Let’s talk tires

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Frequently, when we talk about tire management programs, we focus on what the large fleets are doing. However, there are many owner/operators who are every bit as sophisticated about their tire programs as the major fleets are. They have to be. Tire prices have been surging, mostly due to rising raw materials costs, and it’s a trend that doesn’t appear to be on the brink of reversing itself any time soon.

When you operate one truck or just a few, it’s easier to stay on top of problems and to closely monitor tire performance and wear characteristics.

We called upon several owner/operators with advanced tire management programs to find out what steps they’re taking to maximize the value of their tire investment.

Invest in good rubber
Angelo Diplacido, a former owner/operator who ran mostly punishing regional LTL routes, admits he once bought a set of offshore, non-brand name new tires, thinking they’d perform better than retreads.

“I did buy cheap tires one time,” he admits. “I soon realized that it didn’t matter where I put the pressure, it was like rolling on plastic.”

The tread life was adequate, Diplacido said, but the performance was anything but. He was soon longing for a set of quality recaps. He saved less than $400 on the purchase price of a set of four tires and soon regretted it.

“They did last,” he recalls. “However, the compromise in rainy and snowy weather was just horrific.”

Dale Holman, owner of Tadcor Holdings, which has nine trucks with FedEx, says he, too has tried offshore, non-brand name tires, but adds “I don’t get the mileage out of them.”

Greg Decker, an owner/operator with Mullen Group, puts it more bluntly.

“I’ve been trying cheaper brands but they’re garbage,” he asserts. He turns to a trustworthy truck tire fuel savings calculator to help determine which brand and model is best for his operation.

Manage tire pressures
Kicking tires to determine their pressures is a joke, and whacking them with a hammer is marginally better. The best way to track and correct tire pressures is to measure them using a calibrated tire gauge.

Decker says he checks his tire pressures every three to four days. He uses Alligator double-seal flow-through valve stem caps on all tire stems to streamline what can be a cumbersome process.

“With the gator caps I can do all six axles in 10 minutes,” Decker says. “They’re only $3-$5 each, so it’s not a big expense, and because of the ease of operation and the possibility of saving a tire, they’re worth every penny.”

Holman said tire gauges don’t always tell the full story right off the shelf. He purchased three tire gauges a few weeks ago and found an 11 psi variation between them when measuring the same tire. Holman recommends buying brand name gauges and then calibrating them.

Diplacido adds that ambient temperatures can have a significant impact on tire pressures, which can vary as much as 15 psi between summer and winter weather. He adds tire pressures should be checked when they’re cold and then rechecked every time there’s a swing in ambient temperatures. This is especially important when running long-haul between warm and cold destinations.

All kinds of bad things can happen when tire pressures are ignored. For every 2 psi that a tire is underinflated, its temperature will rise by 10 degrees C, Diplacido explains. So a tire that’s down 20 psi is going to experience a temperature increase of 100 C, and “It’s just a matter of whether the adhesive holds up” before a blow-out occurs.

Managing tire pressures doesn’t necessarily mean ensuring they’re all equal. Holman employs a trick learned from Nascar, and staggers the air pressure on his steer axle to compensate for the subtle drainage slope in the road from left to right.

“We run 105 psi on the right-hand side and 100 psi on the left-hand side, to get the pull out of the truck,” he explains. “There’s always a drainage grade on the road. By staggering the air pressure, we can bring the steering back to neutral.”

Rotate tires as required
Assuming that tires will wear evenly across every position is a mistake, and one that could be costly. Even if identical new tires are placed at every position and then properly maintained, some will wear more rapidly than others, Holman explains.

“Typically, the right rear tire on a tandem would wear first, because the centrifugal force of the driveshaft goes to the back axle and then turns to the right,” he explains. “When you’re standing at the back of a truck, the driveshaft is turning clockwise. When you’re going down the road and you power up going over a hill, the back dual on the right-hand side will put out probably about 75% of the workload.”

To prove his point, Holman pointed to a set of first-run tires with matching casings that were put on a truck at the same time.

“The difference between the front left dual and the right rear dual was 3/32nds of an inch,” he says. “So, we rotated the tires. I will do that, otherwise you have one set that’s worn out and another set that’s at 50%.”

Decker is also a believer in tire rotation. He says the key is to closely monitor tread wear and to rotate as required to ensure the consistent wear of all tires.

Keep an eye on things
Decker says many owner/operators overlook telltale signs of tire problems because they’re simply not sure what to look for. Others just aren’t in the habit of conducting regular inspections.

He suggests doing a quick tire inspection every time the truck is parked. What’s he looking for?

“You’ll see feather wear on the edges, especially on air-ride trailers. If you start to see that, you’ve almost waited too long,” he says. “When you walk around the truck, thump the tires, check for flats and look for visible wear spots. If you have one tire that you flat-spotted and didn’t realize it, it will show itself. When walking back to your truck, look at the tires. Sometimes you won’t see it when standing right there beside it, but you will see it when you’re standing back. Sometimes you have to be back 20 feet before you notice something looks wrong. If you do this every time you walk up to the truck, you will see when something is wrong.”

As an example, Decker spoke of a time he noticed a gap between the tread and the casing, which wasn’t visible when standing right beside the tire but became apparent from a distance.

Pay attention to your casings
When retreading, keep in mind that not all retreads are created equal. Holman recommends matching recaps with the same casing rather than mixing and matching. Whenever possible, he prefers to have his own casings retreaded.

“When I do buy casings, I want matching casings,” Holman explains, “because the casing is the model. I might get a tire that’s the same size, but it has a different profile. Some are narrower and some are wider. They all look the same and they may have the same tread, but you forget they don’t have the same foundation. So, you get one that’s a little higher, one that’s a little narrower and the first month you’re going down the road and the one that’s higher is going to wear fast and the one that’s wider is going to carry a little more heat, so you end up having mismatched tires and you’re going to wear them down. You might have 6/32nds of an inch of tread on the drive tire beside one that has 1/32nds and is worn out. Now, you have a tire that’s worn below its limit right beside one that sti
ll has a full summer’s mileage on it, what do you do? You put a brand new tire on to replace the bad one and now the one that was good isn’t touching the road anymore.”

It’s a nasty cycle to get into.

Keep the truck dialed in
A truck that’s out of alignment or running on worn shocks can be hell on tires.

Sometimes an inexpensive repair can save a lot of money. Take shocks, for example.

“I’ve had new trucks where two months in, the tires look like they’ve been through a war,” Holman says. “I took the shock off and the shock was screwed. I changed the shock and the tire, in some cases, rights itself and tries to return to a proper wear pattern. You’re not going to get the life out of it, but maybe you’ll save it if you catch it early enough.”

Shocks are only $60-$100 to replace and Holman says they can be swapped out on a steer axle in five minutes.

He suggests replacing shocks at least every three years, more frequently on the steer axle.

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