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No Spare Tires and Lots of Potholes

By February 23, 2016No Comments

Tire inflator kits are rapidly replacing the tire in the trunk. They offer some advantages but provide some of their own bumps in the road.

It’s never a fun surprise when your car hits a pothole and you get a flat tire. In fact, “surprise” is quite likely not the first word to come out of your mouth.

Even worse, there might be a second discovery for you when you go to your trunk to retrieve the spare tire. Surprise! You don’t have one! If your car is less than ten years old, it’s possible the spare was never part of the standard equipment.

Increasingly, in place of spare tires are emergency tire inflator kits, also referred to as “canned tire inflators.” These are single-use devices that provide a quick but temporary solution to a flat tire. With a combination of solvents, sealants and propellants, the kit’s nozzle connects to the flat tire’s valve stem (as one would do with a simple tire inflation) injecting the tube with air and repairing the small puncture. The seal holds long enough for the car to exit the highway and, with luck, travel to a tire replacement shop.

In 2015, 36 percent of the model vehicles sold used tire inflator kits in place of spare tires, bringing the estimated number of vehicles on the road that lack spare tires to 29 million. The advantages include a lower cost overall for the vehicle, as well as improved fuel economy from lower vehicle weight. And not everyone is comfortable with the traditional process of jacking up a vehicle and replacing a wheel; this seems to be generational, with 90 percent of drivers over the age of 35 claiming to know how to change tires. That drops for Millennials, where less than 80 percent in that age group claim to have those skills.

Given the condition of the nation’s streets, roads and highways, drivers should give some thought to what they would do in the case of a flat. The American Automobile Association (AAA) reports that pothole-caused car damage is very commonplace. “In the last five years, 16 million drivers across the country have suffered pothole damage to their vehicles,” says AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair, John Nielsen. “The problems range from tire punctures and bent wheels, to more expensive suspension damage.” The average pothole-related repair costs $300.

Other technologies that can substitute for spare tires are the run-flat tires. These come in at least three varieties: the self-supporting tires, with a fabric inner liner; the self-sealing, with an extra lining that prevents air loss; and auxiliary supported, an additional support ring attached to the wheel (inside) that can carry the weight of the vehicle when air pressure is lost. Each of these together constitutes only about 1 to 3 percent of vehicles worldwide, mostly in military deployment, due to higher per-tire costs.

Several organizations have come out against the use of tire inflator kits as spare tire substitutes. Consumer Reports published a story in 2015 that said this benefits automakers more than consumers. The advocacy publication emphasized how the kits are only applicable to small tread punctures (note: some potholes can cause large tears in tires).

AAA adds that the sealant could potentially damage a tire pressure monitoring sensor. “AAA tested the most common tire inflator kits in today’s vehicles and found that the units worked well in some scenarios, but they are not a substitute for a spare tire,” the organization reported.  Nielsen adds, “Consumers may mistakenly believe that inflator kits are a one-size-fits-all alternative to installing a spare tire. The reality is these kits can accommodate specific types of tire damage, but having the option to install a spare tire can save stranded drivers time and money.”

One way to avoid any of these surprises is to avoid potholes. But with the continued under-funding of road repair on a federal level as well as in many states and municipalities, that’s more of a wish than a strategy. Rough pavement everywhere is surprising to no one.

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