What you have to do is go through a two-week course that's put on through the vehicle inspection program.

"You don't have to have any previous experience," Reed adds. "We have everything from people straight out of high school all the way up to retired people looking to make a little more money."

Following the training, inspectors are assigned to one of the state's eight testing stations. Currently, Oregon has 131 inspectors. They earn a starting salary of $1,665 to $2,353 per month.

Donna Million-Birch manages a garage. She says mechanics who have received their emissions certification often don't get paid more than other mechanics.

"Just because my guys were tested in emissions testing doesn't mean that their hourly rate went up, necessarily," she says. "Not at this location, because we pay for their schooling. Those courses cost a lot of money."

Connecticut has a 60-hour training program called EDGE -- Emission Diagnostic Graduate Education. It costs $600 and is offered through colleges and private schools.

"It's primarily for technicians that have been in the field for a while," says Walter Bertotti. He's head of technician training with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Connecticut. "We're looking for at least five years' experience."

Right now, Connecticut's testing program is in hiatus. It's going to a completely decentralized system. That means all testing will be done at independent garages. By the end of July 2002, the state had 25 stations with a total of 92 lanes. The decentralized program will have 300 stations.

So far, 1,800 technicians have been certified. There is a separate certification for inspectors. It involves 30 hours of training.

For those who do enter the field, it's not enough to know your way around a car. Those cars have owners, and you have to work well with them, too.

"Customer service is a big part of it," says Cleve Brooks. He is a compensation manager with the human resources department for the State of Oregon. "So if you hate dealing with the public, this is not for you."

As pollution increases in some states and provinces, more areas might require emissions testing. That could lead to jobs. On the other hand, newer vehicles are cleaner than their gas-guzzling predecessors.

"There may be a change in the business when you're no longer dealing with old 1980s automobiles," says Ross.

"We've got this real mix in the fleet right now. We've got low-emission vehicles coming on the market. At the same time, we've got very old '80s cars that are far from low emissions. They may be the victims of poor maintenance or they are just plain wearing out."

Brooks says there will probably be more work for emissions technicians. "People are driving more, and the number of cars is going up," he says. "Obviously, as the number of cars goes up, more testing will need to be done."


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