Maintaining car tires
Not maintaining your tires can not only lead to poor vehicle performance and reduced fuel efficiency, it can create dangerous conditions that could lead to accidents, injury or death. According to the National Highway Transportation Administration, properly maintained tires improve the steering, stopping, traction, and load-carrying capability of your vehicle.
The best way to maintain your tires is to check them regularly:
Check your tire pressure
Don’t have a tire pressure gage? Buy one, they’re cheap. At least a month, check all four tires – and the spare - to make sure they meet your vehicle manufacturer’s specified pressure or psi (lbs of pressure per square inch). Not sure what your vehicle’s manufacturer recommends? You can find the information on a small placard on the door frame of the driver’s door, on the vehicle’s fuel filler door or the owner’s manual.
Over- or under-inflated tires wear more quickly, lead to poor fuel consumption and can present safety hazard. Even one tire out of four being under-pressurized can cause poor fuel economy. It’s also a good idea to check tire air pressure before leaving on any extended road trip.
Check your tread depth
Every few months, grab a penny and get ready to stick it in your tire tread. Put the penny in upside down, so you are looking at Honest Abe and the top of his head is inside the tire. If you can see the top of his head, the tire depth is becoming dangerously low.
Newer tires have a feature that eliminates the need to turn to Abe. As the tread wears, a series of flat rubber bars that run perpendicular to the tread will begin to appear. When you can see these bars it’s time for new tires.
Rotate your tires
Every six months or 6,000 miles, whichever comes first. Your car’s tires will wear differently according to their position on the vehicle. The front tires, for instance, tend to wear more quickly since more of their tread surface comes in contact with the road when making turns. Ask your regular service shop or mechanic to rotate your tires or do it yourself, but make sure that you follow the manufacturer’s specifications.
Some vehicles, especially sports cars, feature different sized tires or wheels for the front and the back of the vehicle, so make sure you know when and how your tires in particular should be rotated.
Whenever you’re driving, try to avoid running over foreign objects or debris in the roadway. Small nails and screws are the most common cause of damage, but nearly any solid object your tire strikes at speed has the potential to cause damage. When parking or driving, also avoid striking or rolling curbs, sidewalks or concrete parking bumpers, which can cause uneven pressure and potential damage.
It's a good idea to know whether you have a spare tire in case of a flat. (Photo contributed by Angie's List member Lisa G., of Anderson, Ind.)
Signs you need new tires
If you suspect your tires might be worn, here are some tips to help you know when your tires need to be checked and replaced.
As mentioned above, ensure you check your tires' tread depth regularly to ensure your tires still have plenty of useful life.
When you start seeing cracks in the sidewall of the tire, you may have dry rot in the tires. Plan on replacing them sooner rather than later at your local auto repair shop.
Bulges or blister
Most tires have belts inside that wrap around the sidewalls and tread. When these belts break, the sidewall can bulge outward. This weak spot can burst at any time, leaving you with a dangerous blowout. If you notice any bulging or blistering in your tire the time to replace it has already passed and you need a new tire now.
When you’re driving, it’s normal to feel some vibration in the car. The road surface is often the culprit. But if the vibration remains, even after the road surface changes, then it is probably time for new tires. Even if the tires seem to be good, you should still get in with an auto repair shop right away to be sure it’s not something more serious.
Watch the air pressure in your tires. It should be checked regularly but it should remain stable. Most cars will have a sticker adhered to the driver’s side door panel that says how many pounds of air should be in each tire. If you are having to replace air on a regular basis, you should get the tire checked by a professional.
Tips for buying new tires
For most drivers, tires are a significantly expensive investment. Use these tips to get the most tire for your money:
1. Get the car fixed first
If your existing tires have worn unevenly, it might be the case that you need to fix a suspension component or an alignment issue before installing new tires. Continuing to drive with faulty suspension components or bad alignment with new tires will cause them to not only wear unevenly, but it will significantly reduce their overall tread life as well.
2. Is it the tires or the wheels?
Excessive vibrations while driving may be caused by tires that are beyond their service life, but the source of the problem can also be a worn, damaged or loose wheel hub. If one or more of your tires has a slow air leak, it’s also a good idea to check the condition of your wheels or rims. A dented, dinged or warped rim can cause poor contact between the wheel and tire, leading to an air leak.
3. Check out different tire types
If your car is still equipped with the same tires it rolled off the factory line with, don’t just replace them, think about how you drive and use your vehicle. Vehicle manufacturers choose the tires they equip at the factory based on affordability and meeting as many driving conditions as possible.
Match the tire to your driving needs. If you have a long commute, think about getting tires that are more durable for highway speeds. If you live in a rural area with dirt roads or a part of the country that sees frequent snow or rain, get a better grip on by selecting a tire with a tread pattern designed for those conditions.
4. Read tire reviews and comparisons
One of the worst things about buying new tires – especially if you’re switching products – is that you don’t know how the tires will perform and behave on your vehicle until they’re installed. Take a look at tire reviews from objective parties such as consumerreports.org to get an idea of what tires are more durable, perform better or provide the best value.
Another good source for other drivers’ opinions on tires are vehicle-specific enthusiast forums. Trucks, sports cars and SUV enthusiasts on these forums are often very vocal with their opinions based on their own experience with different tire types.
5. Buy as much tire as you can afford
Especially with tires, it’s amazing how investing just slight more can pay off with improved durability. Invest as much as you comfortably can in your tires and buy tires that have higher mileage durability ratings or guarantees.
If the price difference for a pair of tires that have a 40,000-mile rating and a 60,000-rating is relatively small and the tires are comparable, opt for the 60,000 mile tires. If you drive a typical 10,000 miles on average, you’ll get another two years of driving for a small investment.
It’s also a good idea to buy tires in fours. It will help the tires wear more evenly and provide more consistent tire performance when driving. If you can’t afford a full set, buy new tires in pairs at a minimum.
6. Shop around for the best deal
New tires are one vehicle repair where it can pay to shop around. Big-box retail stores with auto bays, auto service shops, auto tire specialists and Internet sellers can all offer wildly different prices for the same tire, so shop around for the best deal. One caveat for purchasing tires online is that due to their size, shipping the tires will be a significant cost, and you’ll need to find a shop to install them correctly when they do arrive.
7. Don’t forget to check and maintain your new tires
Even though you just purchased and installed new tires, you still want to check them for proper inflation and tread wear each month. Even new tires may lose air pressure, leading to poor fuel economy and premature wear. If you notice uneven wear on your new tires, your vehicle may have an alignment or suspension issue.
You can find your car's tire code by looking for the raised imprint on the sidewall similar to the one shown here. Click the photo for a larger image. (Photo by Fred Patton.)
Understanding tire codes
The string of letters and numbers you see on the side of your tires can tell you a lot about them.This is important, because the wrong tires on your car could be a safety hazard and affect other areas of the vehicle, like the suspension.
Look on the side of the tire and you may see something like P235/65R17. Here’s what that means:
P stands for passenger. If you see “LT”, that stands for light truck. This is important, because the wrong tires on your car could be a safety hazard and affect other areas of the vehicle, like the suspension.
235 is the width of the tire in millimeters.
65 refers to how tall the tire is compared to how wide it is. In this example, the tire height is approximately 70 percent of the width of the tire.
R stands for radial. Radial tires have a series of strong fabric layers called cords or plies under the rubber. Most tires these days are radial construction, but you may see B for bias-belted or D for diagonal or bias ply.
17 represents the rim diameter in inches.