Home > EDITORIAL > Columnists > Motorhead Memo: Sound off

Motorhead Memo: Sound off

By Kip Woodring


“The best way to beat a system is to work within the system and learn its weaknesses.”

That is paraphrasing a remark I read in some spy novel years ago, but in a curious way it makes for an appropriate preamble to a discussion of the old/new labeling law intended to prevent tampering with motorcycle exhausts.

Those who subscribe to the letter of emissions control and noise abatement laws should probably just leave well enough alone, ride their spankin’ new 2013 whatever and turn the page. The rest might want to keep reading and remember: what follows ain’t legal advice—just logic.

You might recall the basics of Federal tampering violations as not messing with catalytic converters or oxygen sensors, never re-mapping an ECM for air/fuel ratios richer than 14.6:1 below 3000 rpm, and never running an exhaust system without a (80db) noise compliance stamp. Well, to invoke my enduringly popular Colin Chapman quote, “Rules are for the interpretation of wise men… and the obedience of fools!” I believe we’ve all been pretty well fooled for quite some time, so it’s high time we got wise, don’t you think?

Prohibition problems
When you compare the latest EPA regulations and the infamous 18th Amendment to the Constitution, there’s quite a family resemblance. Prohibition in the ’20s tended to make criminals out of (otherwise) law-abiding citizens. A particularly appalling state of affairs when you note the fact that prohibition never prohibited the actual use of adult beverages, only their availability. It’s much the same thing with exhaust systems, as we’ll see. I mean the wording of the law, carefully read, makes no mention whatsoever of prohibiting the use of non-stamped/aftermarket exhaust—only the manufacture and installation of them before the sale. In fact, expanding on that careful reading leads to many useful tidbits of information about just how badly crafted this sort of law, both Federal EPA and local California (among others), really can be. For instance:

The EPA “label match-up” program—is no match-up program! The match-up concept is the legislative intent behind Sub-chapter G of CFR Title 40, which took its current form in 1976 as a result of the Federal Noise Control Act of 1972. The idea was to eventually require muffler labeling on automobiles and trucks, as well as motorcycles, and to eventually update Title 40 (which is a regulation governing manufacturing only) to make it suitable for adoption into local law. To quote: “In the second phase, which will precede the effective date of the national emission regulation, the EPA will develop model legislation to implement the label match-up scheme and anti-tampering controls against new (regulated) vehicles.

Motorhead Memo: Sound off

Some points to ponder: A.) You need to go online and read for yourself—California SB435 and all of part 205 of EPA Title 40. B.) Understand that motorcycles are scapegoats for pollution (power plants and factories are the bad guys) and an easy target for noise violations, though trash trucks and city buses are louder! C.) Get used to the idea that any pipe you can stick a broom handle through is more trouble than it’s worth. D.) Realize even race bikes are limited to 99 decibels (SAE J2825) by AMA regulations. E.) Call the manufacturer of your favorite aftermarket exhaust and ask them if they have noise tested… at all. Then encourage them to make exhausts along the lines of the Corvette/Buell concept or this one.

“In the development of all model legislation (and particularly the label ‘match-up’ and anti-tampering provisions) the EPA will seek extensive review by state and local noise control personnel, police and legal officials and the industry. If there are difficult points, it may be necessary to field test some of the model laws prior to publication for voluntary adoption by interested states and cities.” Notice the wording. It never happened.

The Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) was dismantled in 1981, long before those intentions could be carried out (along with many others) leaving Title 40 only partially implemented and, effectively, abandoned! Since Congress (which even repealed Prohibition eventually) has never repealed (nor repaired) the Noise Control Act, the EPA continues to have a statutory responsibility to implement it. Three decades following the loss of ONAC, the EPA has done nothing with Part 205.

Laws are enforced on their word and on interpretation of their word. If that word has failed to conform to that intent, it is the job of lawmakers and regulators to amend the laws accordingly. The labels were intended to be used as controls against tampering. The EPA failed to follow through on model legislation and review by state and local authorities, which were also key parts of the legislative intent. Therefore, federal regulations as they exist now are an incomplete work! Since federal law is supposed to be enforced at state and local levels, it only gets worse…

Title 40 Part 205 requires manufacturers to make the EPA labels in “block letters and numerals, which shall be of a color that contrasts with the background of the label” and “welded, riveted, or otherwise permanently attached in a readily visible position.” Yet, a recent (2009) survey of new, unmodified motorcycles on showroom floors confirmed that almost no motorcycle exhaust systems complied to the color contrast requirement—the “labels” being nothing more than a shallow stamping into the metal. Many of the motorcycles’ labels were difficult to locate and read, and a few models’ labels were literally impossible to inspect without partial disassembly of the motorcycles. Labels often faced down toward the ground or toward wheels, faced into heat shields, body panels, saddlebags or storage compartments, and/or were obscured by factory paint or powder coating.

When Part 205 was written, motorcycles were very different from what they are today. Mufflers were simple chromed or black metal cans that always hung to the side of a motorcycle in plain view. Nowadays they can be under the engine, under the seat or buried inside frame components. They can be chromed or painted, powder-coated, polished, etc. The law certainly has not kept up with changes in technology, largely because the so-called “field provisions” for exhaust labeling were never tested in the first place! Attempts to locate these labels on idling or recently shut-off motorcycles puts law enforcement officers at risk of burn injuries from hot exhaust systems and, on newer motorcycles, even hotter catalytic converters.

Put another way… would your local police (or you for that matter) necessarily have a clue where to look for your exhaust label? Don’t think so, and there’s no law that says you need to know, either.

Mattress tags and muffler labels… same-same!
The Feds have mandated for years that there be permanent labels on friggin’ mattresses! You know, the ones that say, “Do not remove under penalty of law.” Who do you think that statement is directed towards? Well, here’s a hint… it is not the end user… you! The exact same rules apply to motorcycle mufflers and exhausts, for the exact same reasons, according to the exact wording of the federal law! Manufacturers must install them, but, the letter of the law does not prohibit the end user or even licensed mechanics from removing, tampering with or obscuring the EPA labels. There are no federal or state laws anywhere in the United States requiring the presence or maintenance of the EPA exhaust label on a motorcycle after sale. And that is only regarding the muffler labels… no law or regulation has ever existed, which compelled consumers to maintain the “matching” labels placed on motorcycle frames. By law the only required markings, which may not be defaced or obscured, are the VIN codes.

Warning! Read between the lines
Part 205 expressly allows the motorcycle owner to make any exhaust system modifications that do not result in sound output in excess of that permitted by Part 205. Part 205 explicitly excludes from the definition of tampering and thus from their prohibitions, any such modifications. Since the label is cosmetic and is not a noise-mitigating element of the exhaust system, tampering with that label is not prohibited. It is perfectly legal to operate a motorcycle with a muffler that does not have an EPA label… just not a damned noisy one! The 80-decibel noise limit still applies… or does it?

Federal EPA law requires the owner’s manuals of motorcycles manufactured after 1982 to incorporate the following warning: “Tampering with Noise Control System Prohibited. Federal law prohibits the following acts or the causing thereof: (1) the removal or rendering inoperative by any person other than for purposes of maintenance, repairs, or replacement of any device or element of design incorporated into any new vehicle for the purpose of noise control prior to its sale or delivery to the ultimate purchaser or while it is in use, or (2) the use of the vehicle after such device or element of design has been removed or rendered inoperative by any person. Among those acts presumed to constitute tampering are the acts listed below: removing or puncturing the muffler, baffles, header pipes, screen type spark arrester (if equipped) or any other component which conducts exhaust gases; replacing the exhaust system or muffler with a system or muffler not marked with the same model specific code as the code listed on the Motorcycle Noise Emission Control Information label, and certified to appropriate EPA noise standards; removing or puncturing the air cleaner case, air cleaner cover, baffles, or any other component which conducts intake air.”

Sounds ominous—but—owner’s manuals are not legally binding documents, nor can they be interpreted as a shrink-wrap agreement. And federal EPA law actually falls short of prohibiting the installation of exhaust systems that are not compliant with Part 205. Federal EPA statutes prohibit only the manufacture of exhaust systems that are either not correctly labeled or fail to perform in accordance with their labeling. Here’s the rub: there are two standards for noise, the federal one (SAE J331a), which puts the limit at 80 decibels, and the one the exhaust manufacturers use (SAE J2825) where the limit is something like 96 decibels… yet compliance with either measurement means they are not excessively loud. The SuperTrapp/Screamin’ Eagle slip-on mufflers for Touring models comply with both standards, yet the Screamin’ Eagle muffs have the EPA stamp and the versions sold by SuperTrapp do not. WTF?

Humans are born with a fixed quantity of specialized nerve cells that convert vibrations in the ear into the sounds our brains “hear.” They do not regenerate, which is why age, exposure to loud noises and concussive “incidents” can lead to hearing impairment and/or ultimate deafness. As frail as they are, these cells are the reason the human ear is so sophisticated in its ability to detect and interpret nuanced qualities and quantities of sounds. Sound measurement devices, such as decibel meters, are almost the opposite, in that they can be infinitely repaired and rebuilt, yet cannot tell whether a sound registers as pleasant or annoying. To a machine, sound is simply a level or volume. The two different SAE standards for noise measurement by these machines are undertaken via two different methodologies—one essentially static and the other dynamic—from different distances. As different as they are, both are good guidelines to protect sensitive human hearing. Yet humans would “hear” results of these tests in ways that the machines cannot. There is, in fact, a huge difference between pleasant tones and painful volumes. Something that sounds good like, say the Mustang in McQueen’s classic film Bullitt, wouldn’t be near as much fun to listen to if the TV surround sound was turned up to nosebleed levels… y’know? The other thing that isn’t often addressed when the tone/volume discussion comes up is just how differently some exhausts behave acoustically at speeds and rpm beyond the narrow strictures of the tests. (And manufacturers have been able to tune and tweak this behavior for decades.) Fact is, some just give more of the same—tone and volume—while others change both… significantly; a point not to be underappreciated when it comes to pipe selection because it means a legal exhaust might just sound the business when it gets down to doin’ business! Yet, all remains a conundrum to be sure. Especially if the police officer listening to your exhaust (or your neighbors for that matter) hears it differently than you do.

Sound off and pipe down
Only 38 percent of all motorcycle riders change exhaust in the first place, not “most” as the sound cops would have you believe. Of that percentage, perhaps another 10 percent overdo it with nasty loud pipes. So these few thousand idiots bring down over-reactive oppression on all of us. What all this means to me is that bureaucrats should not be meddling in things they don’t understand and can’t really fix (only complicate), and bikers should use a lot more common sense and restraint when it comes to exhaust choices (for the same reasons)… so as to meet in the middle, so to speak. Maybe the real fix is a massive rethink of exhaust design; materials and manufacture to address real needs and wants rather than strictures and stupid regulations.

Some Corvette and Buell exhausts are controlled by the ECM. When it’s time to pump up the volume, both literally and figuratively, the ECM alters the internal volume and baffling of the exhaust, kicking into “performance” mode. Since you’d have a hell of a time keeping the hammer down all the time, it results in legal and sane noise levels most of the time, yet quite audibly gives that wonderful rip-roaring note only when it’s needed for proper engine performance at high rpm; all in all a great setup and a concept that deserves to thrive in the future. Even the materials exhausts are made of can be rethought to acoustic advantage—for instance, it’s no accident that stainless steel is becoming the go-to material because it doesn’t “ring” or resonate like regular steel and therefore sounds very satisfying both to the sound meter and our ears. A completely different notion might be a “sound chip” that (pardon the expression) pipes through the stereo—and can be turned on and off. I’m sure there are plenty of options, if we just think outside the “pipe” a little.

On the other hand there’s absolutely no proof, one way or the other, that “loud pipes save lives.” (Those who argue for it usually wouldn’t know the Doppler effect from a lamp post.) Better to save lives with a 128-db horn (or even crank up your stereo) than keep blatting at your fellow beings and battering your own eardrums. It’s also accurate to say that efficient high-performance, nonrestrictive exhausts do not need to be “ticket-bait” loud… for the engine’s sake at least. For our sake, we want our machines to sound authoritative, powerful and cool, and that is as it should be—as long as it doesn’t amount to too much of a good thing. As it is, we are on the verge of way too much of a bad thing in the form of noise emissions laws. If we’re smart enough to tone up and keep the volume down, we’ll be OK. If not…

To be continued…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *