When and How to Rotate Tires
Most good unicycles have one, bicycles a pair, and all cars at least four. Of course, we’re talking about tires, which serve several purposes on the modern automobile. Tires give vehicles the traction they need to get around on some of the most demanding terrain our State has to offer, from pothole-ridden city streets or rock-strewn trails, rain, mud, or shine. Additionally, air-filled tires provide a measure of shock absorption, smoothing out some of the lesser bumps in the road. Tire maintenance, such as tire rotations and wheel alignments, helps tires last longer.
Tire Life Explained
Industrial construction methods and rubber compounds are critical to reliable traction and ride comfort, but the rubber is also the tire’s downfall. Softer than the road, rubber wears off, so tires have a limited lifespan. Some soft-compound sport tires may last just 20,000 miles, while hard-compound touring tires can last upwards of 80,000 miles. Several factors come into play to determine the life of any single tire, such as tire construction, driver habit, vehicle type, and tire maintenance, to name a few.
- Softer tires last fewer miles than harder tires, but softer tires also deliver more traction. When shopping for tires, choosing a long-life tire will require sacrificing traction.
- Low-profile tires, usually 50-series or lower, tend to wear out faster than high-profile tires, as well as offer a stiffer ride. Low-profile tires tend to offer better traction and handling, but sacrifice long life.
- Wheel alignment on most passenger vehicles is tuned for directional stability and a relaxed ride, which helps tires last longer. Sports cars are aligned for a more aggressive and responsive stance, which improves handling but sacrifices tire life. Additionally, if wheel alignment is off-specification, it can affect directional stability and lead to abnormal tire wear.
- Stiffer suspensions improve handling, but also increase tire wear. Additionally, loose or worn steering and suspension components, such as shocks and struts or tie rod ends and ball joints, can lead to accelerated tire wear.
- Tire rotation is critical to a long-lasting tire. Rotating tires, at least on vehicles with four equal tires, not vehicles with staggered tires or duallies – helps them last longer.
- Tire pressure for each vehicle is tuned to balance ride quality, traction, and tire wear. Underinflation or overinflation can negatively affect all of these, leading to abnormal wear, reduced traction, and poor ride quality.
- Aggressive driving and vehicle overloading can also drastically shorten the life of a tire.
Why Tire Rotation is Important
All else being equal, with proper tire pressure, good suspension, good driving habits, and on-spec wheel alignment, we can say that tire pressure and tire rotation are the two things that directly affect the life of any given tire. Tires in the front of the vehicle and rear of the vehicle life radically different lives, whether they’re driving, braking, turning, or just trailing. Because tires in different positions wear in different ways, tire rotation can distribute that wear among the whole set of tires, helping the whole set last longer.
- On front-wheel drive vehicles, the front tires are doing a lot, responsible for acceleration and turning, as well as taking the brunt of braking forces, up to 75%, while the rear tires are basically just trailing along for the ride. The front tires tend to wear more on the shoulders than the rear tires.
- On rear-wheel drive vehicles, the rear tires are responsible for accelerating, while the front tires are responsible for braking and turning. The rear tires tend to wear out more along the center of the tread, while the front tires tend to wear out on the shoulders.
Because front tire shoulders tend to wear out faster than rear tire shoulders, switching positions gives the rear tires a chance to wear a little on the shoulders. Instead of waiting for shoulder wear to destroy the shoulders and ruin the tire completely, distributing wear this way helps tires last an average of 33% longer per set, according to some rough Consumer Reports back-of-the-envelope calculations.
How Often Should You Rotate Tires?
Tire manufacturers, experts, and installers recommend tire rotation intervals no longer than 8,000 miles. given that many vehicles require oil changes every 5,000 miles, this is a good time to have it done. Even if your vehicle only requires engine oil changes every 10,000 miles, it’s a good idea to have your vehicle inspected every 5,000 miles or so, the perfect time to rotate tires.
Many tire installers offer free tire rotations, for the life of the tires they install, which saves you money and time, as well as helping you save money on tire replacement. Still, rotating tires is something the average DIYer can do in less than an hour, with the proper tools and equipment.
DIY Tire Rotation
If you plan on rotating tires on your own, you’ll need the following:
- Flat and level space to park
- Jack, jack stands, wheel chocks
- Lug nut wrench or impact wrench
- Wheel lock key (if needed)
- 1/2″ torque wrench and appropriate socket
- Tire inflator and tire pressure gauge
- Mechanic’s gloves
- Wire brush & anti-seize lubricant
- Owner’s manual
Start by parking your car on a flat and level surface and chock one of the front wheels. Put the transmission in gear, set the parking brake, and shut down the engine.
- If only using a lug nut wrench, go around the vehicle and break loose all the lug nuts, but do not remove them. If using an impact wrench, you can wait until the vehicle is lifted to remove the lug nuts, but only use the lug nut wrench and wheel lock key to break loose any wheel locks – this prevents damage to the wheel lock and wheel lock key.
- Determine your tire rotation pattern. The most common is simply to swap front tires and back tires without changing sides. Swapping sides when moving rear tires forward is another strategy, but will require lifting the entire vehicle, hence the second set of jack stands. Check the owner’s manual for proper lift points, and jack up the vehicle. If doing a simple front-to-back tire rotation, lift just one side and support it on jack stands. If doing the rear-to-front side swap tire rotation, then you’ll need to lift and support the front first, then lift and support the rear. Note: Never put any part of your body under a vehicle only supported by a jack – a jack is a lifting device, not a supporting device.
- Finish removing the lug nuts and the wheels, moving them to their new positions on the car. Use the wire brush to clean the wheel hubs and wheel centers. Apply a tiny amount of anti-seize lubricant to make future removal easier. Spin on the lug nuts hand tight, then lower the vehicle to the ground.
- Use the torque wrench to tighten lug nuts, in a star or crisscross pattern to their appropriate torque – this information should be in the owner’s manual.
- Check and adjust tire pressure to the specification in the owner’s manual or the Tire & Loading sticker, on the driver’s door jamb.
Just like other regular maintenance, tire rotation deserves your attention. It helps tires last longer, which keeps more money in your pocket and makes your drive safer. Rotating tires on your own is easy and fulfilling, but almost every auto shop also offers this service, some for free, if you buy their tires.