How To Maintain Tires Year-Round: Your Car, Your Tires, Made Easy

Categories: Wheels & Tires
The Front Wheel, Tire, and Brake Combo of a Blue Porsche 911. Learn how to maintain tires, even if you don't have a Porsche.
The Front Wheel, Tire, and Brake Combo of a Blue Porsche 911.

There’s nothing more important to your car’s performance, ride comfort, efficiency, and safety than what you’re rolling on. That’s why I’m going to walk you through how to maintain tires. Your choice of car tire can make all the difference. And there’s good news. Today’s tire manufacturers have developed compounds that are miracles of chemistry, providing excellent grip, mileage, and longevity. A good set of general-purpose tires today can be expected to last forty, fifty, or even sixty thousand miles! Considering the average American drives between twelve and thirteen thousand miles per year, this means you might be rolling on the same rubber for five years or more before you need a new set of tires.

With so many years and miles of service, it’s up to the vehicle owner to properly maintain and maximize the lifetime of your tires’ performance, safety, and fuel efficiency, all of which will save you money in the long run and keep you safe in the meantime. So, where do we start?

Picking the Right Tire for the Job

Okay, this is going to seem pretty obvious, but it still needs to be said because I have seen things, man. Winter tires belong on winter roads. Spring/Summer tires belong on spring and summer roads. And offroad tires, for God’s sake, do I really need to say it?

Winter tire compounds are specifically formulated for use below, say, 50 degrees (10C for you poor metric system folks). Winter tires are softer at lower temperatures so they can maintain grip in the ice and snow. Above these cold-weather ranges, they become much too soft and rub away like a pencil eraser, drastically reducing tire life. Further, their tire tread patterns are customized for snow, not gripping pavement at high speeds or channeling away standing water in the rain. If you mount winter tires, swap them out for your Spring/Summer set as soon as the mercury hits 50. Don’t wait, you’ll take years off the life of your tires while making your car unsafe to drive in the process.

Same goes for summer rubber, which is formulated to be softer and grippier at higher temps. In the cold, they remain too hard because they never work up to their operating temps. Without that pliability, you may as well be rolling around on Fred Flintstone wheels for all the grip you’ll get. It’s just not safe. Once that needle hits 50, time to swap right then and there.

Of course, most of you don’t own two sets of tires for your car and, like me, use all-season radials year-round and hope for the best, so you don’t have to worry about tire irons and jack stands in November. Still, needed to be said.

And you Jeep guys with the 18-inch lift kits and the giant knobby offroad tires doing 85 on the interstate everyone can hear roaring up from a mile behind? You know who you are. Knock it off. God’s sake.

Maintaining Tire Pressure

The absolute most important thing you can do for the longevity and safety of your car’s tires is Check, Check, Check your inflation pressure on a regular basis. We’ve all seen underinflated tires and how they bulge out on the sides like the muffin-tops most of us have after trying to fit back into our pre-pandemic jeans.

That part of the tire between the tread and the wheel is called the “Sidewall.” It’s also the thinnest and weakest part of the tire. Like a balloon or a blimp, most of the sidewall’s strength and rigidity comes from the air pressure holding it up. The more it bulges and distorts from underinflation, the more flexing within the material generates heat, weakening the sidewall and increasing the chances of catastrophic tire failure.

Even without a blowout, underinflation widens the area where the tire contacts the road, increasing friction and drag against the pavement which reduces gas mileage, and makes acceleration, braking, and turning sluggish.

“But, Torque!” you’re saying to yourselves, I can hear it already. “After 2007 (2012 in the EU) all cars have government-mandated tire pressure monitoring systems. I’m good!” No, no you’re not. Tire Pressure Sensors (TPS) came about as a response to a rash of fatal rollover accidents, especially among top-heavy SUVs that most suburbanites buying them up in droves for soccer practice were not accustomed to driving in the first place. They have undoubtedly saved many lives since their introduction, but TPS systems are not calibrated to maintain correct air pressure. They’re set up to trigger when tire inflation has dropped to the point it becomes actively dangerous, usually around 25 psi after ten or more pounds have already been lost.

So, make it part of your routine. Buy a tire gauge and leave it in your glove box. Check for proper pressure monthly, or at every fill-up, whichever comes first. There are plenty of choices out there from old-fashioned analog gauges to modern digital readers. Personally, I’ve been using the same old slide gauges in my car and bike for years. Buy once, never need to worry about batteries. But it’s entirely up to your personal preference and none of the options are going to break the bank.

And for goodness sake, don’t forget to pop the trunk and check your spare tire pressure while you’re at it. There’s nothing worse than being on the side of the road with a flat tire only to realize your spare is equally useless.

Which brings us to what you should fill your tires with.

Nitrogen is the Best Gas for Your Tires

When it comes to what you put inside your tires, not all gases are created equal. For many decades of motoring, the only option was good ol’ compressed air. The same stuff we breathe with its mix of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and a rounding error of mostly CO2 which is ironically coming out of our tailpipes and burning the world but we’ll not veer too far into that because this is just a car maintenance blog.

Some things to know about our atmosphere. It contains water vapor, which in the presence of 21% oxygen can rust the inside surfaces of both steel and aluminum wheels and reduce the life of those tire pressure sensors you’re not falling back on anymore, right? Further, the mix of water vapor and oxygen changes pressure in response to ambient temperature.

Pure nitrogen is dry, and remains at a relatively stable pressure across the range of temperatures you’re likely to drive in. Unless you’re on the surface of the Moon or something. At which point I really have to ask how the hell you got a 2011 Nissan Altima up there in the first damned place.

Which is why professional race teams across most disciplines long ago switched to dry nitrogen. But, fear not, you don’t have to be on an F1 pit crew for this. While your average coin-operated gas station tire filler isn’t linked up to a nitrogen generator, many shops and dealerships these days have pure nitrogen on tap. Just give the service department a call and ask.

If not, don’t think you’re doing irreparable damage to your car by filling it up with normal air. It’s more about consistency and convenience. If you’re low, the priority is to get back up to recommended tire pressure as soon as you can.

The Importance of Tire Rotation

A Mechanic Removing a BMW Wheel with an Air Wrench
A Mechanic Removing a BMW Wheel with an Air Wrench

You may not have thought about it this way before, but your tires do very different jobs depending on which end of your car they’re bolted to. In rear-wheel-drive vehicles like my own, the rear wheels are responsible for acceleration, while the front are doing the more demanding jobs of steering and the vast majority of the braking (unless you’re one of those drifting hooligans who like turning your rear wheels into clouds of blue smoke in which case, you know, stop). Alternatively in a front-wheel-drive setup, which are far more common today and have been for years, the front tires are doing almost everything, from accelerating, to turning, to stopping, while the rear tires are basically just along for the ride.

This is why tire rotation at regular intervals is so critically important to their maintenance and longevity. If you leave them in one spot for long, they begin to wear unevenly, typically faster in the front, slower in the back. To keep all four tires wearing evenly, they need to make like the Mad Hatter’s tea party and change places. Every oil change is a good time to swap rubber. Whether at a shop or in your driveway, your car is already up in the air anyway, so you might as well.

Check Your Alignment

Making sure your wheels are rolling straight and true is an easy way to prevent excessive wear over long distances. Modern suspensions are complicated animals with a lot of moving parts and components that all need to be on the same page to keep your wheel alignment in good order. If your tire alignment is knocked out of whack by enough speed bumps or potholes, your vehicle’s tires will experience premature, uneven tire wear. The effect is most prominent on your front wheels, which don’t have to just go up and down but turn side to side as well. If your steering wheel isn’t sitting quite centered anymore, or your car tends to pull left or right with your hand off the wheel instead of continuing in a straight line, your alignment is probably off register and needs a check-up at a local tire shop.

Keep Your Tires from Rotting

With tires lasting longer than ever before, new problems emerged. Specifically, something called “dry rot” of the rubber. You may have seen it, when small spider cracks develop on the surface of the sidewall. This isn’t just cosmetic, cracks in the surface of the sidewall can let more chemically aggressive road grime like brake dust and winter salt penetrate deeper into the structure of the tire, even to the point it starts rusting the steel belting that gives the tread so much of its strength.

What causes dry rot, then? Well, it’s a combination of factors, including the aforementioned caustic chemicals, but more than anything it’s UV damage from the sun drying out and degrading the covalent bonds among the rubber compound itself.

However, worry not. This is very easy to counter because most of this damage is happening on the outward face of the tire. First, when you wash your car, scrub the tires extra well. Get all that grime and brake dust out of the equation. Then, once you’re finished, condition your tires just like you condition your leather seats or dashboard.

There are any number of tire shine products on the market in both spray and wipe on applications. All of them are going to contain UV protectants, no different than the SPF in the sunscreen that keeps you from looking like a sugar beet after a day on the beach.

So, there you have it. Follow this simple advice and your tires can make it two trips around the planet before it’s time to give your ride new shoes, and you’ll save a bunch of money on gas and insurance claims while you’re at it.