My five-hour, thirty-minute smog check

This looks familiar. This photo, from the Fresno Bee, shows the lineup of cars waiting for a similar smog check event held recently in that city.

So, what did you do with your Saturday?

I spent more than five hours of mine sitting in my car parked at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds.

Here’s the story: Air quality officials host events up and down the Valley in which drivers can show up, have their car emissions tested for free, and then — if they fail – receive vouchers for up to $500 in repairs.

The point is to help folks, especially those with lower incomes, make the repairs needed to clean up their vehicles and legally register their cars.

Before you call the DMV on me, my car is properly registered. But for the past couple of months, every time I start the engine a little poof of purple exhaust belches out the tailpipe.

Hmmm. I had a feeling I might not pass my next smog check.

So I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday (hey, that’s early for me) and drove down to the fairgrounds.

This was a gamble. These events do NOT issue actual smog certificates; they merely check your emissions. So if you fail and get the voucher for free repairs, well, congratulations. If you pass, then you’ve wasted your time. You’ll still need to pony up your $30 or $40 or whatever to get the REAL smog check done.

Fully aware of this, I pulled into the fairgrounds nearly two hours before the smog event officially began, thinking I’d be ahead of at least most of the rush.

I was wrong. Mine was car No. 346.

And so I sat in the driver’s seat, reading Dickens (yeah, I roll like that) until my turn came — at 12:30 p.m.

I finally pulled inside of the tent. They told me to put the car in neutral and rev the engine to about 3 RPMs. After a moment the guy leaned in the driver’s-side window and delivered the bad news:

“You passed,” he said. “Pretty good numbers, in fact.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, but it was true. And so I drove home to claim what was left of my weekend.

Look, the point of this post is not to complain about the program, known as “Tune In & Tune Up.” It appears to be a great opportunity for hundreds of people.

I knew the risk I was taking, and they tried to make the long wait bearable, offering free hot dogs and bottled water, and playing music. Community organizations erected booths and handed out helpful information on their programs. And I had some quality time with the strangers waiting in cars around me — one guy told me his life story, how he used to play McGruff the Crime Dog and how there’s actually a little fan inside of that big dog head to keep him ventilated. Interesting stuff.

No, I’m not complaining. I do have a couple of suggestions for organizers:

First, start processing cars earlier than 9 a.m. You’ve got folks arriving at 4:30 a.m., from what I heard. With hundreds of cars in the lot at dawn’s first light, seems like folks could be shuttled through a lot sooner if the smog checks started a couple of hours earlier.

Second, make sure folks realize they will NOT receive a formal smog certificate. Event advertisements do make note of this, but it could be clearer and should probably be emphasized by volunteers as soon as folks drive into the lot. One woman nearby waited for hours before someone broke the news that her newer-model car — almost sure to pass the test — would still have to go to a smog business to solemnize the results. And by the time she knew, her car was boxed in by other vehicles and she was unable to escape.

Bottom line, Tune In and Tune Up is probably best for folks who have already failed a formal smog test. Don’t attempt this based on a hunch. Heck, even my 15-year-old, purple-smoking car passed.

I’ll tell you what’ll make me mad, though — if, after all this, I go into the smog check station tomorrow and fail the REAL test.

If that happens, smoke will be coming from tailpipe and from my ears.

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  • Blog Author

    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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