7 tire cost-cutters

Eliminating the expense and wasted time of roadside breakdowns is a sure boost to your bottom line.

Cutting costs on tires, your second biggest variable cost after fuel, can make a big difference in your operating budget. The potential to save starts with the purchase process and doesn’t end until you’ve decided whether to recap worn tires.

Here are seven areas to consider in making sure you buy the right tires and can run them as long as possible.

  1. Spec for your application
    Since longer tire life means lower costs, the effort put into careful spec’ing will pay off well.

    “There are four main, different applications: long haul, regional, on/off road and urban,” says Doug Jones, Michelin’s customer engineering support manager for North America. Annual miles vary from as little as 20,000 for urban to more than 200,000 for a long-haul team. Specific steer, drive and trailer tires are available for each application, says Tim Miller of Goodyear.

    “If you’re spec’ing a new truck, you can pick any tire size that’s suitable for your application,” says Bridgestone Firestone’s Greg McDonald. A new truck’s drivetrain and engine controls are set according to the spec’d tire size.

    Replacement tires don’t offer that option, so they may require drivetrain and engine adjustments. Changing tire sizes also might cause clearance issues.

    More isn’t always better. Rather than last longer, tires with deeper tread might wear faster, burn more fuel and make driving difficult if they’re incorrectly applied.

    “In long haul, some major manufacturers offer fuel-efficient tires that help cut fuel costs, but in regional, on-/off-road or urban applications, tires are more vulnerable to curbing and tread scrubbing at lower speeds,” Miller says.

    In some cases, tire makers have combined the different characteristics and made multi-application tires that are both durable and fuel-efficient.

    “You should really be looking for tires based on your application and the traditional measure of performance, which is removal miles,” McDonald says. “But you also want a tire that’s going to give you good overall fuel economy, which might be more important than removal miles with fuel prices going where they are.”

  2. Shop for the best value
    Once you know the type of tire best suited to your job, the other aspect of cutting costs is value: getting the most for your money, whether you spend a little or a lot.

    It’s tempting for an owner-operator to shop primarily by price, says Continental Tire’s Clif Armstrong. “It’d be so easy to do with fuel prices so high,” he says. “But that truck is my income, and I can’t afford to cut corners.”

    Instead, Jones says, “Concentrate on cost per mile and other characteristics, like rolling resistance and traction, to name just a couple of examples.”

    Making an informed choice means keeping written and dated records of purchase, fuel mileage and tread depth, then comparing records between models you’ve used.

    “Price is a false economy,” McDonald says. “Look at overall cost per mile, the use of the tire, and whether you can retread the tire.”

    Warranty is another factor in value. Most standard new-tire and retread warranties are about the same: coverage limited to normal-use defects in workmanship, product and material.
    Warranties are based on time or wear and not mileage. Some fully cover the tire’s lifespan, or until tread wears to 2⁄32-in. Others provide full coverage for specified time periods or wear amounts; then coverage is prorated using remaining tread depth and current market price.

    Some warranties cover mounting and balancing (about $50 per hub), and others don’t. Some warranties have retread clauses covering the casing to 700,000 miles; others don’t go that far. Most have buy-back plans for retreadable tires.

    Other differences include “whether the tire’s warranty starts on the manufactured date or the sales date and how the compensation is prorated relative to tread wear,” Jones says.

  3. Use retreads
    Perhaps the biggest cost consideration is whether to use retreads. New premium tires cost between $300 and $600. Retreads average about $200.

    Retread casings are tested via road use and by laser-scanning that detects virtually any flaw, the industry says. The bonds securing the new tread meld the tire’s layers together as one.

    “They’re cheaper, but they’re as reliable as new tires,” says Adnai Mendez of the Tire Retread Information Bureau.

    Premium new tire makers design casings for retread use. Theoretically, undamaged casings can be retreaded over and over, although the tire maker’s casing warranty might run out at, say, 750,000 miles or after three retreadings.

    On the downside, carriers might have rules about using retreads on steer axles, and some states limit the number of times a steer tire can be retreaded.

    Not all retreads are created equal. If the retread isn’t from a reputable dealer, or if its markings have been scrubbed off the side, think twice before buying.

  4. Use wide singles
    Wide singles weigh less and save fuel. They also cost less, although you have to buy new rims to get in the game.

    “Depending on what tires you’re comparing them to, Michelin has seen fuel savings well in excess of 4 percent,” Jones says. “Our super singles are normally priced a little lower than the two tires they are designed to replace.”

    “I wish I’d have bought mine sooner,” says owner-operator Ken England of Inkom, Idaho. “I save at least $200 a month because I’m getting more miles on less fuel. That’s literally 900 miles on 120 or 130 gallons.” As for ride and handling, “this is the smoothest I’ve ever had,” he says.

    “I’ve also shaved about 400 pounds off my truck,” England says. “That means I can carry heavier loads and make more money.” Wide singles are retreadable, too.

    A common complaint about wide singles is that finding replacements while on the road can be difficult. Another downside: Whereas a flat dual allows you to “limp” to the next service site, a flat wide single immobilizes the truck – which equals downtime and pricey road service.

    An automatic tire inflation system can address most instances of that problem by keeping tires inflated to proper pressure. An inflation system “increases removal miles and fuel economy, reduces downtime and improves retreadability,” says Al Cohn of Pressure Systems International. It deflates road-service costs, too. PSI’s system, which is only for trailer tires, costs less than $1,000.

    Some inflation systems work with tractor tires. Some do not inflate the tire, but warn the driver when pressure drops below a certain point.

  5. Perform routine maintenance
    Proper maintenance of tires, wheels, axles and steering also will help keep your tire costs to a minimum. Wheels naturally lose alignment and balance. Bushings, shocks, bearings and valve stems wear out.

    “Normally, the tires aren’t centered on the hub, and that causes them to bead out of round and create a heavy spot or a flat spot,” says Kent Teague, owner of Kent’s Tire Services in Wichita Falls, Texas. “When you start seeing your heavy spots, that’s your flat spot, and you’re out of round.”

    The plungers inside shock absorbers create friction, and friction creates heat, so if the shock – not the outer dust barrel covering the top half of the shock – is hot to the touch after driving, it’s working. “If the shock is cool to the touch, it’s not working and should be replaced,” McDonald says.

    “Bushings at the top and bottom of the shocks pound themselves out, so if you can grab the shock absorber and rattle it, the bushings are bad, and the shock isn’t working as designed,” McDonald says.

    “Checking wheel alignment periodically can pay big dividends for owner-operators who want more miles to removal,” Miller says. “Also, make sure steering system bushings are inspected and replaced when worn.”

  6. Maintain proper inflation
    Ironically, maintaining correct inflation is free and relatively easy, yet it represents the highest amount of savings you can get from maintenance. Improper inflation is by far the greatest reason why tires fail or wear out prematurely. It also wastes fuel – up to 5 percent – and weakens performance.

    “Our top problem would be tires because guys don’t check their air pressure often enough,” says 4RoadService.com owner Brian Telford.

    “The daily pre- and post-trip inspections are very important because they give owner-operators the opportunity to check pressures and also look for slow leaks, damage and/or embedded nails and other objects,” Jones says.

    “Typically with truck tires you’ll lose one to two pounds of pressure a month from normal use,” Cohn says. The other three most common deflators are punctures, sidewall damage and valve stems, he says.

    Punctures – Cohn calls them “slow leakers” – are the most common: “about the size you’d get from a tenpenny nail,” he says. “You don’t have a catastrophic tire failure, but you lose one to three pounds of air a day.”

    “A tire that’s underinflated by 10 percent, about 10 psi, will experience between 10 and 15 percent tread loss,” Jones says. “Fuel economy is also reduced because more energy is being consumed by the tires.”

    A stitch in time saves hefty road service fees. “If a tire is 20 percent underinflated, it should be considered a flat,” says Michael Burroughs of Michelin. “It should be dismounted and inspected for damage inside and out.”

    Don’t overinflate, assuming it’s an easy way to avoid unnecessary tire costs. “A tire that’s overinflated by 10 percent will have rapid and irregular wear, and it’s more susceptible to road hazards, curbing damages and puncture wounds,” Jones says.

  7. Employ good driving habits
    Much of what affects a tire’s longevity depends on what’s done with the steering wheel, brake and accelerator.

    “Speeding, hard braking, curbing and tight turns will cause tires to wear faster, develop irregular wear or have other damage,” Jones says.

    “As with your personal car or truck, smooth, steady acceleration, braking and steering can extend the life of your tires,” Miller says. “Planning ahead helps drivers avoid tight turns, hitting curbs and two-tire-damaging hazards.”

    Besides being littered with puncture hazards, shippers’ and receivers’ lots often are too small, forcing drivers to get all over curbs or other obstacles.

    Road debris poses dangers as well. “It tends to migrate to the right side of the road, get thrown up by the drives and picked up by the trailer tandems,” Burroughs says. “Most failures from road debris are inside right trailer tires.”

    Many of the problems caused by bad driving habits show up as uneven tire wear. If you notice unusual shimmying or repetitive bumps, inspect your tires. Even absent rough driving, look for irregular tread wear in your daily inspections.

Stop the bleeding
The worst thing escaping from your tires isn’t air, but the needless costs in your operating budget. Michelin’s Doug Jones recommends these practices as part of a tire maintenance program that should help keep tire costs to a minimum:

  • Maintain proper inflation.
  • Use metal valve caps.
  • Perform pre- and post-trip inspections.
  • Perform routine maintenance for alignment, balance, shocks and bushings.
  • Calculate cost per mile for each model and position and use that number in purchasing.
  • Inspect scrapped tires to determine the cause of failure, and keep records.