Motorcycle Emissions Regs Examined

February 15, 2007
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

Whenever the word restriction comes out in the context of motorcycles, ears prick up and the opinion factor runs high. Motorcycle exhaust systems are the focal point of restrictions in two controversial areas: sound and emissions. While the issues are related – with loud exhausts a subject worthy of an article all its own – in this story we will examine the quieter issue of pollution emissions regulations and the way it is changing the motorcycle industry.

Restrictions to exhaust emissions were brought to the forefront last year due to confusion regarding new EPA regulations, which went into effect for the 2006 model year – the first revision to nation-wide motorcycle emissions requirements in more than 25 years.

Rumors have run rampant about what riders and builders can and can’t do to their own motorcycles in this era of new regulation. In recent months we have even seen the long arm of the law bring down the enforcement hammer on celebrity bike builder Jesse James, who violated the stringent emissions requirements of California. Since it is a topic with industry-wide implications, it is our intent to examine the issue and help sort out rumor from fact.

The Current Regulations Explained

Astute readers have noticed that engine and exhaust systems on new street models have been touted as EPA and/or Euro III compliant. These labels refer to new emission regulations imposed by the United States and European Union. In an effort to mandate cleaner-burning motorcycles, the government regulations limit three harmful byproducts of internal combustion motors: hydrocarbons (HC), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and carbon monoxide (CO).

U.S. regulations were developed by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which is tasked with creating nation-wide pollution standards. State governments are then obliged to enforce the EPA minimums, and where these baseline federal standards are not met the agency has the authority to step in and begin enforcement. On the opposite extreme, States can opt to set minimum levels that exceed the federal minimums – the most notable example of this being California, but more on that later.

In the late ’70s the EPA enacted the first federal emissions requirements for on-highway motorcycles, with compliance required for the 1980 model year. These initial regulations remained unchanged until December of 2003, when the EPA announced its plan to establish new requirements modeled after those implemented by America’s most populous state – California.

The Golden State’s new restrictions were set up in a two-tiered phase, with the first wave of limits going into effect in 2004 and a second wave kicking in for 2008. The federal EPA mimics California’s standards but two years behind, with Tier 1 beginning in 2006 and Tier 2 taking effect in 2010. The hard numbers equate to Tier 1 limits of a combined 1.4 g/km of HC and NOx with 12 g/km of CO. Tier 2 raises the bar to 0.8 g/km of HC+NOx with the same 12 g/km of CO.

These new U.S. standards mirror toughened requirements in the European Union, which has also employed a tiered phase-in known as Euro II and Euro III. A direct numeric comparison between the EPA and EU standards is problematic because the two organizations use different testing cycles to collect emissions output (although the EPA has expressed interest in one day adopting the new World Motorcycle Test Cycle, which is used by the latest EU regulations).

EPA documentation describes the new Euro III standards for HC and NOx emissions as “roughly comparable to and perhaps somewhat more stringent” than the corresponding EPA Tier 2 standards of 2010. The most notable difference between the EU and U.S. standards being the giant gulf in CO restrictions, with the EPA not budging from its original 1980 threshold of 12.0 g/km, while Euro III imposes a far more ambitious 2.0 g/km limit. The discrepancy is not as dramatic as it sounds, as typical U.S. motorcycles already far below the 12.0 marker by default due to the comparable HC+NOx restrictions.

On-Highway Motorcycle Emission Standards for EPA and EU 
HC (g/km) NOx (g/km) CO (g/km)
1980 EPA Limits 5.0 NA 12.0
2006 – Tier 1 1.4 (HC+NOX) 12.0
2010 – Tier 2 0.8 (HC+NOX) 12.0
Euro II (2004) 1.0 0.3 5.5
Euro III (2007) 0.3 0.15 2.0

Distilling the EPA’s On-highway restrictions down to their basic levels, the original 1980 laws eliminated on-highway two-strokes. The current two-tiered upgrades will force most motorcycles into the catalytic converter era.

Large-volume manufacturers (LVM) were not caught off-guard by these regulations and have already responded to the new requirements. While the EPA rules have remained static since the original 1980 requirement, California’s regulations have seen periodic upgrades. Most manufacturers were already making the majority of U.S. models compliant with the stricter California regulations, as they were unwilling to neglect the nation’s biggest market.

With the LVMs unaffected, the impact these new regulations have on the average consumer, who purchases a bike and rolls it off the showroom floor unchanged, are minimal.

The real uproar in the restrictions, which were finalized and explained in January of 2004, came when the EPA outlined special exceptions to the new rules. These exceptions included a hardship provision for small-volume manufacturers (SVM) and special exemptions altogether for “Custom Motorcycles” and “Motorcycle Kits.”

SVM (Small-Volume Manufacturers)

The new burdens of the EPA restrictions were deemed a potential industry killer for the SVMs when they were revealed in 2004. Defined by the EPA as a company which produces less than 3000 machines per year and employs less than 500 people internationally, the concern was the smaller, independent SVMs would not have the funds to go through the technical and expensive testing and certification process for their custom designs.

The certification process takes a considerable amount of time and money. In order for a bike to pass muster, it must undergo testing at an EPA-approved laboratory, like TET Emissions of Fort Worth, Texas. TET’s very existence is a testament to the hardship emissions testing can place on a smaller manufacturer, as the lab was created by American IronHorse founder Bill Rucker in 1996 after he was quoted testing fees of between $50,000-$100,000.

Finding the new regulations as confusing as much of the riding public, we phoned Rucker, figuring if anyone could set us straight it would be him. He was very courteous with his time and broke down the basic EPA-certification process. Rucker’s lab can perform a full emission test program for $25,000 or less. The breakdown includes about $20,000 for a series of four mandatory operational tests, which can tally up to 15,000 kilometers (9300 miles). The other five grand goes towards all the paperwork and getting your EPA certification. After testing the new model, it costs $5000 to renew the certification every year after.

Even at Rucker’s improved rates, the test is an obvious hardship for the typical SVM. There was a reprieve for SVMs, however, when on July 25th, 2006 the EPA announced in an explanatory letter a new Certification Procedure for Highway Motorcycle Engines. The letter outlined a process by which SVMs would be able to bypass the costly testing procedure by utilizing an EPA-certified engine from one of the major aftermarket engine manufacturers like S&S or TP Engineering.

S&S became the first engine manufacturer to garner EPA-approved status on January 11th, 2007 for its 96, 113, and 124 cubic-inch V-Twins. Now SVMs will be even more inclined than ever to source their custom powerplants from S&S’s EPA-approved motors.

Aside from the engine certification provision, SVMs also get two other breaks under the EPA rules: an extension until 2008 to meet Tier 1 requirements and, for now, an exemption altogether from the more stringent Tier 2 (although it is possible that the Tier 2 compliance may be required at some point in the future).

So, SVMs which utilize the certified powerplants are in the clear, provided they follow EPA guidelines regarding installation requirements. Provisions of installation include not exceeding the engine manufacturer’s specs for vehicle weight, gearing, induction, and exhaust back pressure. A permanent label must also be affixed to the bike’s frame, which states the following phrase: “See engine owner’s manual for information regarding emissions warranty, maintenance instructions, and tampering prohibitions.”

In other words, there is to be no tampering, and a label is required to spell it out. Also, the SVMs must pass that information on to prospective customers.

Exceptions to the Rules – Custom Motorcycles and Motorcycle Kits

In the long and dry read which is the EPA’s Control of Emissions From Highway Motorcycles, the most misunderstood and eyebrow-raising passages regard special exceptions for “Custom Motorcycles” and “Motorcycle Kits.” The latter of these aroused the most confusion and ire because bike owners would be limited to only one Kit Bike in their lifetime. This provision led to much speculation and rumor that riders could only own one custom bike in their lifetime.

The 2004 EPA rules specify that riders can own a bike, built from parts by themselves or others, which is exempt from EPA emissions requirements. What defines the machine a Kit Bike, is that the owner can legally ride the non-emissions-compliant machine as much as they want. The catch, of course, being every rider is entitled to just the one Kit Bike in their lifetime.

If one unrestricted Kit Bike isn’t enough, a rider can own more, but their ability to ride these additional machines is restricted. This second classification of exempt machines are termed “Custom Motorcycles.” While an individual can own multiple custom motorcycles, these machines must be labeled as such and can only be ridden to and from bike shows, with the understanding that these are in essence collector items which aren’t meant for everyday road use. A permanent reminder of which is attached to the frame in the form of a required label stating: “This motorcycle is exempt from EPA emissions requirements. Its use on public roads is limited pursuant to CFR 86.497-78(c).” These emissions-exempt custom motorcycles can be built and sold by individuals in a quantity of no more than 24 per year.

What’s Legal?

If all this regulation chafes at the neck, fear not, for the perceived oppression isn’t as bad as it seems. Or at least is nothing new, because the “kit-bike” and “custom-motorcycle” provisions are in fact relaxations of the standing 25-year-old laws.

That’s right, it turns out that while current and upcoming emissions requirements are more stringent than their 1980 forbear, the exceptions for “Custom Motorcycles” and “Motorcycle Kits” were just that, exceptions. One life-time Kit Bike and multiple Custom Motorcycles exempt from EPA emissions are more than those under the standing 1980 regulations, which permitted zero, zilch, nada, none whatsoever.

The average custom motorcycle consumer, however, need not worry about using that literal once-in-a-lifetime Kit Bike exemption. The vast majority of SVMs already source powerplants from the major engine manus, like S&S, TP Performance, or one of the others who are in the process of seeking EPA approval (don’t worry about this year, though – remember, SVMs have until 2008 for Tier 1 compliance).

Still angry and want something to gripe about? Well, how about this: It is still explicitly illegal to modify a motorcycle in a way that makes it become non-compliant with EPA emissions requirements, and it has been since 1980. It’s right there in the Clean Air Act itself; if you want to read it with your own eyes check out section 203(a). The gist is it is illegal to tamper with the motorcycle in any way that makes it non-compliant with emissions standards.

What is tampering you might ask? Well, like any law, the definition is open to interpretation. Doomsday scenarios by some envision tampering to include the seeming unrelated task of putting on the wrong sized tires. Other more optimistic interpretations limit tampering to the direct removal or disabling of emission regulation components, like catalytic converters and O2 sensors.

An explanatory letter ( from the AMA about the previous “Motorcycle Kits” and “Custom Motorcycle” terms, helped sooth some of the rider furor, but the furor itself displayed a common misunderstanding regarding the legality of modifying motorcycles in the first place.

Lack of enforcement has led riders to assume the legality of what are in essence illegal actions. The confusion was aroused by the fact that the enforcement has been so lax (the EPA leaves the onus for enforcement upon state government) that some modified bikes are non-compliant with the 1980 standards. In essence, while the public interpreted the new rules as being more of a burden, they were the opposite. The fact that they hadn’t been enforced to any significant degree on a state or federal level was beside the point.

Lack of enforcement for 25-plus years, however, does not mean that real, substantial enforcement isn’t just around the corner. Will there be an eventual crackdown? If so, the trend will most likely generate out of the clean air catalyst of California, and in that regard things don’t look good for companies who can’t meet the minimums.

The Real Exception to the Rule – California

California has been the most militant about creating and enforcing clean air regulations, a task which falls under the umbrella of the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Aside from effecting the current tiered phase-in two years before the EPA, California goes above and beyond by issuing regulations on evaporative emissions. Because it plays by a different and tougher set of rules, on top of 49-state EPA certification, manufacturers have to receive similar CARB certification, which is called an executive order.

The problem for SVMs in California is the lack of an engine certification program similar to the EPA’s. This forces SVMs to get the full certification testing in order to do business in the state without suffering the wrath of CARB enforcement. There is hope, however, that CARB will implement an engine certification program in the future.

“There’s been a lot of talk about CARB adopting the EPA program,” said Rucker during the course of our conversation, “but there’s been nothing that’s solidified yet.”

CARB has proven it is not shy about laying down the law on those who run afoul, when it sees fit. The most recent enforcement came down on high-profile custom builder Jesse James, who got slammed with a $271,250 fine for 50 non-compliant bikes built between 1998 and 2005. The kicker is that the giant fine is a settlement from a higher original fee, which James claims was in the area of $22,000 per bike.

The heavy fine was imposed even though James offered to rectify the situation by bringing the bikes back into his West Coast Choppers shop and make them legal. CARB said no dice to the offer. This is striking, since James can be looked upon as sympathetic good-guy to the clean-air cause, having started an environmental-friendly burger joint dubbed Cisco Burgers with his Hollywood wife, Sandra Bullock. James has even created a hydrogen-powered land-speed racing car.

Lest you think the smaller shops are the lone targets, CARB has dropped its regulatory hammer down on the large-volume manus as well. Last year Victory had to shell out $18,000 for non-compliant aftermarket exhausts, and various Golden State Yamaha dealers were fined a total of $557,500 for importing and selling non-California-certified models.

The Future

The greatest aid on the side of individual riders, however, is that most states have bigger fish to fry than cracking down on owners. But, again, like the SVMs and bike shops in California, lack of enforcement in the past does not mean heavier enforcement isn’t around the corner.

Overall, riders can still modify their bike in a number of legal ways, as long as they can refrain from activity that would be considered “tampering.” On an individual level, riders might want to keep that stock exhaust around, because the notion of some kind of emissions requirement for registration renewal isn’t that unrealistic. A potential test may be as basic as someone checking to make sure the required EPA stamp of approval is intact. For some modified bikes, an enforcement officer would be able to write up a fine with just a casual glance at the pipe or lack thereof.

The new regulations and stepped-up enforcement figure to hit the independent aftermarket/custom folks hardest. For aftermarket components like exhausts, the testing procedure is less onerous, because all the aftermarket manufacturer has to prove is that it does not increase the emissions output from the standing OEM specs. To verify this the aftermarket unit must still undergo laboratory evaluation, but the procedure includes just one operational test cycle instead of the four required for a regular bike certification.

The little guys had better make sure they stand on the right side of the law, however, because the six-figure fines lobbied against an established name like James’ West Coast Choppers would put a smaller, less well-known business under for good.

The problem is, many shops are either unaware of the new regs or don’t think they’ll be targeted. Perhaps one reason why CARB chose to target a high-profile celebrity builder like James in the first place.

On top of ignorance, maybe the greatest problem is just plain confusion, which was the standing theme surrounding the issue during the course of our research. An assertion confirmed by Rucker, who acknowledged receiving around two to three calls per week from affected folks in the industry.

“Sometimes they’re confused about the regs, sometimes confusion about what they have to do, what they don’t have to do,” said Rucker. “There tends to be a lot of misinformation floating around.”

The operative phrase which comes to mind is, Ignorantia Legis Non Excusat, which is just a fancy legal (i.e. Latin) way of saying ignorance of the law is no excuse. Based on the draconian fines already imposed, not many businesses can afford either ignorance or confusion. When Rucker was asked if he expected business at the already busy TET Emissions to pick up in conjunction with stepped up enforcement, his response was quick.

“I definitely anticipate that, I sure do.”

It’s a situation worth monitoring, and we’ll try to keep you apprised of new developments. As far as a threat to motorcycling in general, however, the biggest problem isn’t the particulates polluting the atmosphere but obnoxious sound waves irritating the non-riding and riding public alike. For an examination of the controversial sound-emissions issue, stay tuned.