You don't want to get ripped off at the auto shop. You don't want to get stuck changing a flat during a thunderstorm. You really don't want to find yourself suddenly slip-sliding on slick roads and doing doughnuts on the highway. • While the promise of winter snow reminds northerners to check their tires, Florida's summer heat and rain should trigger Tampa Bay drivers to ensure their tires are in good condition. • Because even the toughest engine, strongest brakes or newest anti-skid system depends on the tires' grip on the pavement. • "People are really driving longer on their tires because of the economy," said Terry Chapman, owner of Just Tires in Clearwater. "They know they might need tires, but they stretch it out because they can't afford it." • But in the beginning of summer, he said, his shop gets more business "when the rain starts picking up and people start skidding around." • Buying and caring for tires can be expensive, so here are some tips on how to save money.
Taking good care of your tires will make them last longer. Not only does this save money, it improves your fuel economy and vehicle handling and helps prevent breakdowns and crashes.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, proper tire care includes maintaining the right tire pressure, not overloading your car, avoiding hazards in the road and regularly inspecting your tires for cracks, cuts, bulges, debris and irregularities.
AAA recommends checking tire pressure once a month.
"You have to have the right air pressure in your tires," said Todd Murrian, the general manager of Bob Lee's Tire Co. in St. Petersburg. "You'll save on fuel, and you'll save on wear and tear."
You can't tell if the tire pressure is low just by looking, so AAA recommends buying a pressure gauge and keeping it in your car. Most cost a few bucks at tire dealerships, auto shops and other stores.
In newer cars, Murrian said, a yellow image that looks like a flat tire will light up on your dashboard if a tire has low pressure. Don't ignore it.
For the most accurate reading, measure the pressure when the tires are cold. After driving for a while, tires heat up and the air pressure rises, giving an artificially high reading.
To find out how much air pressure should be in your tires, look for a placard in the driver's side door jam with the car maker's recommendation. Pump up your tires until the gauge reads this number.
Another indicator of tire health that you can check yourself is tread depth.
This is important when driving on wet roads. When your tread depth is too worn, your tires can't channel the water away and you start to hydroplane.
In most states, the tread depth has reached its legal limit when it wears down to 1/16 of an inch.
Most tires have wear indicator bars that go across the tread. When the tread is even with these bars, it's time to replace the tires.
Another way to check your tread is the penny trick: Place a penny in the tread with Abraham Lincoln's head upside down and facing you. If you can see the top of his head, you need new tires.
At the auto shop
Though you can check your air pressure and tread depth yourself, many auto shops offer these services for free. When you get an oil change, most shops do them automatically.
For tire rotations, which ensure even wear on the tires and must be done by a professional, the rule of thumb is every 5,000 miles.
If you bought your tires at a shop, that shop might balance and rotate your tires for free, said Jesse Chappelle, store manager at McGee Auto Service and Tires in Tampa.
What if you get a hole in your tire?
Punctures through the tread can be repaired if they're not too large. But if the sidewall has a hole, the tire should be replaced.
When it's time to buy new tires, shop around.
An independent auto parts shop is almost always cheaper than visiting a car dealer. Compare prices at tire chains, warehouse clubs and online discount stores like Tire Rack and Discount Tire Direct.
Ask shops for the out-the-door cost, Chapman said, so you don't get surprised by extra charges and tax. And if you're buying online, don't forget to factor in shipping and the cost of getting the tires mounted and balanced.
Some shops have coupons on their websites, and some brands offer rebates. For example, Michelin offers $70 back on a set of four tires.
What about nitrogen-filled tires?
Murrian said they cost $5 to $10 more per tire, but they are worth the expense because they retain air pressure three times better than regular tires.
However, Chapman said most shops don't have nitrogen and ones that do might charge you to refill with nitrogen while regular air is free.
"We think it's a waste of money," Chapman said. "It's an ongoing cost."
Like regular tires, nitrogen ones still leak. So if you get them, keep checking your tire pressure regularly.
What about buying used tires?
Consumer Reports advises against buying used tires or new tires that are more than a few years old for safety reasons.
However, Chapman said used tires are a good way to save money if you buy them from a reputable dealer.
Chapman is on the board of directors of the Better Business Bureau of West Florida. He recommended checking out a tire dealer through the bureau even when buying new tires. Check out the bureau's records online at WestFlorida.BBB.org or call its 24-hour hotline at (727) 535-5522.
Beware of the upsell
Some shops will charge you for a realignment when you get new tires. But if your old tires are evenly worn, which they should be if they were properly rotated, Chapman said, you might not need an alignment.
Ask the technician if you really need one, he said, and "if the shop is straightforward, they will tell you yay or nay."
When choosing a new tire, follow what the auto manufacturer recommends. The proper tire size, load rating and speed rating is on a panel on the driver's side door. Some shops might let you buy bigger tires, but they will cost more and lower your gas mileage.
Most tire dealers will offer less expensive lesser known brands and imports as alternatives to name brands.
Chappelle warned against buying Chinese tires because he said they are poor quality.
But Chapman disagreed.
They were inferior to American tires in the past, he said, but now China makes good quality tires that are less expensive. He said his shop has been selling one Chinese brand, the Runway Enduro, for 12 years without any problems.