I could write a book just about tires, and the reality is most people do not pay attention to them until it is an “emergency” situation. The fact is tires can be expensive – especially for good quality. Remember this; tires are all about you and your family’s safety. The last thing anyone wants is to be in the ditch or on the side of the road because of a preventable maintenance issue.
This is the time of the year that people in the northern states really have to pay attention to their tires with the impending doom of heavy rains followed by ice and snow! Let’s take a look at how you should be self-inspecting your vehicles tires and what to look for when you go to buy new ones.
Tread: This is the part that makes contact with the road, channels water in the rain so you can still make contact with the road, and for many of us it grips the ice so we can stay on the road. I first recommend that you look at each tire on your vehicle.
You should be able to visibly see the same amount of tread across each tire. Tires have built in “wear bars” – low spots in the tread that indicate when they are worn to a minimum allowance for that tire.
Next, look at the type of tires you have. For regions that do not see snow an all-season tire will be fine. I know many people that think all-season tires are made for everything Mother Nature can throw at them, but the fact is a tire that is built for summer time and winter cannot do both effectively. If you are in a climate that sees a lot of ice and snow I highly recommend you change out your tires seasonally with ice and snow rated tires. The rubber compound on a true winter tire is softer, and has siping pronounced sipe-ing (little slices in the tread that allow for more “grip” on the ice). Tires made for ice and snow will tell you that on the side wall (the side of the tire, in between your wheel and the tread that contacts the road), most have an M/S which stands for mud and snow.
Wear… Is your tire wear uneven? Worn more on the inside or outside? You may have an alignment issue with the front end of your car, or worn parts. I recommend taking the vehicle to a reputable shop to have the alignment checked/adjusted and the front end components inspected. $150 in an adjustment could prevent spending more on tires prematurely!
Rotation: Car manufacturers have made this complicated for us. In the past, the rule was to rotate your tires at every other oil change (about every 6,000 miles). Now they are making oil changes and tires last longer. To make it even more complicated some tires cannot be rotated at all because they are made to be directional (can only be on one side of the car), and some are a different size on the front vs. the rear. I recommend looking at your owner’s manual to find the best plan for your vehicle.
Age: Tires lose traction over time as the rubber compound gets harder causing less grip with the road. Another issue that happens with age is cracks forming in the rubber, this can happen in the side wall or within the tread itself. This can be a dangerous situation, those cracks can eventually cause a blow out!
Tire Inflation – Air Pressure: For vehicles that have a tire pressure monitoring system there should have an onboard display that will tell you what your tire pressure is. If your vehicle is older and does not have that feature, you should buy a tire pressure gauge. There is no need to spend a lot of money on one; all the big box stores have them for a couple bucks in the automotive section. Or you could spend around $10 and have a nice digital one.
Tire pressure is as important as the selection of your tires! Too low of air pressure can damage the sidewall of the tire, cause the tire to overheat, or send you spinning off the road. Over-inflation also causes excessive heat, and can cause your tread to wear unevenly (costs you money!)
How much pressure should be in my tires? Believe it or not this causes a lot of debate in the car community (usually due to a lack of education). Here is where the confusion comes from; on the sidewall of your tires is a recommended “Maximum” pressure for that tire and maximum weight capacity. Tires are made to fit a range of vehicles and capacities; the car manufacturer does that calculation for you when they give you their recommended pressure. So the best thing you can do is either look in your owner’s manual or the driver’s side door jamb for the correct inflation for your vehicle.
Checking your inflation is easy – and should be done on a regular basis! You can buy a cheap gauge like this one in just about any automotive section of a big box store, or your local automotive parts house:
This should always be done when the tires are cold (not been driven on for a long distance). Unless you suspect the tire is dangerously low. Take the valve stem cap off, hold the gauge on the valve stem for a second to get your reading.
To reduce the pressure, with the back side of the gauge press the center of the stem and the little valve will release pressure. Try this in small increments, retesting the pressure until you are where you want to be. Put the cap back on!!
To Add Pressure: Most every gas station has a self-serve air compressor, take the valve stem cap off, add air, and recheck!
What if I put a little bit extra in my tires – more is better right? WRONG! Over pressurization causes two things: heat and excessive wear. Both will cost you money in the long run.
**Newer vehicles are now equipped with Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems, there is a sensor located within each valve stem that sends a signal to your car’s computer indicating your current tire pressure. This is handy, but things can still go wrong.
Here is what to watch for:
The light on after a rotation or tire change.
The sensors need to be synced/programmed each time they change position on the car. For most vehicles the instructions on how to do this yourself is in your owner’s manual. (Some vehicles require a special computer to do this; most reputable tire shops should be able to reset them in just a few minutes.)
The light comes on in cold weather.
It is normal for tires to lose a little bit of pressure in the cold, same is true in hot weather – hot air expands increasing pressure. I recommend checking and adjusting them when the vehicle has been sitting a while, or only been driven a couple miles to the gas station to adjust.
The light stays on no matter what I do!!
Just like any electronic system things fail. The individual sensors can fail, or the computer that picks up the readings from the sensors can fail. This can easily be diagnosed by a reputable shop or the dealer.
If you want more information on the technical aspects of tire maintenance check out Tirerack.com they have some great articles like this one on tire pressure: https://goo.gl/cbkGkT