How to Prepare Your Car for the Colorado Emissions Test

I remember the chilly anxiety building up through the base of my spine when I went to register my first vehicle. White knuckles grasping the steering wheel of the old Pontiac I had purchased myself (a proud-yet-humble addition to my minuscule life experience at the time). Was I going to make it through? Would the ageless puffs of smoke caused by a vehicle that cost less than my computer cause me to get jammed up at the inspection testing? And now the fear carries with me every time I attempt the Colorado emissions test.

Here’s the positive: the Colorado emissions test is fairly simple! It’s far, far from the dramatic questioning and testing that surrounded registering a vehicle in my home state (on the east coast). There aren’t any sudden brake tests, high-beam spamming, or sound checking. The concept is easy: if your car’s gases are within the state’s limits, you are good to go!

But, like any test, many find themselves a bit nervous when approaching the starting line (especially if you are registering a vehicle for the first time in Colorado). So, what should you do to prepare? How can you make sure your car is ready for the Colorado emissions test?

Let’s get into it.

What and Why Is the Emissions Test?

First, let’s break down what exactly the test is and why it exists. A brief history lesson, if you will.

According to the Colorado Legislative Council, the Colorado General Assembly created the Automobile Inspection and Readjustment Program in 1980 with the goal to achieve better ozone results, reduce vehicle emissions, and meet federal air quality standards.

As stated: the test observes the amount of gases your car transmits into the air when operating. If above the state limits, your car will not pass the test. With this, Colorado is attempting to reduce its creation of greenhouse gases, saving the planet. Or reducing our harm to the planet, at least.

The current iteration of the emissions inspection program in Colorado began in 1995. With the ever-changing technology in motor vehicles comes the ever-changing versions of the law. Regardless, the mission still stands strong.

Newer Cars Don’t Have to Do It

Just pulled a brand new whip off the lot? You are in luck! You don’t have to spend your time waiting at the Colorado emissions test line.

New gas-powered vehicles are exempt from emissions testing requirements for the first seven model years. Diesel vehicles get four model years of exemption. All-electric vehicles are exempt from emissions testing forever.

Just another reason to buy an electric car, I suppose.

Don’t Forget Your Payment

Another quick note before we get into full preparation: The Colorado emissions test does cost money. Any vehicle made after 1982 and seven years from the current date has to pay $25 for the test. Any car older than 1982 must pay $15.

Ultimately, you need the paperwork proving that your vehicle passed the test before getting it registered at the DMV. Do not wait the entire day at the DMV just to be told you don’t have the right paperwork for registration. Make sure to get tested first.

This is totally not speaking from experience.

Furthermore, you do not need any paperwork to get the test done. Don’t fret if you’ve yet to receive your registration or leave your bill of sale at home. You just need the car!

1. Handle Your Check Engine Light First

Here’s the most important tip regarding passing the Colorado emissions test. You have to actually be able to pass the test.

We can repeat the rhetoric of preparation all we want, but if your car is producing too many greenhouse gases, you aren’t going to pass. Duh, right? While there may be ways to cheat the test, we recommend against them. The point of the test is well at heart. The point of the test is to better our state and world. It wasn’t created to steal your money or cause you pain (it’s extremely cheap).

Furthermore, you will immediately fail if you have any check engine lights on in your vehicle. This also includes maintenance required lights (for any Toyota drivers out there). Even if it has nothing to do with emissions-based issues, it still needs to be handled.

You can always stop by the nearest auto parts store and borrow their scanner to see what the check engine light is signifying.

2. Run Your Vehicle First

Overall, you are more likely to pass the test if your vehicle has been running for some time before entering the testing area. When an engine is first started, it tends to puff out worse pollution. Until it’s at normal running temperature, its emissions are higher. Therefore, let the car warm up before taking it to the testing line (especially if it is older).

Unless you live directly next to a testing center, warming up shouldn’t be much of an issue. Your vehicle should be warmed up by the time it gets there.

If your car is older, avoid running the AC, heat, or defrost before testing. This could potentially shake up some not-so-friendly emissions, failing you on the spot. It’s rare, sure, but it may be that extra push to get your older car through.

3. Don’t Top Off Gas

Excess gas has nowhere to expand when heated, causing it to saturate parts of the emissions control system. When the car runs and increases heat, this gas can be burned off, causing significantly higher emissions. Having excess gas around your gas cap can also result in immediate failure.

Do not fill up on gas until after the emissions test. While it might not guarantee a failure, there is no reason to take a chance and waste your time.

Also, make sure your gas cap is on as tightly as possible. A loose cap may cause fuel to leak. It can also cause a harmless-but-failing check engine light if not screwed on correctly.

4. Make Sure Your Tires and Brakes Are Great

Here’s an often-overlooked tip regarding the Colorado emissions test: your brakes and tires can affect your results.

When you pull up to the emissions testing site, you are asked to park on top of a dynamometer. This device is used to measure the torque of your vehicle’s engine. Poor brakes, uneven tires, or low-pressure tires can cause problems with the testing equipment, causing your vehicle to produce a less-than-passable result.

You can easily fail by not having your tires and brakes in check. Therefore, make sure your tire pressure is up to par, and your brakes are satisfactory before hitting up the testing site.

If you have a front-wheel-drive vehicle, poor alignment can also cause problems with the dynamometer. This would have to be a fairly significant issue, though.

5. Have No Fear

In the aforementioned anecdote that opened the article, I noted how stressful tests can be. Regardless of the subject, no one wants to fail a test. Even an emissions test can cause a level of anxiety when approaching the stand. Will you be embarrassed in front of all the technicians? Will you not know what you are supposed to do?

Oh no!

Ultimately, the emissions test is a harmless and simple situation. The tester will walk you through everything. Other than pulling up, there’s not much you have to do.

If your vehicle is in good shape and hasn’t been tampered with, you shouldn’t have much problem passing. If you do fail, it’s usually an issue that can be handled efficiently. There is no need to worry.

You got this!