You ask a lot from your car's tires. You want them to be durable, grip the road at all times, be quiet, and you probably expect them to be affordable, too. As the only part of your car that is actually designed to touch the road, tires are an extremely important part of vehicle maintenance and driving safety. Driving around with a tire that has too much or too little air can cause big problems.
As a big strip of rubber that contains air and is constantly exposed to the elements and the road, tires need care and maintenance to function properly. One of the most important and easiest things you can do to preserve your tires' life and make sure you're keeping up with vehicle safety is to check your tire pressure. Even if you're not an auto pro and hate the idea of getting your hands dirty, checking the air in your tire is something you can do. Here's how.
Remove the Valve Stem Cap
Unless you have an exotic car with a novel wheel design (looking at you, BMW Alpina), your tires will have a valve stem and cap. The valve stem is where you pump air into the tire and it's where you attach the pressure gauge to check the air in your tires. Keep track of the valve cap after you remove it.
Use Your Tire Pressure Gauge
Following the directions from your tire pressure gauge, press it into the valve stem to get a pressure reading. It might take a moment, especially if you're using a digital gauge, but very quickly you'll have a reading on the tire air level.
If you don't have a tire pressure gauge, you may find luck at a gas station or service station's air pump. Many units have air pressure gauges built-in, and newer digital systems can automatically fill tires to a preset pressure level.
Check Recommended Tire Pressure
Look inside your driver's side door jamb to find a white, yellow, and black sticker. The sticker will give you the correct tire pressure, but be aware that it's referring to the tires' cold air pressure. This means that you'll need to wait for a few hours after driving the car to get an accurate cold pressure reading.
It's important to get the temperature right when checking your tires, as air expands and contracts when it's hot or cold. This means that your tires could read as being low on pressure in the morning when it's cool out, but may read fine in the afternoon as the sun has been out for a while.
Add or Remove Air As Necessary
If you have underinflated tires or overinflated tires, you'll need to add or remove air. Take your car to a gas or service station where an air pump is available and add air. You can remove air yourself at home with a flathead screwdriver or other pointed tool. Press gently on the center of the uncovered valve stem to remove air. Be careful to let the air out slowly so as not to underinflate the tire.
Terms You Should Know
The sidewall is the part of the tire that you see when standing next to the vehicle. It's the vertical rubber section between your wheels and the tread on the tire. Sidewalls provide structural integrity and rigidity to a tire and can become damaged if you drive with tires that have incorrect inflation pressure.
Tire Pressure Monitoring
Tire pressure monitoring, or TPMS, uses sensors to determine whether the tire is close to its recommended psi. Tire pressure monitoring systems are not foolproof and may over-or under-estimate tire pressure during wild temperature swings. Different vehicle manufacturers show tire pressure warnings in different ways, so a new car may not alert you in the same way as others you've experienced.
A blowout is a rapid deflation of a tire, which can be caused by tire failure or damage occurred by a puncture or other road obstacle. It can also be caused by overinflation, which puts additional pressure on a tire, almost like a balloon that has been blown up far.
Some new cars sidestep the spare tire to save space and weight and may include a flat tire repair kit that includes fixing a flat or other chemical solution. In general, however, many cars do come with a spare tire, but it's important to check it for proper tire pressure before setting off.
Why Tire Maintenance Matters
Believe it or not, there are several tire maintenance-related tasks you'll need to perform on a semi-regular basis. Ignoring your tires is a recipe for disaster, as proper tire inflation can have a big impact on your car's fuel efficiency, driving safety, and performance. Tires that have been improperly filled can reduce fuel economy by causing unnecessary friction if they're underinflated. Tires that have too much air don't create the same traction because their contact patch with the road is smaller.
Tires wear differently for different cars. Rear-wheel drive vehicles can burn through rear tires sooner than front-drive cars can. When buying new tires, it's important to understand your car's drive wheels. If you have an all-wheel-drive car, you may need to replace all four tires at the same time, while other drive types may allow you to buy one or two at a time. Check-in your glove box for the owner's manual if you're unsure of your car's configuration.
You don't need to be an automotive expert to understand tire pressures, but if you're unsure, it's best to drop into an auto parts store or mechanic to get a rundown on what you're missing. Your car's tires are among its most important components, as they're the only part of the vehicle designed to touch the road. Ignore your tire's maintenance at your own peril. You'll see worse gas mileage and will be reducing the safety of your car on the road. Checking your tire air pressure is quick, easy, and free if you have a pressure gauge at home.