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How to look after your tyres

Carlton Boyce / 04 October 2018 ( 26 October 2017 )

Nothing affects the way your car handles, grips, brakes, and steers more than your tyres.

A car with a flat tyre stopped on the side of the raod

The unsung heroes of your motoring life, they are under-appreciated, often neglected, and replaced too infrequently.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Looking after your tyres isn’t complicated or time-consuming - and doing so might save your life as well making them last a lot longer…

Tyre pressures

Car manufacturers go to great lengths to establish the optimum pressure for your car’s tyres, so there’s little to be gained from tweaking them in an attempt to get even better performance.

The recommended pressure settings are usually found inside the driver’s door shut and there will often be two different pressures stated: one for everyday use and one for high-speed driving with a load on board. If you can’t find your car’s tyre pressure then 30psi will usually do the job until you can contact your local garage or car dealer to ask them for the precise figure.

You’ll need to check the pressures when the tyres are cold and it’s best done once a week as it’s normal for them to lose a little bit of their pressure over time. Most garages now have machines that will automatically inflate a tyre to a pre-set pressure but their accuracy isn’t great so you’ll need to double-check with your own tyre pressure gauge.

Valve caps

The valve caps on your tyres don’t stop the air escaping but you should still replace one if it is missing because they stop dirt and moisture getting into the valve and causing problems. Spares only cost a few pence, so why not keep a spare or two in the glovebox.

Spare tyre or tyre foam?

Tread depth

It’s a good idea to check your tyres for damage when you do your weekly tyre pressure check. You’re looking for any cuts, lumps and bulges in the sidewalls of your tyres, or nails and other debris in the tread. With the exception of stones in the tread, which I carefully lever out, it’s worth getting a professional’s opinion if you do find anything else to see whether it constitutes a problem.

As for tread depth, the legal minimum is 1.6mm in a continuous band across the central three-quarters of the tyre. This (roughly) equates to the depth of the edge of a 20 pence coin but manufacturers usually put in wear bars at this level too.

However, 1.6mm is not a lot and most local authorities, emergency services, and fleet managers replace them at 3mm. I do too, and you should as well because the extra cost is minimal over the lifetime of the tyres and the increased safety margin is worth every single penny.

Your car’s TPMS

All new cars must be fitted with a Tyre Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS). This has been the law since 2014, so a lot of us have become familiar with them, even if we don’t understand them completely!

They work by constantly measuring the pressure of your four tyres. If that pressure drops below a pre-set level, a warning will flash up on the dashboard. The TPMS is pretty much maintenance free and very reliable, so if you get a warning it’s likely to be genuine and you should stop as soon as it’s safe to do so and check for yourself.

How to change a wheel on a car

Rotate your tyres

We used to try and even out tyre wear by rotating our car’s wheels in a complicated dance that no-one really understood. However, with the advent of directional tyres we can only move them from front to back and vice versa.

How do you know if you’ve got directional tyres? If you have, there will be an arrow on the sidewall of the tyre showing the direction it must be fitted and/or the word ‘Outside’.

Tyre rotation is best done every 3-6,000 miles to even out the way your tyres are wearing - and don’t forget to check the tyre pressures too as they might be different front and back.

Why are wheel balance weights attached to the outside of the wheel? Would they not be just as effective if placed on the inner rim where they would not detract from the appearance of the wheel from the outside? I find it annoying when cleaning my car that each wheel has an unsightly lump of lead stuck on it. I’m sure other drivers must feel the same.” Peter, via email

Carlton’s response

The short answer is convenience. Wheel weights are used to balance your car’s wheels and tyres; even the most carefully manufactured wheels and tyres will need to be balanced when they’re fitted because you can suffer dangerously high levels of wheel wobble at higher speeds if they’re not.

The solution is to have them dynamically balanced, which involves spinning them at high speed on a special machine. The machine’s display shows the operator how much weight is needed and where. The weight needed on each wheel is usually only a few grams, which gives you an idea of how tiny amounts of imbalance can have dramatic effects. If the wheel balancing is done well, it will eradicate any imbalance and prevent the steering wheel shaking in your hands.

The clip-on style of wheel weight that we’re all used to can’t usually be used with alloy wheels, only on those made of steel and because most cars now have alloy wheels, this style of wheel weight is falling out of favour. And, while the clip-on wheel weights had to be fitted on the very outer edge of the wheel rim, the more modern, stick-on variety can be fitted anywhere on a car’s wheel. However, it’s easier and quicker to stick them where the wheel balancing machine says they should go, which can be on the inside or outside of the wheel or both.

An experienced and skilled operator can achieve much the same effect by attaching them only to the inside of the wheel but it takes longer and time is money. (I say “much the same effect” because but it might not be possible to achieve quite the same degree of accuracy by placing them on the inside of the alloy wheel but the reality is that the tyre/wheel tolerances are such that you probably wouldn’t notice a difference on the road.)

So, if having wheel weights on the outside of your wheel bothers you - and I completely understand why it would - then your best bet is to phone around to find a garage or tyre fitting centre that is prepared to take the time to stick them only on the inside of your wheels. But, you’ll probably need to pay a bit more to have it done this way because it will take longer and it demands the services of a more skilled technician. You might also find that your steering wheel shimmies a little more at speed; if it does then you might have to go back to having balancing weights on the outside of your wheel.

Wheel alignment

Correct wheel alignment is crucial, not only for safe handling and braking but also to maximise the life of your tyres; if the tracking is out, for example, then the tyres will wear unevenly with either the inside or outside of the tyre wearing more quickly than the rest. I’ve seen new tyres destroyed in a couple of thousand miles in extreme cases.

While the best way to check this is to ask a garage, you can do a rough-and-ready check using only your hands: simply run the palm of your hand across the tread from side to side. If the tyre feels smooth in one direction and rough in the other, then your tracking is almost certainly out of alignment and needs adjusting.

The Rule of Four - and Two

No, not a Sherlock Homes story but a reminder that it’s important to stick to the same make and model of tyre on all four corners. Fitting an oddball mishmash of tyres will give different levels of grip on each corner, leading to potentially catastrophic results.

You should also replace tyres in pairs across an axle for the same reason. So if you have to replace a tyre because of a puncture for example, you’ll need to splash out for one for the other side too. This isn’t marketing bumf but sound engineering.

New tyres need running in to too, so avoid harsh braking, acceleration and cornering for the first five hundred miles.

Storing tyres

Many of us now have two sets of tyres, one for the winter months and one for the rest of the year. If you do, it’s important to store them correctly to keep them in tip-top condition in a cool, dark place. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re laid flat or stored upright, but you’ll need to protect them from oil, grease and other solvents that might damage them.

Winter tyres for bad weather

Fun tyre fact

With a pleasing symmetry, roads have been at least partially made from used tyres since the 1960s. The used tyres are shredded before being mixed with asphalt to create a safer and more environmentally friendly road surface.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.