Whitlow Smoke School  Nation

What is the secret to passing the EPA Method 9 smoke school opacity certification test ?

Choose the right smoke school provider Whitlow smoke schools follow the requirements of 40 CRR 60 and are audited by the EPA and several state and local environmental enforcement agencies. Many employees from these agencies rely on Whitlow for certification training that will stand up in court.  Whitlow training has been tested by court.

You also need a training provider that understands the importance of friendly customer service. I know that smoke school can be a lot of stress and our job is to try to remove some of that stress by using optimum training procedures for the modern day industrial plant We know that most of you have a permit for 20% opacity or less. Although EPA requires us to present plumes with random opacity values from zero to 100%, we present several readings in the lower opacities commonly found in most plants. We also know that our job is to teach you how to read opacity and how to document compliance. This is the goal of every Whitlow smoke school. We are teachers. We take a lot of pride in what we do and we love it.

Before we start the smoke school certification test, we always have a mini-lecture download mini-lecture) to explain the basic fundamentals of passing the certification test and how to read opacity in the field. Whitlow smoke schools start before you get to the test site. We use a compass and a weather radio to set up the optimum conditions for reading opacity. We set the stage. We go to a lot of trouble to choose locations that are perfect for leaning. We like locations that provide the following:

  1. Trees for contrasting background to read smoke on cloudy days

  2. Shade

  3. Shelter form sun, rain, and snow

  4. Clean restrooms

Before we set the stage we listen to the weather report for wind directions so we can visualize where you will be standing to maintain the winds blowing the plume perpendicular to your line of view. We want to make sure you will have a good contrasting background if it is cloudy. If the wind changes during your test, holler scratch. We may need to adjust our elbow or even move you if the wind change is persistent.

We want you to be comfortable so we bring a contagious positive attitude, coffee, water, food, and a few extra yard chairs. We bring you all of the test papers, pens and extra clipboards. What you should bring to smoke school. We bring a little friendly competition to help take the stress out. We award tee shirts and other prizes for making the highest score. We have cash drawings of small amounts of cash. We tell stories during the test to take the stress out. Giving the proper smoke school test takes time. We need to adjust the fuel valve and allow the plume to stabilize between readings. We do not want you to stare at the plume when we are adjusting the fuel because you will get confused. Only look when you hear the word read. So listen to the stories and do not stare at the plume.

We start our customer service weeks before each smoke school by choosing smoke school locations that provide the following:

If we can't find an adequate contrasting background then we will make one. The movies below demonstrate how Whitlow man made contrasting backgrounds provide a significant improvement over reading white smoke with white clouds for a background.

Practice makes perfect- Click the links below to view some practice plums to use at your office. Remember to always read opacity at the densest part of the plume. In this case right at the elbow. 

  1. Practice smoke school movie video 1- What is the opacity?
  2. Practice smoke school movie video 2- What is the opacity?
  3. Practice smoke school movie video 3-  What is the opacity?
  4. Practice smoke school movie video 4- - What is the opacity?

Before Whitlow starts each certification test we teach you the basic fundamentals of how to take the test. These are the keys to passing the test on the first run.

  1. Do not look at the smoke until you hear the word read.

  2. Read the opacity at the densest part of the plume- the top of the smokestack.

  3. Look at the smoke for 3 seconds, then stop looking- we may be moving the valve to go onto the next reading. Only look when you hear the word read.

  4. Always holler scratch if you get lost, confused, or the wind changes- keep us informed about the conditions

  5. Record the best answer in 15% intervals- 5, 10, 15, 25, etc.

  6. Always keep in mind the plus or minus 15% deviation required by EPA to pass the test. Remember there is no such thing as negative smoke. If it is barely coming out, then call it a five. In your head- choose the best readings, add 15- subtract 15- choose your answer appropriately. If you choose the answer 15%, then you have covered the actual opacity from 0% to 30%. This is important- remember this. Think of this as windows on your computer. You must be in the correct window of opportunity.

  7. Remember this example: Uncle Bill and I were deer hunting at the old mill pond in Clarks Louisiana. We made the morning hunt with dogs. When we got back to the camp, Bill asked if we could go check the corn feeder in the trail at the edge of the briar patch on the other side of the mill pond. I had 50 pounds of corn on my shoulder and Bill had his 30-30 with the scope. After we crossed the alligators, cotton mouths, and thorns in the briar patch (Don't throw me in that Briar Patch), we saw a doe and 2 yearlings standing under the feeder eating corn. The game warden said it was ok to shoot doe as long as we did not get caught. Uncle Bill dropped on one knee and leaned against a pine tree and fired 6 shots at the deer about 12 feet away. The deer looked at us and yawned and continued eating corn.

  8. I took up the 30-30, loaded it, and laid down Marine Corp Stile- after all I am a trained military marksman. I fired 6 shots and the deer were still yawning. Then we decided to drive Bill's jeep deep into the woods and sight the scope in. We found an old deserted unpainted white house out there in the woods. There were 13 refrigerators and a washing machine on the porch.  The briars in the out house were 9 feet high. He must have been a redneck. I walked to the outhouse and found a car inside. I took some duck tape and made an X on the side of the old white deserted house. I fired 6 shots and missed the house but did manage to hit the propane tank in the back yard. It was like bang BANG!.. We thought the house was deserted-I sware we did,  but the redneck worked the graveyard shift down at the papermill. He was really ticked off about blowing up his propane bottle. After we explained about missing the deer 12 feet away, he agreed to help us adjust the scope. After several hours of clicking the scope adjustment, we managed to hit the house. The scope was only off 9 feet. That is a lot of clicking at each click equals 1/2 inch. In smoke school all you have to do it hit the house. Try to hit the bulls eye, but be accurate to within + - 15%.

  9. Do not look back at the smoke until you hear the word read again./font>

  10. Do not stare at the plume between readings- This causes optical illusions and confusion

  11. Do not second guess- read it and record it- your first impression is always right. If I had listened to my momma, I would not have been married 12 times. "This girl is not right for you."

  12. Never change an answer unless you have to.

Examples of optical illusions:  Click on one of my eyes.

Then we show you how to read opacity. We show the smoke school standards of 25%, 50% and 75%. We show you to memorize  what these standards look like and how to choose the best opacity answers on your answer sheet, keeping in mind the plus or minus 15% deviation required by EPA to pass the test. We show and tell you how to pass the test quickly. This is an important step. If you listen and pay attention, then you will pass the test, usually the fist time. Bring a positive attitude.

Then we let you perform the task of reading opacity with supervision. This is the smoke school practice test. We present several smoke plumes and let you choose the best answer and record it on a green practice sheet. We observe you while you are taking the practice test to make sure that you are following the correct observation fundamentals.  Then we call out the correct opacity and let you evaluate your performance. This reminds me a lot of throwing a rock at a frog on a water lillie pad in my momma's fishing pond. If you miss the frog, adjust your sights and throw again. Please stop the training and inform the instructor if you are having problems.


After all of the instructions and practice, then we present the smoke school opacity certification test. We usually finish the test within an hour and a half after we start the actual test.


An additional session starts at 12 Noon if needed on the first day, and at 8 AM on the second day (if scheduled) of each workshop.  Most workshops are scheduled for a single day. Why we use a one-day smoke school. Each test session usually lasts about an hour and a half. We grade the field test on site and you will know if you passed the test.  You are free to leave when you pass or you can attend the classroom. Since most people pass the test before noon, please call us if you can't arrive until after noon. We will wait on you.

You will receive excellent coaching and directions. You will pass the test. Most people pass on the first attempt. If for some reason you are having trouble, we will retake the test until you pass. If we need to run the test the next day, we will. Just remember that passing a Whitlow Smoke School test is as easy as falling off a log across a creek bank. Bring a positive altitude and a life preserver or an inner tube. Remember that a bad day at smoke school is better than a good day at work. Follow the smoke school signs to the field-test location.


You should choose the right smoke school provider. The person who administers the test holds all of the keys to how hard the test is. I have known a lot of you for thirty years. It is always nice to see and meet new friends. Most of you know that I do a lot of talking. Sorry, it is my nature. I also take some time to do a lot of listening. I listen to your praises and to your complaints. I took enough psychology in college to get me in trouble. All of this listening over the these 30 years has taught me the most common errors for most smoke school providers. We strive to avoid these errors.

Common Smoke School Operator Errors:

  1. Negative attitude

  2. Not doing your homework before giving the test- The attendees need to have shade, protection form the elements, water, a contrasting background, and a comfortable place to stand or sit while taking the test. Nobody needs to stand on a hot asphalt parking lot. You need to set the stage for optimal conditions for reading smoke.

  3. Not realizing the test is stressful to most people and not attempting to reduce the stress

  4. Incomplete or inaccurate instructions on how to take the test- Monitor the crowd during instructions, review of the standards, and practice tests for signs that the attendees all know how to take the test. Make sure the attendee is looking at the smoke when you say read, not staring at the plume, and not looking too long after you say read. Make sure everyone has a contrasting background and is standing in the correct place, winds and plume perpendicular to their line of view and sun to their back. Make sure they are using the correct observation point in the plume' the densest part of the plume, usually the first foot after the end of the smokestack.

  5. Rushing the test- not allowing the smoke plume to stabilize before calling the word read and going on the next number. Other smoke school providers brag that they can do 5 test runs a day. Think of it. You are sitting in a yard chair in the rain, snow, or on a hot asphalt pavement from 8 AM until 6 PM. We use areas with shelters or we bring our own shelters. We do not issue you a plastic bag to keep the ink from washing off of your test sheet. We do the test right and slow the first time. We want everyone to pass the fist time. Most people do. Think positive,, that is what my Momma always used to say.

  6. Improper calibration/strong> of the opacity smoke machine

  7. Not checking the zero drift of the machine before, after, and during the test. The chart recorder pegs out at negative 3%. If the zero is off, then everything is off. The gauge may be reading zero but the opacity of the smoke plume may actually be 15%. You should ask someone in the crowd to check the opacity to see if it is close to what the gauge indicates.

  8. Most smoke school provides generate black smoke from a firebox that does not have a pilot light. The Louisiana DEQ purchased  our first smoke machine back in 1984 from a company that is now our major competitor. This first smoke machine had a pilot light for the black smoke box. You could turn off the fuel supply to the box and make zero smoke. Then you could reset the accuracy of the zero reading during the certification test. When Louisiana DEQ purchased our second machine from the same company in 1998, the pilot light had been removed from the design. When I first used the new machine, I did not realize the pilot light had not been installed. When I turned off the fuel supply to adjust the zero, the fire went out. I expected the flame to come back when I turned on the fuel supply. The fire did not start so I took a propane torch and tried to relight the pilot light, which I did not realize was not there. The fuel is lighter than air and blew up when I placed the torch near the inlet. I received third degree burns on my right arm from the short sleeves down, it burned off all of my chest hair and gave me a bald head for life. What really scared me was the burnt hole near the buttons on my overhauls. I installed the pilot light on the machine as soon as I left the emergency room where Doctor Bella pealed off the rest of the skin and taught me the blessings of Silverdine. Whitlow Enterprises builds our own smoke machines almost exactly like that very first machine back in 1984. Today all of the Whitlow smoke machines have pilot lights. Frequently during all certification tests we turn off the smoke and adjust the zero for 100% accuracy. If the zero is off, then everything is off and nobody can pass the test. It is that simple.

  9. Using confusing circle the opacity answer sheets/strong>- These answer sheets were designed for computer enhanced grading. The attendee is likely to circle more than on choice on a single line, or skip a line during the test. Whitlow uses the original EPA answer sheet from 1976 before computer grading came out. All you do is read the smoke and write down the answer in the first column. After the test, you turn in your yellow copy and grade the white copy. Then you write in the correct answer in the middle and subtract the difference between the two columns.  Write the difference in the third column- the deviation column. No 20s or higher in the third column. Very simple indeed. Be sure to turn in both copies of the test before you leave.

  10. Rushing while calling out the correct answers. Give people time to hear what you say, write down the answer, and subtract the deviation. Monitor the crowd when calling out the answers. Watch for and listen for signs of confusion.

These are the common errors. We train our employees to avoid these errors. If you notice a discrepancy during your training, please stop the training and go up to our employee and discus the matter. You can also make suggestions on your critique sheet. If you notice that our employee is doing a good job, please tell them. Also tell me. I like to know when things are going well.

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