Many people make this out to be more difficult than it really is. Anyone can do this. It’s just a matter of developing a new skill and making it a habit. An important point to remember is that any tire will lose pressure over time. Even the best tires can lose 1-2 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure each month through natural leakage. Older or cheaper tires will bleed air much faster. That’s why it’s important to check your tires on a weekly basis.
There are only two tools needed to keep your vehicle’s tires properly inflated.
Air pressure cannot be accurately estimated through visual inspection. You’re going to need an accurate tire gauge. A cheap “stick” gauge will do the job although they do tend to drift out of calibration. Quality gauges don’t cost much more and are far more reliable. Digital gauges are typically the most accurate. The gauge I use has both Schraeder (standard car valve) and presta (a valve used on bicycle tires) options. I’ve used it check the pressure on the car, motorcycle, and bicycle tires. The gauges available with the air pump at gas stations are potentially the least accurate option as they receive a lot of abuse (from humans and weather) and are usually not well maintained.
You are going to need some way to get air into your tire. There are three options to do this.
Gas stations usually offer a public air compressor. While this may seem like the most convenient option, this is actually the least efficient choice. First, you have to find a station that offers an air compressor. Second, driving to the gas station will warm up your tires and give you a false reading (see below). Third, driving on under-inflated tires will decrease the life of the tire, increase fuel consumption, and make the car less safe to operate. Fourth, as previously mentioned, gas station air gauges can be very inaccurate. Fifth, most gas station air compressors require money to activate. I’ve seen compressors that cost a dollar or more. It doesn’t take many uses before owning your own compressor or pump becomes cost-effective. Finally, you won’t need to put much air into your tires if you are maintaining them on a weekly basis. A large air compressor is an overkill.
Battery-operated air compressors are pretty nifty gadgets. Most can plug into the cigarette lighter of your car and almost all have internal batteries that can be charged at home. They are very convenient. Just turn it on and fill up the tire. The downside to portable air compressors is that they can be pricey and you have to make sure the battery is topped up at all times. It’s another thing you’ll have to maintain. Several models also offer a built-in jump-starting system too. That’s a pretty handy thing to have in the car at all times.
A hand operated pump is an excellent option. While it might take longer to fill up a severely under-inflated tire, it takes very little time and effort to top up a tire with 1-2 psi. A decent bicycle pump is inexpensive, small, lightweight, and requires almost no maintenance. Plus you never have to worry about the batteries being drained. I keep one in each vehicle “just in case”. I also like that I get a little exercise using the pump.
Check the air pressure
All tires lose the pressure. The key thing to remember when checking the pressure in your car’s tires is that the tires need to be cold. This means not driven for several hours and/or exposed to hours of sunlight. As the tire heats up, such as through friction from rolling, the air expands and temporarily increases the air pressure inside. Even a short drive to the gas station will heat up the air in the tires enough to make it look like the tire is correctly pressurized. There are many ways to work around this (usually by adding or subtracting psi depending on several variables) but the easiest and best solution is to just check your tires in the morning before the outside temperature increases or you use your vehicle.
Finally, don’t forget to check the spare tire. Finding out that the spare tire is also flat can quickly turn an annoying situation into a miserable or dangerous experience.
How to check your tire pressure:
1. You’ll need to know the normal operating pressure for your tires. Check out my article on “How to determine the correct pressure for your automobile tires” to get this number.
2. Remove the protective cap from the tire valve.
3. Place the air pressure gauge onto the tire valve until you get a reading.
4. If the tire has lost more than 1-2 psi, go ahead and fill it up. A 2 psi loss is 5% of the pressure in a 40 psi tire and a 6% loss for a 34 psi tire.
Inflate the tires
This is really simple. Just use the air compressor or pump to put air into the tire. Exactly how you do this depends on the device. If you’re unsure, just play around with it. There’s not much damage you can do. Do try to be careful with the tire valve though. It is possible to damage it if treated roughly. If you overfill the tire, press the tire valve to let some of the air out.
While you’re there
While you’re down at tire level you might want to spend a few minutes and make sure everything else is ok.
– Look for tire damage. Especially check the sidewall. Bulges, cracks, and cuts are signs that the tire might need to be replaced before it fails.
– Check the tread depth. The easiest trick is to place a penny in the tread grooves, with Lincoln’s head pointed towards the tire. If you can see all the head, it’s time to replace the tire.
– Check for even wear. While checking the tread depth, also look for uneven wear on the inside and outside edge of the tire. If one side is more worn that the other, the car might be out of alignment. Misalignment will reduce handling and increase tire wear.
Make sure all the tire valves have caps. This is a minor point but caps help protect the valve from damage, dirt, and moisture.