The Good News About TPMS: Service Is Getting Easier

April 6, 2023
With more than 15 years of real-world application of TPMS in the U.S., we thought it was time for an update. We asked those who make TPMS products and tools to tell us about the latest trends and advancements. But first, let's talk TPMS service.

With more than 15 years of real-world application of tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) in the U.S., we thought it was time for an update. We asked those who make TPMS products and tools to tell us about the latest trends and advancements.

But first, let’s talk about servicing TPMS, and cover some precautions and tips to get it done right.

 Inflation sensors/transmitters generally cost in the area of $50 to $150 each, depending on the application. In the majority of cases, if a problem does occur with system operation, the cause will probably be a damaged or failed sensor.

Since the inflation sensor/transmitter is located inside the wheel and hidden from exterior view, it is very possible to damage a sensor during tire demounting. Especially if the sensor is band-mounted and a rubber valve stem is visible, you may not be readily aware of the sensor’s presence. Talk to the vehicle owner and ask if they’ve had a tire pressure monitoring system installed.

Exercise care during tire demounting to avoid sensor damage caused by the tire iron. In other words, don’t blindly dig into the wheel cavity. If the wheels are equipped with OE stem-mounted sensors, these units will be located very close to the rim, so again, be careful. For tire demounting, some OE service manuals advise first deflating the tire, then removing the sensor’s retaining nut and dropping the sensor inside the tire. This keeps the sensor out of harm’s way during bead breaking and demounting.

If the sensor is visible, be sure to note the ID number on the sensor. (This applies when replacing a sensor, or when a sensor is already in place and a tire is about to be mounted.) This ID number will be required for input when initiating or resetting. Remember to record the number on a piece of paper before mounting the tire.

Pay strict attention to torque specifications with regard to installing a stem-type TPMS sensor. Overtightening can damage the sensor.

Some TPMS will share the keyless entry’s receiver. This means that the remote key fob may be needed for specific procedures. Be careful to avoid “playing” with the key fob remote during any sensor procedures.

Don’t replace wheel sensor parts haphazardly. Some sensors feature aluminum caps and nickel-plated cores. The end of the valve stem may serve as the sensor’s antenna. Only replace cores or caps with the correct originals.

Use only a high quality pressure gauge when filling or checking tire pressure on any TPMS. The sensors found on direct TPMS are very sensitive and precise. Using a dime-store gauge, or a miscalibrated air gauge at a service station or car wash location, can lead to slight over- or under-inflation, which may be enough to cause a system warning light to activate.

Quality pressure gauges have always been necessary, but the use of TPMS creates an even greater need for accurate readings.

One final service tip: resetting a TPMS is required if any of a number of procedures are performed, including tire pressure correction(s), tire/wheel rotation, tire/wheel replacement, TPMS sensor replacement, receiver antenna replacement, TPMS control unit replacement, or loss of vehicle battery power.

31 Inc.

John Rice at 31 Inc. says TPMS has long been a thorn in the side of the tire technician.

Misinformation, mis-informed salespeople and a lack of reliable information all contribute to the confusion surrounding TPMS service.

Nothing takes the place of a reliable support system, but I am here to say it is out there: 24/7 technical support, websites like tpmsnetwork.com, and YouTube videos are all just a phone call or mouse click away.

Here are three things that are new in TPMS:

  • Tools that display sensor battery status. These tools continue to evolve. As an example, The Smart Sensor Elite Tool now displays sensor battery status. When a sensor is scanned, and the sensor battery is low, the tool clearly identifies the low sensor with a red battery symbol. If the battery is OK, the sensor battery symbol is green. This display also allows you to easily show this to the customer, explaining the need to replace a sensor. In addition, it can serve as a selling aid to explain that if one sensor battery is low, it won’t be long before the remaining sensor batteries begin to fail.
  • Tools that make it easy to keep them up to date. Keeping your TPMS tool updated is a must if you want to avoid unnecessary and/or costly delays.

Besides a tool that won’t power ON, a tool that is not updated can be just as frustrating. Keeping your TPMS tool updated is a must if you want to avoid unnecessary/costly delays. Imagine having a car up on lift, an impatient customer in the waiting area, and you find out that the software on your tool doesn’t include the vehicle you are working on. Some TPMS tools, like the Smart Sensor, have lifetime free software updates, so there’s really no reason not to keep your tool updated.

In today’s automotive service environment, getting a customer’s vehicle in and out, in a timely manner, is essential to maintaining long-term relationships.

The Smart Sensor Elite Tool, as an example, even tells the user when a software update is available.

  • Direct vs. Indirect TPMS. It doesn’t have to be confusing! Direct style TPMS uses sensors in the wheels/tires. This makes up roughly 90% of all TPMS. Indirect TPMS does not use sensors mounted in the wheels/tires. Instead, indirect systems work through the vehicle’s ABS. Indirect systems are used by Audi, Honda, Mazda, VW and others. Even though they represent a small percentage of total vehicles, with TPMS, it is important to identify these vehicles early during your initial inspection so you are not pulling your hair out later trying to figure out why the sensors are not responding on a 2018 Volkswagen Passat. The Smart Sensor Elite Tool lists the vehicles with indirect TPMS to take the guesswork out of servicing/identifying them.

Continental REDI-Sensor

Continental has continued with a strong push around our ‘update your TPMS tool’ campaign. With each new model introduction or vehicle recall, software changes are required and can lead to technicians working with an outdated tool. Continental’s Next Generation REDI-Sensor TPMS sensors are down to just four part numbers, but they provide coverage for more than 168 million vehicles in operation from 2002 to 2022. Additionally, Continental produced a training video late last year that explains the difference between a sensor relearn and sensor programming. Continental’s Technical Training team still talks with technicians who are confused about the two procedures. Here’s a breakdown of those three issues.

  • Don’t get caught out of date. The most important step in performing TPMS service today is ensuring your TPMS scan tool is up to date. The majority of service issues you will encounter can be caused by out-of-date tool software. The ability to diagnose TPMS faults and relearn sensors to the vehicle are the two most notable problems you’ll run into if your scan tool is not up to date. TPMS tool manufacturers are updating software almost monthly. Many factors can initiate a software change, such as new vehicle model introductions or older vehicle recalls. Keeping your scan tool up to date with the latest software will ensure quick and accurate relearns. This is especially important as new TPMS sensors are introduced to the market.

Additionally, it is crucial to follow factory relearn procedures every time a tire or TPMS sensor is serviced to ensure the TPMS is working properly.

  • Coverage with just four SKUs. Continental’s Next Generation REDI-Sensor multi-application TPMS sensor technology is designed to make TPMS service simpler and more profitable. It gives shops a significant service advantage by reducing the number of sensor SKUs needed to service domestic, European and Asian vehicles. With just four OE designed and validated REDI-Sensor part numbers, shops can handle virtually any vehicle that comes in. Four REDI-Sensor part numbers can replace more than 290 different OE sensors on over 168 million vehicles in operation from 2002 to 2022.

REDI-Sensor comes ready to install right out of the box and requires no added sensor programming or cloning. Pre-programmed and designed to follow existing OE vehicle relearn procedures, it is compatible with advanced features such as autolearning, pressure by position, and tire fill alert.

REDI-Sensor is offered with clamp-on and snap-in valves in both 315 MHz and 433 MHz frequencies.

  • Relearn vs. programming. Continental developed an informative training video that clarifies the difference between ‘TPMS Relearn’ and ‘TPMS Sensor Programming.’ This is an industry service issue that Continental Technical Training Supervisors continue to hear from professional automotive technicians.

Aftermarket TPMS sensors that are programmable, universal or cloneable must be programmed for the specific year, make and model of the vehicle before they can be installed. Once programmed, the sensor can then be relearned to the vehicle. It is the relearn procedure that allows the TPMS system to ‘talk’ to the TPMS sensors and identify which sensor is on which tire. (The video is available on the Continental Aftermarket NA channel on YouTube.)

Autel

The newest Autel tool, the Autel MaxiTPMS TBE200 (Tire Brake Examiner) brings tire and brake disc inspection into the modern age with quick and accurate wear measurements. It’s a wand-like, laser-enabled device that scans tire and brake disc surfaces to determine the condition and need for service or replacement. The TBE200 provides wear analysis and displays the analysis and service recommendations on its 1.65-inch-high resolution Super Retina touchscreen display. The full-color graphical display illustrates wear and provides service recommendations, including tire and brake disc replacement, tire rotation, and four-wheel alignment.

Via its 4-megapixel macro camera and 8-megapixel zoomable cameras, the technician can document tire wear and damage, and scan the Tire Identification Number (TIN). The TIN is the string of six to 13 numbers or letters marked on the tire sidewall following the letters DOT (Department of Transportation) identifying the tire’s week and year of manufacture.

The TBE200 alerts the technician if the tire has been recalled. The TBE200 will aid significantly in using the TIN registration feature (coming soon) of the MaxiTPMS ITS600. Tire sellers are legally mandated to register just-purchased tires on behalf of the customers.

Users can also inspect brake discs without removing the tires. The user fixes the TBE200 (with the embedded magnet) to the disc and the laser scans the disc surface. Wear images and service recommendations display onscreen.

Hamaton

Hamaton recently released a refreshed TPMS programming app with more features. The app, designed to program the U-Pro Hybrid NFC (near field communication) in one tap, has undergone a makeover with particular attention paid to modernizing the interface. The update also introduces features that deliver a simplified vehicle lookup, essential TPMS information and the flexibility to operate offline. Users can add vehicles they program most often to their “favorites,” and access them quicker than selecting the make and model each time. The refreshed app also displays the type of relearn procedure a vehicle uses (auto relearn, OBD, etc.) along with a short description.

The vehicle database automatically updates whenever users launch the app, providing the latest coverage. Even with limited or no internet access, the app will continue to run smoothly, and will draw on the last database downloaded. As with the previous version, users can program the sensor to a specific vehicle protocol or enter an existing OE sensor ID. The manual ID option enables users to skip the relearn process as the ID (in the ECU) is unchanged. Find the update by searching “Hamaton NFC” in the Apple App Store.

SMP Corp.

Aaron Shaffer at SMP says the big thing in TPMS today involves the use of Bluetooth sensor communication, currently being used by Tesla and others. This wireless communication allows the sensors to send a Bluetooth signal instead of using radio frequency. While OEMs such as Tesla and a few high-end European makers are currently taking advantage of Bluetooth technology, we will likely see more widespread use of this in the future.

Another interesting aspect of TPMS is that, while there is a federal mandate for TPMS to be included on new vehicles (2007 to present), there is no directive for state inspection stations to consider TPMS system condition, as states that do require inspections are only focusing on emissions. Basically, if the check engine light is not on, a TPMS issue may simply be ignored by the inspection station. Educating the motorist is important in terms of making them understand the importance of the TPMS and keeping the system operating properly and tire inflation at spec, from a safety standpoint.

Bartec USA

Bartec’s Scot Holloway also points to Tesla Motors being one of the first vehicle manufacturers to feature a Bluetooth TPMS sensor. Until recently, all TPMS sensors operated using a low frequency signal (125 kHz) to activate or “wake up” the sensor, and a UHF (315 MHz or 433 MHz) radio signal to transmit data to a receiver. This design is very typical and efficient in terms of battery usage and vehicle function.

EVs operate a bit differently from their ICE (internal combustion engine) counterparts. A Tesla has more in common with your iPhone than your combustion engine vehicle. If you think of a Tesla in terms of a cell phone, you can make the connection with why they opted for a TPMS sensor that communicates using Bluetooth. The Bluetooth-paired TPMS sensor communicates and receives data from the car. It’s a “smarter” connection between the wheel/tire and the vehicle, but it comes unfortunately at the cost of battery life.

Last year the automotive aftermarket found itself in a bit of a panic as there were no replacement solutions for the sensors that were beginning to fail. Bartec announced their solution, Rite-Sensor Blue at last year’s SEMA show.

With each passing year, today’s automotive manufacturers are increasing the security systems that protect vehicle systems and data. What that means for TPMS is the need for more sophisticated tools for communicating with these more complex systems. You need a tool that can communicate with the vehicle via the OBDII port while also communicating with a remote secure server via Wi-Fi. While the TPMS of most vehicles equipped with enhanced vehicle security can still be serviced (sensor replacement and relearn), the advanced procedures like placard reprogramming are behind the security wall and require a tool with the proper capability to access, such as the Bartec Tech600Pro.

JohnDow Industries

While TPMS reports real-time tire pressure and tire temperatures, and warns drivers of any under-inflation issues, there are many instances where TPMS does not come standard, including trailers and heavy duty vehicles such as dump trucks, tractors, ambulances, fire trucks, campers, ATVs, motorcycles and more. To address this issue, retrofit TPMS sensors are now available. These sensors can be paired to the driver’s smartphone via an app. Dow offers both external and internal TPMS sensors. External sensors install as valve stem caps to existing valves. Internal sensors mount to the inside of the wheel in the same manner as traditional TPMS sensors. No programming tool is required, and battery life is reported as between three and five years. A TPMS Repeater is also available (DY-BLE-R) that extends the overall distance to 30 feet for longer trailers or when dealing with metal interference.

Dill Air Control Products

Tire Fill Assist (TFA) is a technology in which a TPMS sensor monitors the inflation pressure while a tire is being inflated. The horn will honk and the vehicle lights will flash when the correct placard pressure is reached. Not all vehicles are equipped with TFA technology, but it’s important to know that vehicles outfitted with TFA must also have sensors that are compatible with TFA. This is important to discuss because not all aftermarket sensors have this capability and can become a liability for uneducated or untrained shop owners.

Auto-Locate is a technology in which sensors “locate” their positions during the driving process as opposed to being manually-located with a TPMS scan tool. There are various types of auto-locate technology, each working slightly differently, but all have the same outcome and can present the driver with the tire pressure in each position. Only specific make/model/year vehicles are equipped with this technology, so it’s important to follow the appropriate relearn procedures. A handy reference can be found using the MMY lookup at DillValves.com.

Some Stellantis-produced vehicles (including most new Jeep and Ram models) are equipped with Secure Gateway modules which function as a firewall to prevent unapproved tools and users from accessing vehicle system data streams (information that is typically accessible by simply plugging into the OBDII port). This electronic blocker is meant to prevent hackers from accessing and modifying data streams. Vehicle owners and shops can purchase an unlock code which will allow access for a certain period of time depending on the purchase plan. Technicians need to be aware that a Wi-Fi connection is required to work on these new systems. The Gateway-certified tool must be online and plugged into the vehicle during service procedures, including when performing a TPMS relearn via OBD.

Corrosion of aluminum valve stems — where TPMS sensors feature an aluminum stem — is a frequent problem in areas where weather and/or salt environments contribute to corrosion. Dill offers corrosion-resistant valve stems, such as the VS-240MC.

When dealing with specialty aftermarket wheels, it can be difficult to find stems that match the wheel finish and fit correctly. Dill has designed many specialty stems to coordinate with the most popular wheel finishes and unique fitments. For example, Dill’s VS-280-SS shorty valve stands at only 0.70-inch tall once installed and is designed specifically for wheels with minimal valve clearance. Along these same lines, Dill offers the new Dill Adapter, specifically designed to attach to common OE sensors and many aftermarket sensors, allowing them to be fitted to larger commercial truck type wheels, including the front alloy wheel on the 2020-2023 Chevy Silverado and Sierra 3500 DRW models. This assembly is available in combination with four different valve stems to accommodate various angles and rim hole sizes.

About the Author

Mike Mavrigian | Motor Age Editor

Mike Mavrigian has written thousands of automotive technical magazine articles involving a variety of  specialties, from engine building to wheel alignment, and has authored more than a dozen books that crisscross the automotive spectrum. Mike operates Birchwood Automotive, an Ohio shop that builds custom engines and performs vintage vehicle restorations. The shop also features a professional photo studio to document projects and to create images for articles and books.

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