This winter be safe, check your tires

check your tires before winter!

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.

check your tires before snowy road!

On the other hand, if you are like most modern Americans and you come home to this, then you probably don’t need AWD.

check your tires even if the road is clear

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?

check your tires to see their treadIn 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.

check your tires before buying!

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.

check your tires with a pressure gauge

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.

check your tires to see four grooves

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:

check your tires using a gauge

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):

check your tires by zeroing out the gauge first.

Then you place the bottom of the tool flat across one of your tire grooves and push down on the white (green) rod.

check your tires by aligning the gauge with the groove.

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:

check your tires by reading the gauge.

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!

18 thoughts on “This winter be safe, check your tires

  1. Fantastic article and great reminder! I finally started checking tire pressure this year and I swear it has improved gas mileage some… feels so weird to adult and know car things but it is soooo necessary when your dad no longer lives nearby.

    1. Hi Budget Epicurean! Thanks!! I really appreciate it! You are 100% right – low tire pressure causes lower gas mileage. The reason is that low tires have more contact with the road (are flatter) and so they cause more friction – which is not necessary! Thanks again, I really appreciate your support!

  2. I drive a 2008 Toyota Highlander AWD and the tires probably need replacing. Thanks for the reminder. I did not know about the tread depth gauge tool and I’m going to get one (learned something new today). I don’t need AWD where I live, but those few times a year when we go to Tahoe, they are essential. I usually get my tires at Costco. Last week, my battery died and I had AAA bring me a new one. Thanks for the info.

    1. Hi Millionaire Doc! Thanks for stopping by! Great points you’re making here. I don’t mean to disparage AWD just reduce the pressure some people feel to spend the extra money. Costco is a great place to get tires. They have the All Season Michelins which are very highly rated and they are $70 off almost every other month.

  3. I’ve read that tires are more important than AWD or 4WD for years. Thanks for the confirmation. I drive an old sedan and am surrounded by SUV’s. I often drive in the snow too and am glad I’m this alone does not mean I’m missing out on some key safety features. If you have enough tread left, do you suggest sticking with all season tires or is there some added value to the snow versions?

    Oh and thanks for the link. Greatly appreciate you sharing my ups and downs of home ownership.

    1. Thanks Jason, I really appreciate it! If you have well rated tires and you have enough tread you can stick with all seasons. This is because you live in a relatively wild region. Of course winter tires are superior, it’s just that you’ll be fine without. The value in snow tires is a slightly more aggressive tread to cut snow and compound that stays more pliable at very cold temperatures.

      If you do decide to go with snow tires, I recommend putting them on a set of steel rims to make them easier to switch. Also see if people go one size smaller on your car. Smaller tires are cheaper and thinner tread with do better in snow.

  4. Nice information. I think there are three things no one should skimp on. Shoes, a bed, and good tires! I am from Colorado so understand fully the importance of tires. Also huge Subaru fans own two so AWD as well.

    1. Hi DM! Thanks for stopping by! That’s a nice list! I’ve had problems because I skimped out on shoes and a bed too. It’s definitely “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” type of situation. I hear you being a Subaru fan from Colorado :). Of course you guys are also a little bit insane (kidding!!) I hear they don’t use salt on the roads in some places up there.

  5. Timely read! And I thoroughly appreciated the point made about tires only have been around 100 years! It made me channel back to my organic chemistry days…yay for Charles Goodyear and the vulcanization of rubber! Off point. Couldn’t help it. #breakingbad. But yes – timely read, and all good things to know! I will keep taking my car into the professionals, as after DIY’ing a toilet replacement project, I realize there are some jobs that are better left to those who know best!

    1. Hi Mrs. Defined Sight! Thanks for stopping by! Haha, well now if we want to be historically accurate, I think that the air filled tire was invented around 1888. But if you listen to stories about the reliability of tires from the early 1900s, it wasn’t very good. Things have improved quite a bit!

      I agree with your point, sometimes the professionals are better. But sometimes, it’s routine work that they do and in that case it can be pretty sloppy. It’s not that the professionals are necessarily sloppy people. Its just that routine work is often under spec-ed in terms of time required forcing them to rush through it. Anyway, 🙂 I’d love to hear about you changing your toilet. Sounds like a great story!

      1. Agree about the professionals! We usually try to go through the trusted mom & pop places for a few services….especially plumbing! yeah, what an epic fail that was. House was from 1970s. Everything needed updates. Toiled wasn’t working. Bought one at Menards. Enlisted Dad & and uncle (neither have experience with home repairs). Installed it. Thing leaked, didn’t flush right. Called the mom & pop plumbers of town. They re-installed/fixed everything and said, “don’t do that again. When you are ready to replace the other toilet in your bathroom, which is also in dire need, please call us directly and buy through us.” Oops! Yup, called them for that one a few months later…that was the better deal and less hassle!

  6. This is so helpful thank you! I really love how different your blog is 🙂

    Sophia | Sophia’s Sphere | 🌺

  7. I proved the value of snow tires to myself one year. Went to work in western Michigan snow storm, got snow tires put on, drove home through same storm, same roads, same car. Night and Day difference. They are worth it for anyone who winter drives.

    1. Oh they are, if you’re going to do that drive then definitely get them. But I would hope most people won’t have to drive through a storm or on powder roads.

  8. I’m considering steel wheels + winter tires and swapping them out each year to avoid wear and tear from changing out just the tires so frequently. 🙂 Need to think about if I really want it. I have “mud and snow” tires right now and slip occasionally in the MN snow up here, but most of the time it’s not an issue so idk if it’s worth the cost.

    1. I think that’s the right approach, if you are going to go snow tire. You also won’t have to pay the $15 mount fee for all 4 tires each year. If you happen to get the combo from tire rack, they will mount it for free. So yeah, I think its a great idea. I’ve personally never been able to justify the cost like you though. And lets face it, if you’re not having issues in the MN winter, not many of us can complain :).

    1. Haha thanks!! I really appreciate it actuary on 🔥!!! Feel free to stop by and say that anytime!

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