Bottom Line
Tired out
Proper care of your tires can help you get the most out of one of your biggest expenses

By Jeff Barker
contributing writer


Let’s face it. Truck tires are probably one of the most neglected areas, yet one of the most important in terms of operating expenses.

Unfortunately, the air pressure of many truck tires on the road is almost never checked. That is, unless something is visibly wrong or the sound of the tire thumper hitting the tread isn’t quite right during the pre-trip inspection.

Now, more than ever, it’s critical to get more life out of your tires to save money over the long haul. Although there may be some initial expense, you’ll realize benefits immediately and see your tires last much longer than they probably do now.

All right on air?

This is an area where too often many of us admittedly fall short. When we get going a bit later than expected, about the most attention our tires will get, if they’re lucky, is a tap with a tire thumper, right? That means you will miss that screw, nail or whatever else that’s punctured your tire and created a slow leak.

That’s why it’s so important to check the tire pressure with a good quality gauge. You’re more likely to catch those slow leaks and get them repaired before they pose a bigger problem – like when the friendly CHP officer at the Banning scales on I-10 decides to choose your truck for an inspection and then shuts you down because of a screw in your tire. Worse yet, blowouts are no fun with the costly damage that slinging tread often causes when a tire goes at highway speeds.

Before checking air pressure or adding air, clean the valve stem. This will help keep your valve stems from developing slow leaks.

If you’re inflating a tire and hear ripping noises, it means that the sidewall is probably separating from the tire casing. Stop airing up the tire and get away from it immediately before the tire blows apart and causes serious injury and/or hearing loss.

Straighten up

Axles out of alignment and worn suspension components will cause a lot of premature tire wear. This is where finding a reputable, specialized frame and alignment shop will benefit you.

Unlike tire dealers and truck dealers, these shops usually have more knowledge and resources available to check your truck’s chassis components for worn parts before performing an alignment. After all, even the best alignment job is worthless if your kingpins, tie rod ends, spring hanger bushings, torque arm bushings, stabilizer arm bushings and any other important items are worn out.

Three-axle alignments should be performed at the following intervals:

  • When a truck is purchased, regardless of whether it is new or used. Very few brand new trucks leave the factory or dealership lot with a good alignment. If you buy a used truck with good tires on it, why not make them last longer before you need to part with mucho dinero for new tires?
  • When new steer and/or drive tires are installed on a truck.
  • When any frame and/or suspension work is done on a truck.
  • Any time a truck is involved in a wreck where frame and axle damage may be possible.
  • Every 100,000 miles in normal highway use, and more often if the truck runs regularly on rough roads or sees frequent rough off-road use.
  • Whenever the steering doesn’t feel right. Many don’t realize that drive axles out of alignment can cause the steering to be difficult.
  • Align trailer axles every 100,000 miles or whenever you see irregular tire wear – whichever comes sooner. If your truck is in the center lane and the trailer wanders, you definitely need an alignment.

Balancing act

Steer tires see some of the most harsh conditions and consequently wear out faster.

Keeping your steer tires in balance is essential for long life. Although some drivers believe in putting golf balls or other stuff like balancing agents into their tires to keep them balanced, many tire manufacturers will not honor the warranty for a tire found to have anything in it other than air.

The most reliable method to keep tires balanced is to be sure they’re mounted properly with the valve stems lined up with the markings on the tires and balanced with a minimal amount of weight on them, if any.

If a brand-new steer tire needs more than about 10 ounces of weight to balance out or is visually out-of-round on the balancing machine (it will look a bit like an egg with obvious uneven spots as it rotates), then it is likely defective and the tire dealer should not put that tire on your truck. Most reputable tire manufacturers do a good job of producing steer tires that usually need little to no weight or other balancing media to balance them out when first installed on a rim, but tires with slight imperfections still find their way into the market.

Many truckers, including myself, have had good luck with on-board balancers that go between the steer axle’s brake drums and the steer rims. The best results with these on-board systems are seen when installing them with brand-new, freshly balanced steer tires. But these are not a substitute for traditional balancing.

Any on-board balancers that use steel balls should not be used. When they rust, they become useless and cause balance problems.

Round and round

While a set of drive tires may last at least twice as long as a pair of steer tires, replacing them is considerably more expensive, especially when it’s best to replace them all at the same time – for many reasons.

Have you ever had eight new drive tires put on and then immediately noticed the back end of your tractor felt like it was doing the Macarena?

Most of us choose to run lug tires.

Unfortunately, they are almost never perfectly round when new. It’s imperative to get this taken care of, as the prolonged vibrations from out-of-round drive tires will eventually cause frame, suspension and driveline damage, such as cracked or broken rear axle housings.

Even though it may look a bit barbaric, there are times when the tires need to be “trued” – commonly known as shaving – to get them to roll smoothly. Many think this removes usable tread, but in most cases the tires will last longer and wear more evenly.

Before having your tires trued, check with the tire dealer where you bought the tires and make sure truing is allowed under your warranty.

Rotation equation

The crown of most road surfaces will usually cause abnormal wear on the steer tires. Rotating them from side to side every 50,000 miles will help even out this type of wear.

Be sure you know what type of steer tires you have before getting this done. Unidirectional tires are designed to rotate in only one direction. These tires will need to be dismounted from the rims and remounted for use on the opposite side so they will rotate in the proper direction. Get them balanced while you’re at it. With bidirectional tires, just put tires, rims and all on the opposite side.

Drive tires need to be cross-rotated, similar to the tires on your personal vehicle, but in pairs with even tread depth. The left rear drive tires get the brunt of the torque from the engine and driveline, and therefore will always wear quicker.

Rotating the drive tires every 50,000 miles – or if 4/32 of an inch difference in tread depth is noted sooner on any pair of tires – will help even out the wear. Find the pair of drive tires with the thickest tread depth and put them at the left rear drive axle position when you rotate.

Honing habits

Excessive speed can be hell on tires, and blowing a steer tire at high speeds can be hell on you. Sure, there are occasions when you need to be moving a bit, but slowing down when you can will significantly save on tire wear, not to mention increase fuel mileage.

Also, excess heat from road surfaces in many regions of the country is particularly hard on tires, especially if they’re not at the right pressure.

Other driving habits you can develop to extend the life of your tires are:

  • When maneuvering in a tight area, it saves wear and tear on your steer tires if you get into the habit of turning the steering wheel only while your truck is moving.
  • While nearly impossible to miss catching a few curbs with your trailer tires, avoiding curbs as much as possible will save those tire casings from sidewall cord damage and will help maintain your trailer’s alignment better.
  • Avoiding potholes and large bumps will help keep your steer tires in balance, as hitting them can often cause internal cord damage and an out-of-balance condition.
  • As a rule of thumb, always have your lug nuts retightened at the first 100 miles after getting any tire work done on your truck. LL


Editor’s note: This article is for information purposes only. If you’re not sure about performing the work yourself, it’s advisable to seek the help of a competent professional.

Jeff Barker is an OOIDA member and a former certified diesel mechanic. He can be reached at truckmaintenancestuff@yahoo.