Tool Q&A: Tire, wheel service

Aug. 9, 2010

Editor's Note: This article was orginally published Aug. 9, 2010. Some of the information may no longer be relevant, so please use it at your discretion.

With an ever-changing landscape of new vehicle technology, there’s always a new twist coming your way when it comes to tools and equipment, so, if you have anything on your mind in that regard, please send your questions to PTEN, so we can consider them for an upcoming issue. There are upwards of 960 million tires on the road; odds are that you’ll be performing tasks in this service area on a regular basis. While some may consider this technology to be mostly static, nothing could be further from the truth. Here, too, technology marches on in an unrelenting pace to make today’s vehicles the most advanced ever.

Q: We’re beginning to see cars with Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems coming in for service. How can we quickly determine whether the vehicle has TPMS?

A: Some vehicles prior to 2006 had TPMS as an option. Mandatory implementation by federal law started with each manufacturer equipping 20 percent of its 2006 models with TPMS. That rose to 70 percent for 2007 models, and then became universal for 2008 models. To quickly check for TPMS:

  1. Look at the tire valve stems and see if they’re metal and retained with a large, collar-style nut
  2. Check the instrument panel for an indicator light (usually a U-shaped icon with an exclamation point inside)

This light is the Malfunction Indicator lamp for the TPMS system. Look for both metal valve stems and the light because a metal valve stem by itself does not ensure the presence of TPMS. Of course, you can also refer to service information as another means of confirming a TPMS-equipped vehicle.

Q: How much does TPMS affect routine tire and wheel service?

A: The presence of TPMS on a vehicle has a definite effect on service and the procedures you use. Simple things like tire repair, changing the inflation pressure and rotating the tires can trigger the TPMS indicator, so keep this in mind. When rotating tires, mark the original location of the tires so this can be accounted for during a system reset. To perform this task, you may need to activate a system reset button, drive the vehicle or use a special tool to enable relearning of the TPMS sensors in their new locations. When mounting and dismounting tires, you need to use care not to damage the TPMS sensors with the tire changer and its related tools. You simply can’t avoid TPMS-related issues during tire and wheel service.

Q: What capabilities does a TPMS diagnostic tool give me?

A: A TPMS diagnostic tool enables you to diagnose and reset the system. For instance, you may need to use a diagnostic tool to communicate with the wheel sensors prior to tire rotation or replacement. Not only does this confirm that they work properly, it may also be required as the first step of a relearn procedure so the system can identify each tire. In some cases, a scan tool may also be used for this procedure. These days, your shop simply can’t afford to be without a TPMS diagnostic tool.

Q: There seems to be a lot of attention given to nitrogen inflation of tires these days. What’s this all about?

A: Nitrogen inflation is an outgrowth of the vehicle performance industry and promises more stable inflation pressures over a wide temperature range. This can bring improved fuel economy and handling benefits. A green valve stem cap usually identifies nitrogen-filled tires, although it’s no guarantee. To fill nitrogen tires, you’ll need special nitrogen filling equipment that either uses cylinders containing nitrogen or that generates nitrogen on-site.

Q: We’re interested in upgrading our balancing equipment because we have older on-car, spin-balancing equipment. What’s changed with respect to wheel balancing?

A: Off-the-car balancing is the most prevalent technique today because wheels can be balanced without being concerned about placement on the car and lug positioning. Although on-the-car balancers have had some success, they don't really balance the wheel and tire assembly specifically because other rotating components influence how and where the weight is applied. Early spin balancers used high rpm (about 55 mph) to check balance, but the latest models use low-rpm designs. In fact, some balancers can be spun by hand, reducing cost, weight, and potential repair expenses.

In other words, just because a customer complains of a vibration at 55 mph, it doesn't mean the wheel and tire have to be balanced at that speed. Specialty modes are also common on many of the latest balancers. Optimization for lowest weight and best cosmetic results is one example, but an increasingly popular feature is known as "match balancing." This feature allows you to match the high or heavy spot on the tire with the low or light spot on the wheel. As a result, the wheel and tire can be balanced with a minimum amount of extra weight.

This feature can come in real handy for problem wheels or for tires to get smooth, vibration-free performance. Prior to the introduction of the match-balancing feature, it was done in an experimental fashion. It involved dismounting the tire, turning it 90 degrees, then remounting it and rechecking the balance.

Q: When shopping for a new balancer, what should we look for?

A: When searching for a balancer, remember that you're buying it to make money. It may sound obvious, but it means you should look for a machine that will work reliably with consistent results. You may want to ask yourself the following questions for each balancer under consideration:

  1. Does the balancer have a proven track record? Is it really dependable? You may also want to pose this question to some local high-volume shops using the same balancer. If you don't know, ask your rep for the names of some shops using one.
  2. Does the balancer have all the features you need? Be realistic about this; carefully review your needs so you don't over-buy or under-buy. Make sure the balancer has all the modes you need, including fine balancing for sensitive suspension systems.
  3. Does the balancer come with all the wheel adapters you need or are some of them optional? See what you get and what else may be optional.
  4. Will the balancer handle the tire and wheel sizes you see? You may want to consider another model if you plan on balancing larger tires for trucks.

Q: We’re long overdue for a new tire changer for our shop. What are some of the things we need to consider in a new machine?

A: Tire machines have become just as sophisticated as the new tires and wheels on today’s vehicles. Make sure that the units you’re considering can handle the entire spectrum of wheels and tires you’ll be servicing. This includes specifics like special rim designs and sizes and run-flat tires. You should also compare the functionality, ergonomics and intuitiveness of using the machine.

Remember to ask about warranty and service, along with any training that comes included. You should also learn what regular maintenance is required to maximize uptime. Don’t underestimate these aspects as you have to live with the machine for many years to come, you don’t want any regrets over the long haul.

Q: I’ve noticed that there are some electric tire changers on the market. Does this mean air-powered machines are becoming obsolete?

Not at all. Electric tire changers may offer some operating advantages such as not needing an air supply. From a performance perspective, some users like the characteristics of an electric motor in the changer rather than air power. Since “better” in this regard is in the eyes of the beholder, it’s best to try both electric and air machines out to see what you prefer. Also, ask around to see what other technicians and shop owners have to say about their experiences with the two different types of machines. Finally, get some feedback from others on whether one design has durability advantages over the other.

Since tire and wheel service can be a reliable profit center, you may want to take a “big picture” look at your operation beyond the equipment itself. For instance, are there any improvements you can make to workflow to improve the throughput of your shop? Would installing the new equipment in a different location help boost productivity? For example, would having the new equipment placed closer to your wheel alignment system consolidate services in that area? These are some key things to consider to ensure customer satisfaction and a healthy bottom line for your business.

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