Thankfully, modern tire design and materials have made flat tires far less common that they were even a couple of decades ago. Still, it does happen. Changing a flat tire can be a relatively simple process if you perform each step correctly and make sure you’re a safe distance from traffic.
With assistance from Josh Chalofsky, Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of online tire sales and service site Simpletire.com, here’s all the information you’ll need to change that flat and be on your way.
Recognizing You Have A Flat
If a tire goes flat while your car is parked, you will likely notice it as you approach the vehicle, and plans can be made to change the tire on the spot. If a tire loses air while you’re driving, you will likely receive a low air pressure warning on the instrument panel courtesy of the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS). Passenger vehicles not equipped with a TMPS system (TPMS systems were federally mandated in 2007) or a malfunctioning system will be made aware by either a noticeable difference in vehicle handling and steering response or the vehicle leaning or sagging to one corner. In the rare and potentially dangerous case of a catastrophic failure, often referred to as a blow-out, the occupants may notice an explosion or the sound of tire fragments striking the vehicle’s body.
Should the latter occur, do not slam on the brakes, but ease off the accelerator and gently steer your vehicle to the road shoulder or, if possible, a nearby exit, side street or parking lot—the farther away from traffic, the better. Once you’re parked, turn off your engine, place the vehicle in Park and engage the parking brake. If you have road flares, cones or a reflective triangle, place them to warn other motorists you’re working on a disabled vehicle and to slow down and give you some extra space.
At that point, it is safe to remove the spare, jack and other tools from your vehicle. Generally located in the trunk or the side panels of the cargo hold in an SUV, there is no universal location for the jack and spare tire. Spare tires can be stored in the vehicle or under it; some have full-size spares while most have a tiny space-saver spare; sportier models sometimes have no spare tire and only provide a sealant and small tire inflator. For this reason, owners must review their owner’s manual and note the location of the spare, jack and associated hardware for their particular vehicle.
Placing The Jack
Each vehicle has designated points where it is safe to place the jack. They’re typically behind the front wheels or just ahead of the rear wheels. They are often identifiable by the presence of a circular or rectangular steel plate that reinforces the spot for jacking duty. You never want to place the jack against plastic or a random spot along the lower sills as you could damage the bodywork trying to support the car’s weight on an unreinforced area.
In addition to having the vehicle in Park and setting the parking brake, the placement of a wheel chock is recommended. While commercially available wheel chocks can be found at any number of outlets, a rock, brick or 4×4 piece of lumber will also do the job in a pinch. For instance, if the right rear tire is flat, place a chock in front of the right front tire or both front tires if you have two. Follow the same logic for the left side. Reverse the order for flat on a front tire.
Once you are sure the vehicle is static and the jack is in the appropriate place, you can raise the jack to contact the body, but don’t lift the vehicle just yet.
Removing The Flat
Using the tool in your jack kit, slightly loosen and remove the lug nuts, moving in a star pattern around the wheel using the vehicle’s weight to keep the wheel from spinning. When all the lugs are broken loose, you can now use the jack and raise the tire off the ground. Remember, a fully inflated full-size spare will require a bit more clearance to install, so leave a little extra room. Keeping a jack stand in the vehicle is a good idea and placing it under the vehicle in an appropriate location offers another level of security while the vehicle is in the air. Place the lug nuts in a safe place until it’s time to fasten the spare. One of the lug nuts may be a wheel lock. It will look different from the others. You’ll need to use another tool in your kit to remove it.
Once all the lugs, including the wheel lock, are off, you can remove the flat tire and set it aside. Do not attempt to place it, or any other tools or items in your trunk while the car is lifted on the jack.
Installing The Spare
Lift the spare, place it on the lugs and secure it with the lug nuts, again working in a star pattern. Ensure not to over tighten the lug nuts, which can cause damage to the lugs or wheel.
Once the spare is securely fastened, lower the vehicle until the car is on the ground and remove the jack. Then, with the vehicle’s weight resting on the tire, make a final round of all the lug nuts to make sure they remain securely fastened. If you have a tire pressure gauge check the spare tire’s pressure and add or remove air to the proper spec if you have a portable compressor.
Immediate Next Steps
After stowing the flat, the jack and your tools, you’re ready to roll, but not too far or too fast. Most spares are not actual full-size replacement tires but smaller, space-saving “doughnut” spares. They’re generally rated for speeds up to 50 miles per hour and for traveling about 50 miles. It’s best to find the nearest tire store or service station to have your flat repaired or replaced as soon as possible and swap out the spare and place it back in your trunk for the next time you need it.
For drivers who know their limits or simply have no interest in getting their hands dirty, the best tool may the phone number of a reputable roadside assistance plan. Available from several vendors including AAA, Better World Company and Allstate and Progressive Insurance companies, roadside assistance plans can offer another layer of security for even the seasoned motorist.