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Fixing 1970s and 1980s Fuel Evaporation Control Systems

canisterMost of us think of the tailpipe when auto emissions are mentioned, but toxic emissions come from other parts of the car, too. The open, vented fuel systems used through the late 1960s allowed gasoline (unburned hydrocarbons) to evaporate into the air, where they reacted with sunlight to form toxic smog.

For decades, the fuel system had two external vents: one at the fuel tank (sometimes through the cap), and one at the carburetor float bowl. Starting for the 1970 model year in California, and for 1971 in the rest of the U.S. and Canada, cars had to have closed fuel systems that would contain gasoline vapors, requiring redesigns of the tank, filler neck, gas cap, fuel lines, and carburetor. Chrysler called their version “Vapor Saver,” or “ECS” (Evaporation Control System).

The 1970-71 ECS setup used a complicated fuel tank, which had a small inner tank at the top connected to the main tank chamber by a very small passageway to prevent overfilling. When gasoline was pumped into the tank, the main tank chamber filled up with the secondary chamber, still mostly empty. The gas-pump nozzle detected a full tank and clicked off, and the driver hung up the nozzle and drove off. Over the next little while, fuel flowed into the secondary tank from the main chamber, dropping the fuel level in the main chamber and preventing fuel being forced out of the tank when things warmed up and expanded. (This also helped to prevent fuel stains from fuel sloshing out of the tank.)

These ’70-71 ECS fuel tanks had four vent fittings, one at each corner of the top of the tank, brought together in the trunk to a more-or-less vertical metal cylinder leaning against the left wheelhouse. This cylinder was a vapor/liquid separator, and it had five hose fittings: one for the hose from each corner of the tank and one for a hose connecting to a line that ran up to the right-rear corner of the engine bay. Inside the separator, each of the four fittings from the corners of the tank continued vertically, each to a different height. The fitting to the engine bay continued inside the separator, almost to the top.

1970 ecs systemThe idea with the four-corner venting and the different-height pipes inside the separator was that no matter what angle the car was at, in what direction, there would always be at least one vent fitting above the liquid-fuel level, so there would always be a vapor vent, thus preventing pressure buildup that would force fuel vapors out. The lines to the four tank-corner vents were relatively short inside the separator, so any liquid fuel that got into the separator (or condensed in it) could eventually flow back to the tank. The line to the engine bay extended the highest inside the separator so that only vapor, not liquid fuel, would enter that line.

The 1970-71 ECS was unique in that it used the engine crankcase to store fuel vapors, both from the cylinder in the trunk, and from the carburetor bowl. A line from the trunk cylinder was connected to an extra nipple on the valve cover’s crankcase breather cap. The carburetor bowl vent was routed via another nipple on the breather cap on V8 engines, or via a nipple on the fuel pump body on Slant Six engines. When the engine was stopped, fuel vapors traveled into the crankcase and remained there until the engine was started. The collected vapors were then drawn off out of the crankcase and into the intake tract via the PCV valve.

This system should have been effective, since the crankcase was well sealed, but it could cause hot start/hot idle problems. The problem was lack of control over when the vapors were pulled into the intake tract; it started as soon as the engine is cranked, and it continued as the engine was running, including at idle, when the mixture was easily upset. Thus, most of the unburned hydrocarbons wound up out in the atmosphere anyhow, only they were first put through the engine and then emitted from the tailpipe as black smoke!

The modern era begins in 1972

For 1972, the ECS was redesigned so well that systems of substantially the same design are still used on today’s new cars. The inner fuel tank chamber was deleted, its function replaced by a cleverly designed air pocket in the tank’s dome. The 1972-up tanks had only one vent fitting instead of the previous four, and the trunk cylinder was no longer needed; the single tank vent ran directly to the engine bay.

Up front, rather than using the crankcase to store fuel vapors, a special tank was added. This was a round plastic canister, containing activated charcoal granules, mounted at the front corner of the engine bay. Lines led to it from the carb bowl and the fuel tank vent. There was a purge valve mounted atop the canister, with a small diameter vacuum line teed into the distributor vacuum advance line and a large diameter line from the underside of the purge valve teed into the PCV valve hose.

evaporative emissions control system

Because there is vacuum in the distributor vacuum line only above idle, the purge valve only opened above idle, ending hot start/hot idle problems — because fuel vapors were only drawn off and burned above idle. When the purge valve did open, air was drawn through the bed of charcoal granules, which released and diluted the stored fuel vapor.

For 1973, the purge valve was replaced by a purge port added to the carburetor throttle body, above the throttle plate. The throttle plate itself acted as the purge valve. This was much less precise and some of the hot start/hot idle problems returned, but it was cheaper to build, so Chrysler stuck with it.

These systems all used what a “pressure-vacuum” fuel cap. It was vented, but not the same way as the “vented” fuel cap used on open fuel systems. A vented cap had a passageway for air to flow in and fuel vapors to flow out freely. A pressure-vacuum cap added two spring-loaded check valves, one with very low tension.

Chrysler and Standard/HyGrade canister with top-mounted purge valveThe low-tension check valve easily allowed air to flow into the tank, to prevent a vacuum from forming as fuel was drawn down. The high-tension check valve was a safety pressure relief valve; normally pressure would not build up in the tank, because the charcoal can and purge lines could handle the volume of vapor. But under some circumstances, such as rapidly driving up a mountain on a hot day with a tank of especially volatile gasoline, the vapor volume could be higher than normal, and the cap would bleed off excess pressure.

Owners of the 1970-71 cars may have some issues with parts availability. Two-nipple (Slant Six) or three-nipple (V8) breather caps are difficult to find, and therefore expensive. A standard 1972-up Mopar breather can be adapted by drilling holes and adding brass or nylon hose nipples, but a much better option is to upgrade to the 1972-type system with charcoal can and purge valve.

The canister bracket is easy: every ’72-and-up Mopar has it at the right-front corner of the engine bay, or you can make your own. The canister must be held in an upright position with the ports at the top.

Canisters for older GM and Ford vehicles are readily available, but not for carbureted Mopars. Fortunately, these canisters are very easy to adapt to non-spec applications. Functionally, they are highly interchangeable; there is no need to worry about what kind of engine you have or what year, make, or what model the canister you use was originally intended for, as long as it has all the ports you need.

Get a new charcoal can; when they get a couple of decades on them they can start to break down internally and throw carbon granules into your carburetor via the purge line – no fun. If you’re required by budget or time constraints to use an old canister, or you’re interested in preventing a messy carb rebuild to get all the carbon sand out, put an ordinary fuel filter in the purge line.

Chrysler #4723 551 or Standard/HyGrade #CP3167 is a service replacement for many ’80-90s Mopar applications and can readily be adapted to earlier cars. It has all the right ports. It has three sturdy threaded studs on top for easy bracket fabrication if you need to, and it has a built-in purge valve perched atop the canister.

If you’re using a different canister, or have installed a non-original carburetor without a purge port on your 1973-up car, you’ll need a canister purge valve that only opens when the engine is above idle. Fortunately, standalone purge valves are readily available (e.g. NAPA Echlin #2-28011).

The purge valve’s big fittings go inline with the “PURGE” hose from the canister, which gets teed into the PCV hose using a metal ¼" x 3/8" emissions tee such as Dorman #47009.

NAPA Echlin #2-28011 purge valveOn a carbureted application, the small fitting on the purge valve gets teed into the vacuum advance hose, which if everything is set up and adjusted correctly should on most cars have no vacuum at curb idle speed and plenty of vacuum above idle.

There is usually no suitable above-idle-only vacuum hookup on an EFI setup, but most such systems have a closed-throttle switch of one sort or another – some throttle position sensors have a binary closed-throttle switch function built in. If you don’t have such a switch, add one. A lever- or roller-type momentary-break (normally closed) switch is easy to find and install. Put it on a simple bracket with slotted holes for adjustment and set it so that it closes at a throttle position corresponding to about 1,000 rpm. Then power a vacuum solenoid through this switch. The solenoid will open above 1,000 rpm and close below that. Plumb the system with a fuel-resistant vacuum hose from a source of manifold vacuum to the solenoid and from the solenoid to the purge valve.

Whichever version of ECS your car has, it’s well worth keeping. It’s even worth adding to a car that didn't originally have it. Aside from (curable) hot start/idle nuisance issues, this system works for you, not against you. It significantly reduces air pollution, which is not just good for society but also nice for all of us individually: when ECS replaced open fuel systems, cars stopped stinking up the garage (and house) with gasoline fumes.

But that’s not all; one of the best things ECS does for you is keep hold of expensive gasoline that would otherwise float off into the open air, so you get to actually use it to run your engine.

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