Essential tire maintenance tips: Your complete guide to tire care

October 7, 2020

Learn to keep your car rolling with these essential tire maintenance tips!


A man performing essential tire maintenance

Maintaining an auto engine can take a lot of work! But when it comes to vehicle safety and performance, your tires are literally where the rubber meets the road, and without taking care of them, your car is going nowhere fast. The wheel may be one of humanity's earliest inventions, but keeping modern day tires in working order isn't always so simple. That's why today we're going over some essential tire maintenance tips in our complete guide to tire care!

When should you replace your tires? 


Nothing lasts forever, and the tires on our vehicles are certainly no exception! Replacing your tires is a regular part of keeping your vehicle in working condition. But how do you know when you're supposed to do that? 

Tread wear


Having worn tread on your tires is one of the key indicators that it's time to get new tires. The tread on your tires are the grooved sections that wrap around the tire. They are instrumental in helping you maintain traction on various road types and in various weather conditions like rain, ice, and snow.

Over time, the rubber can become hard and crack, and with use, the tread naturally wears down. This can make it difficult to brake and handle your vehicle, and could lead to a flat or rupture. So, how do you tell when there is enough wear on your tire's treads to warrant replacing them? There are a few methods!

The penny test. More than likely, you have a little change rattling around in a cup holder somewhere in your car. If you do (you definitely do), there's a simple test you can perform to check the wear on your tires. Take a penny and place it vertically in between the tread grooves on the tire with Lincoln's head facing down. Then, kneel down level with your tire and see how much of the penny is covered. If Lincoln's head is completely visible, then your tread is too worn and you'll likely need new tires.

The quarter test. If you don't have a penny, you can perform a similar test with a quarter. Following the same instructions, look and see if the tread touches Washington's head. If it doesn't, then it's time to look at replacing the tires. 

Tire tread wear bar. If you really don't have any change on hand, or if you only have nickels and dimes, all tires should come with their own wear indicator, called the "tire tread wear bar." This is a little strip of rubber that runs perpendicular to your tread, and can usually be found in the bottom of the tread groove. If these bars are even with the surrounding tread, this indicates the need to replace your tires. 

Flats and punctures


If you find that your tire is completely flat, and there is a giant hole in it, the solution is simple: Replace the tire. However, not all flats are the same or as obvious, and the way you deal with it depends on how it got that way in the first place. If you suspect that you might have a leaky tire, there are a few ways you can be sure. 

First, inspect the tire for any obvious signs. This could be a nail or any other sharp object protruding from the tire. While a nail in your tire doesn't necessarily mean that it has punctured the inner tube and caused a leak, removing it is usually a good idea. 

With a pair of pliers or a claw hammer, remove the nail. Many tires will try and self-seal, but you should still have a plug on hand. You can drive with a nail in your tire for a short distance, but it can be dangerous. Simply hitting a curb or a bump could drive the nail in further, and possibly cause a blowout. 

If the puncture isn't obvious, further testing may be required. For this, you'll need a bucket of soapy water and a brush. Alternatively, you can mix such a solution in an empty spray bottle. The objective is to coat the surface of the tire with the mixture and look for soapy bubbles to form as the air escapes (just like you'd check for leaks on a grill's gas line). Of course, the leak might be on the side of the tire on the ground. You can either slowly move your car to rotate the tire, or remove the wheel completely to do this. 

If you're able to locate the leak (or leaks), mark them with a piece of duct tape, a silver felt-tipped pen, or some other method that clearly indicates the location. This can help a tire repair shop locate the issue more easily. If the leak is bad enough that you don't think you can drive with it, put the damaged tire in your trunk and put your spare on so that you can make your way to the tire repair shop (or take it there in a different vehicle). 

Regardless of the source of your leak, having one doesn't always mean your tire needs to be replaced. As long as your tread isn't completely worn, many tire shops will repair your leaky tire. However, repairing a hole or puncture of any size is something that you shouldn't put off for any length of time, even if it doesn't seem serious. 

Routine tire maintenance: How to get the most out of your new tires


So, for one reason or another, you've bought yourself some brand new tires! Now, what steps can you take to make sure you get the most from your purchase? Let's take a look. 

Check and maintain tire air pressure


First and foremost, you need to make sure that your tire pressure is adequate. If your tires are overinflated, it causes the center tread to wear at a different rate than the tread on the outer part of the tire. Of course, this means you'll likely have to replace your tires more frequently, and could result in poor traction and an altogether less comfortable ride. 

However, if you don't have enough air in the tire, you might have too much of the tire making contact with the road. The excess friction can cause issues with your gas mileage and, again, causes the tread to wear more quickly. 

This is a function of both the tire and the vehicle. With a tire pressure gauge, you can remove the cap and check the pressure (in pounds per square inch, or PSI). But how do you know what the correct PSI for your tire is? There are a few ways you can check. 

On the tire. The first and most obvious place to check for the recommended tire pressure is on the tire itself. You can usually find this on the side of the tire, typically below the manufacturer's logo. It will say something along the lines of "Max.Pressure 30 PSI."

However, it's worth noting that this is typically the maximum allowable pressure - not the pressure that is necessarily the best for your vehicle. 

Car door. Many cars actually have a metal plaque on the inside of the driver door. Here, it will list the recommended tire pressure for your vehicle specifically. 

Your owner's manual. If you can't find the plaque, your owner's manual should have a section regarding tire maintenance and upkeep. In this section, it should outline what the proper PSI for your tires should be. 

It's a good idea to check your tire pressure frequently. If you notice that there is always a substantial drop in pressure, it might be necessary to inspect the tire for leaks, and possibly replace them. Checking them once a month is a good idea, but consider checking the pressure each time you're fueling up at the gas station. Additionally, before you go on a road trip, or any long drive, make sure your tires are aired up. 

It's also worth noting that not every car has 4 identical tires. This means it is possible that you need different tire pressures for the front and back. Again, consult your owner manual for specific details. 

Rotate your tires


Rotating your tires is a simple way to increase the lifespan of your tires by making sure that they wear more evenly over time. As you can imagine, your tires wear differently based on where they are located on the car.

For example, a front-wheel drive car uses the front tires to generate power and propel the car forward, so they naturally wear faster than the rear wheels. Similarly, the rear tires in a rear-wheel drive vehicle will do the bulk of the work, and will likely wear faster than the front. 

Because tires wear differently based on the type of vehicle you have, there are different methods, or rotation patterns, you should consider when rotating them. 

Front-wheel drive vehicles. Remove the front tires and place them in the rear position of the same side. Take the rear tires, and place them in the front position of the opposite side. For example, the right front tire should rotate to the right rear position, and the left rear tire should go on the right front position. 

Rear-wheel drive vehicles. For rear-wheel drive vehicles, the process is similar to the rotation pattern for front-wheel drive vehicles, but inverted. Take the rear tires and place them in the front position of the same side. Then, take the front tires and place them on the opposite side in the rear position. For example, your right rear tire should rotate to the right front, and your left front should rotate to the right rear position. 

All-wheel drive vehicles. For all-wheel drive vehicles, simply rotate in a crisscross pattern. In other words, your left front should go to the right rear, and the right rear to the left front, and so on. 

Of course, not all cars have the same wheel and tire size for all four positions. For example, some high-performance sports cars have wider tires in the rear for extra traction. In such a scenario, you obviously can't rotate the rear tires to the front position, or vise-versa, so rotating your tires might not be possible.

Additionally, some high-performance tires are unidirectional, meaning they are only designed to spin in one direction. These tires cannot be rotated simply by moving the wheels, but instead, must first be taken off of the wheel completely and placed back on in the correct orientation. 

If you're uncertain whether your vehicle is front, rear, or all-wheel drive, consult your owner's manual for clarification. While rotating your tires is certainly something you can do at home, it's always best to consult a professional shop if you have any questions or concerns about the process. 

Either way, in order to get the most out of your tires, it is recommended that you rotate them every 3000-5000 miles, or every six months. A good way to remember this is to simply rotate them every time you change your oil. 

Balance your tires and wheels


The idea of balancing your tires is to make sure that it has an even distribution of weight around the entire tire. If the weight is out of balance, it causes the tire to wobble slightly, which can result in uneven tire wear, vibrating steering wheels, and a bumpy ride in general. If you notice that any of these symptoms while driving, especially as you increase your speed, then you probably need to have your tires balanced. 

Fortunately, balancing a tire is a relatively painless process, but it needs to be done carefully and precisely. For this reason, it's usually something you'll need the help of a tire shop to do. 

The shop will remove the wheel and place it on a special machine that spins the wheel and tire so that it can measure whether or not it is balanced, how much it is out of balance, and where. Then, they simply attach small weights to the appropriate area, usually in small increments like half an ounce or so. 

Because the tire and wheel have to be removed to be properly balanced, this is usually a process that is done when you're either getting new tires or having your tires rotated. So, the next time you're getting new tires, or having them rotated, make sure to ask the technician to balance them, too. 

Get a tire and wheel alignment


If you've ever noticed that you have to hold your steering wheel at an angle in order to keep your car moving straight, then you have likely experienced alignment issues. Other indicators may also include steering wheel vibration, a tendency for your vehicle to pull left or right, and unsurprisingly, uneven tire wear. 

As you can imagine, a vehicle that is out of alignment can be dangerous. It can make driving much more difficult, and puts you at risk of a blowout. For this reason, if you notice any of the symptoms outlined above, it's important to take your vehicle to the shop for an alignment. 

So what exactly is a "tire alignment" anyway? Although it is referred to as a tire alignment, it actually refers to the angle at which your wheels and tires are connected to your vehicle's suspension system. There are three main angles that an alignment corrects, which are camber, caster, and toe (for a more in depth look at these terms, check out this helpful diagram). 

In general, these terms refer to the various angles of your tire with respect to the body of your vehicle and the steering axle. Any one of these can make it difficult to steer, and will certainly cause uneven wear on your tires. When a technician performs an alignment, they are correcting these angles, ensuring that the tires are properly oriented with the car and the road. 

While a vehicle can slowly lose alignment over time simply due to normal use, the most significant alterations occur after you get new tires, replace parts of the suspension, get in an accident, or after any other major impact (like hitting a giant pothole). 

As you can imagine, aligning your tires is a very precise and complex process the requires special machinery and computers. For this reason, you will almost certainly need to take your vehicle to an experienced professional shop with an alignment machine. 

Does auto insurance cover damaged tires? 


In general, auto insurance does not cover flat tires as tire wear and upkeep are considered to be part of normal wear and tear. However, many retail tire shops offer a variety of warranty plans when you purchase new tires.

That having been said, if you have comprehensive auto coverage, your carrier may cover your tires if they were vandalized or stolen (after paying a deductible). Additionally, a comprehensive auto policy could cover damage to your car that is a result of a flat or a blowout. 

Of course, the specifics of your auto coverage will depend on your policy and your insurance carrier. For more information about your specific policy and coverages, make sure to reach out to your agent. 

A man performing essential tire maintenance by rotating tires

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Read more: The more you drive, the more often your tires need care. But what if you don't drive that often? Read our blog for tips to maintain vehicles you don't drive often!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.