As I write this, gray skies outside my window hint at the impending winter weather predicted in the forecast.
A mixed bag, metaphorically described by meteorologists, with the line demarcating the liquid from frozen precipitation dancing from northwest to southeast as the radar model timeline turns hours into seconds.
In the automotive service world this means one thing: the snow tire scramble.
Those all-season tires with tread interrupted by wear bars and side walls smoothly transitioning to the tire’s circumference unencumbered by traction-aiding grooves having been scrubbed off from miles of out-of-alignment driving are no longer adequate for the slippery road ahead.
Of course, this is nothing new — we see it and expect it every year, but our collective denial or maybe simply procrastination tends to put off that which is not a priority. Dry roads and peak foliage certainly don’t spark thoughts of snow tires quite the same way that a snow map plastered across a flat screen does.
There are several options, depending on one’s foresight. Some people buy snow tires mounted and balanced on spare rims to facilitate a quick changeover. The simplicity of this method is hampered by added costs and off-season storage limitations.
Since 2008 in the U.S., all vehicles under 10,000 pounds must have a TPMS — Tire Pressure Monitoring System, which alerts drivers to low air pressure in their tires. These sensors can be pricey to buy, install and program, but they keep that pesky amber warning light out on the instrument cluster. (It’s not the check engine light but the indicator that looks like a bottom quarter profile of a tire with an exclamation point in it.)
Service facilities that knowingly make the system inoperative — leave the sensors out to save money — run the risk of violating the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act that governs this regulation.
In addition to the four TPMS sensors, a second set of rims or wheels add to the cost as well as the tires themselves.
Properly storing whichever set is not being used can be difficult for some, and a fully assembled tire and wheel can be heavy.
Buying a set of snow tires to mount and balance annually comes with its own costs: the cost of the tires, of course, followed by the cost of mounting and balancing, and then mounting and balancing the “summer” tires in the spring.
Storage can be an issue as well, but the weight of a tire is considerably less than a tire and wheel combination and easier to handle.
Some tire shops offer special pricing for the switchover when purchasing the tires from them, and that incentive might be enough to sway your decision. The upside is your tires are balanced twice a year by default.
There are numerous internet sources for inexpensive tires and tire-and-wheel combos. It’s important to understand if you purchase tires this way and there is an issue, it’s your responsibility, not the shop mounting the tires, to resolve it.
And please don’t assume it’s acceptable to ship tires directly to your favorite mechanic’s place. Most service facilities are limited on space, and tires take up a lot of room.
It’s also unreasonable to expect a shop to check for damage in shipping or to protect your new tires while waiting for your appointment. Would you have the ingredients for a meal shipped to your favorite restaurant to refrigerate and ask them to cook it when you arrive? I certainly hope not.
Purchasing used tires can be a money saver, but prepare to do some research and due diligence. Don’t expect the person selling the tires to know if they’ll fit your car. Regardless of the sellers' perceived knowledge, spend some time online researching your choice before committing. There are few things worse than finding out after your old tires are dismounted that your “new” ones won’t work.
Used tires, particularly those formerly on a car that was out of alignment or had suspension issues, might already be worn unevenly. Just a small amount of incorrect wear can cause the next car they are mounted on to pull to one side, ride or handle poorly, and create excessive road noise.
If considering used tires be sure they are the correct size for your particular vehicle. The same make and model but different edition could use completely different wheel or tire sizes and the reasons for this might not be obvious. A tire that’s too wide might rub on a suspension component or not clear a larger brake caliper.
Speed ratings and date of manufacture need to be considered as well. A tire with a lot of tread but that’s aged could develop dry cracking that might not be visible until the tire is mounted and pressurized to capacity with air.
Purchasing a used set of rims for seasonal tires also share similar concerns. Correct size is only a portion of the necessary information. The lug pattern is important. How many lug nuts or bolts does your particular vehicle have and what is the diameter of the circular pattern of these lugs? If you have alloy wheels and want steel wheels for winter, you may need different length lugs or lugs with a different seat contour.
The offset is also important, and that refers to where the hub surface is located in relation to the overall width of the wheel. You’ve probably seen vehicles with wheels that stick out too far from the body. The wheels may be too wide, but chances are it’s an incorrect offset.
Many people prefer steel wheels for winter tires as they tend to be more rugged and less prone to warping when suffering an impact. Steelies, as they’re known, do develop surface rust when exposed to salt and moisture, but alloy wheels also have corrosion issues, especially in the area of the bead or where the tire seals against the wheel. Over time, this will result in slow leaks and will require dismounting the tire, cleaning up the corrosion, and remounting and rebalancing the tire.
Snow tires can greatly improve the driving characteristics of your car, but shop wisely and plan ahead. Winter comes every year, ready or not.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.