So this past weekend, the Northeast, and something like 1/3 of the United States, had their first taste of winter. As usual for a winter weekend, we had tons of snow, people attacking grocery stores as if we are about to be starved out, and, of course, lots of panicking about driving.
This all got the Handy Millennial thinking. You see, in a previous post, we discussed the battery and cleaning it up so you don’t have any unpleasant experiences in January. But we never talked about checking your tires before winter.
Now tires are actually both a miracle and a victim of science. They are a miracle of science because in the last 100 years we have gone from something that was barely usable and in constant need of attention, to something that is virtually invisible to the average user. And that right there is why tires are also a victim of science; they have become an afterthought for most motorists.
The trouble is that tires are actually super important, and as much progress as we make with autonomous driving, safety technologies, etc., we will never outgrow the need for good tires. Why? Simple my dear reader: nature, frankly, just doesn’t care about your fancy stuff. The law of physics are, well, the laws of physics.
Do you need an AWD car?
Now first, what is AWD please??? Oh right, excuse me, pardon me for introducing an acronym without explaining it. AWD stands for All Wheel Drive. This is a system on a car which enables all wheels to propel the car forward. It is a similar system to 4×4, which also uses all 4 wheels for propulsion.
The key difference is that an AWD car will usually take power away from a wheel that is slipping, while the 4×4 will provide constant power. This helps your wheels not dig themselves into a surface. When a wheel spins in snow or mud, or whatever, it makes the surface under it slick. This leads to having less and less traction, and therefore being more and more stuck!!
Do you need an AWD car? Well my dear reader, chances are you do not need an AWD car. We should probably caution this. There are no one-size-fits-all answers. So if you live in a place that requires you to do this to come home at night, then by all means consider AWD.
On the other hand, if you are like most modern Americans and you come home to this, then you probably don’t need AWD.
At this point you, my dear reader, should be questioning me! Why? Well because this is the internet and you don’t believe everything you read do you? 🙂 But seriously, what’s difference?
The difference is that one road is salted and one road is not. The bottom road is actually a modern luxury and one that most people take for granted! So if you live in a place that has reasonable cleaning of the roads, and you do not plan to stop and go on slick surfaces like ice, then you probably could skip the expensive AWD!!
The Handy Millennial will now run for cover because the AWD enthusiasts of America are coming!
But why don’t I need an AWD car?
The answer to this question lies in what AWD does. AWD helps your car gain traction when starting from a stopped position. AWD does not prevent your car from sliding while driving. It does not keep you on the road when it’s slick out. It also does not help you when you are stopping – that’s a pretty big one.
Well what does do those things? Answer: your tires. Yes, those ugly black things you never think of are what keeps you safe on the road.
If tires trump AWD, how do I make sure I got good ones?
In order to buy good tires, you need to know what kinds of tires there are. There are summer tires, winter tires, and all-season tires. The difference is the type of rubber that is used when making the tire.
You see, temperature can have a profound effect on the rubber compounds used in tires. Heat makes tires go soft; cold makes tires get hard. So a summer tire is a tire that can stay rigid at very hot temperatures. A winter tire is a tire that can stay soft at really cold temperatures. An all-season tire is a tire that can do both, but not to the same degree of extremeness as the season-specific tire.
Now it used to be common for people to switch between summer and winter tires. But as the compounds improved, most people found they simply no longer needed the specific tire. There are obvious exceptions to this: if you live in Alaska, you probably have winter tires. If you live in Death Valley, you probably have summer tires. All things being equal, a dedicated season tire will always outperform the compromise all-season. It’s just that most of us have been able to skate by on the compromise all-season.
Do your research.
As with everything you buy, research is key. You can go to Consumer Reports, or you can go to one of the tire stores. For example, I like Tire Rack. They have lots of research in which they compare different brands. Yes, they do sell them, so you can take all of it with a grain of salt. But they have a test track in Connecticut where they try our their product in different conditions.
It also pays to comparison shop after you have found your model. Try out Discount Tire Direct, and of course Costco. Major holidays = Major Savings here. Whatever you do, do not simply drive to your neighborhood tire chain and order 4 tires. That is how you end up slipping and sliding and convinced you need AWD!
How to get those tires installed without getting ripped off.
Once you’ve selected your tires, it’s time to put them on. Now you might think that the Handy Millennial would advocate DIY here. But no, my dear reader, this is one of those rare occasions where paying the professional helps a lot! Why? Well, those beautiful wheels on your car can get scraped up with the DIY tools. The professional machines are both very expensive and very worth it.
Of course, this does not mean you should pay for THEIR expensive machine! If you buy tires from one of the online stores, you can get them drop-shipped to an installer of your choice. A few minutes with your trusty keyboard, and you can quickly find out which installers are well rated and have low installation costs.
You should be able to get your tires installed for around $15-$20 per tire, and this includes disposal fees and any new hardware you might need.
OK, so I went and bought good tires. Now what?
Now you get the joy of being an owner!! Yay!! As much as the Handy Millennial loves DIY, he acknowledges that everything you own needs care. And sometimes it can just stack up on you at the wrong time! Check out Jason’s recent post at Winning Personal Finance regarding unexpected care surprises when you own your own home.
Anywho, back to tires.
Blow up those tires.
One thing you need to make sure you keep on top of is having enough air in the tires. How much should you have? Great question! Walk around your car and open the doors. In the door jam (usually driver side front or rear driver side) you will find a sticker that specifies how much air should be in your tires. Put exactly that amount of air in. This is what your car was designed for to maximize comfort and traction, and to minimize wear. To check how much air you have in your tires you need a tire pressure gauge. Here is what it looks like.
Get yourself one of these and check your tire pressure about once per month or two. It’s a $5 investment in the health of your tires.
Definitely stay on top of it in spring and fall. The temperature changes will impact the air in your tire. If it’s too cold, you will have too little pressure. Your tires will sag and you will actually lose traction in snow – thin is better in snow. If it’s too hot, you will have too much pressure, resulting in less traction and more tire wear.
Make sure you have enough tire left for winter.
Before winter comes, you should make sure that your tires are safe for snow. What does this mean? Well, your tire has grooves on it. These grooves are meant to channel water and snow as you roll over it, so that the rubber can make contact with the road.
If those grooves are not deep enough, your tires will only touch snow and lose your grip. So what does deep enough mean? If you are going to drive on snow, you need to have 6/32nd of an inch left. If you drive through rain you should have 4/32nds left. The legal limit is 2/32nds… I don’t know where that one came from.
We need to measure how much tire we have. Isn’t there a penny trick or something?
Yes there is, my dear reader! But the Handy Millennial doesn’t recommend you do that. Why? Well, because you just spent somewhere between $1,000 and $1,500 on tires. Why not get the $4 tool that helps you read them? The right tool for the right job makes all the difference.
This is the one I have. And here is a picture of it:
Notice that the new and improved version that I have recommended actually comes color coded. Great! When you hit the yellow portion, if you live in the snowy part of the country, think about some new tires.
So how do you use this fancy tool?
Ah good question. That’s actually the point of my post here, so let’s get to it! But before you do, please make sure you put your car in park, pull up the emergency brake, put a rock behind it: whatever you need to do to feel safe. The Handy Millennial is not responsible for what you are doing here, and does not wish to hear about any Darwin Awards being issued.
So here is how we use our tool! First, make sure that the needle is fully retracted and flush with the bottom. Let me explain, the white cylinder has a long metal needle (not sharp) attached to it. When you push on the cylinder the needle comes out and that’s how you measure the groove depth. Now when you retract the needle it looks like this (trust me, you’ll know what to do):
Then you place the bottom of the tool flat across one of your tire grooves and push down on the white (green) rod.
Now gently remove your index finger, and then remove the tool from the tire. Make sure that the middle rod is not disturbed. Now take a look at your gauge. Look at the metal rim. Whichever number is intersected, that’s how deep you tire groove is. For example:
You see how there is a partially covered 8 with a little line right next to it at the cusp of the metal? This means that my tire groove is 8/32nds. Don’t get too confused by the 32nds. You could safely say that my tire is an 8, and if were to get to a 6, I’d replace it. 32nds just tells you that it’s 8 parts if we divide an inch by 32.
Check all grooves.
Now while I’m at it, I like to check all four grooves. Why? If there is a problem with your car, your tires will wear unevenly. A quick check with this little handy tool tells me if everything else is in order. If not, time to visit your local mechanic to find out what’s going on!
So there you have it! This is all you need to do to make sure that you have checked on your tires! Not too hard! And remember, if you need new ones, research, research, research – be choosy!
Bonus: Don’t forget the sunglasses.
Now before I leave you, I have one more tip for winter driving. Winter tends to have very bright sunny days while the ground is covered in snow or generally wet. Be safe and grab yourself a pair of polarized sunglasses to avoid the glare so you can see. Personally, I can’t stand the thought of remembering my sunglasses – I have too many other things to do. So I go with these. They are actually safety glasses but for $17 you get polarization and some protection. Cool!