Tire technology has evolved beyond the first pneumatic tires developed for bicycles over 125 years ago by pioneers like John Dunlop and William Thompson. Even the tires your parents used in recent decades are no match for the complexity of today’s tires. New tires may last even longer than you own your vehicle. Yet for ideal gas mileage, performance and service life, they still need periodic rotation and they still need to be changed.
Here are some tips for tire rotation--and for recognizing when it's time to change:
Plan on rotating tires at least every six months. However easy it is to ignore until a problem arises, make tire rotation a regular maintenance item about every six months or 6,000 miles, unless the manufacturer recommends a different interval.
Know what you're dealing with. You should know which tires are standard equipment on your car, what range of suitable replacements are offered, and what inflation pressures are recommended. For information on your specific tires and vehicle, check your owner’s manual or with a tire technician.
Find the right place to look closely. With full tire rotation or single tire changing, safety cannot be overemphasized. Firm, level ground and good lighting have to be available. The manufacturer-supplied jack and tools or equivalents must all be present and so must a safe space to use them. If you’re missing even a single element of the above, do not proceed on your own, get assistance.
Inspect your tires. To understand why tire rotation is necessary, look no further than your favorite running shoes. Notice how some spots are worn smooth, while other areas still look new. That is the same uneven wear your tires will experience without proper rotation.
Determine if your tires need replacing. Here's what you're looking for. If they need to be replaced, only replace them in sets of four to ensure even tread wear and the highest levels of safety.
Know the recommended rotation pattern. One tire rotation pattern does not necessarily fit all vehicles. It depends whether your vehicle is front-, rear- or all-wheel drive. It also depends whether you have a full-size spare tire on a rim matching the primary ones. Most newer vehicles have spare tires designed for temporary emergency use only. Some vehicles have done away with spares altogether. If you are unsure, check.
Check to make sure you have the recommended tires--on each corner, even. One tire rotation pattern does not necessarily fit all tires. Crucially, it may come down to the actual tires you drive. If the tire sidewalls indicate specific direction, often with an arrow and text such as “Rotation,” you have directional tires. Mounting them contrary to recommendation can substantially compromise safety and accelerate wear. To add another variable, a few vehicles run different rim sizes between front and rear, though this is relatively uncommon. If neither of these apply, you probably have same-sized rims and asymmetrical tires, meaning they can be mounted at any corner and deliver the same performance characteristics.
Remove the tires after the car is properly secured. Your car should be stabilized on jacks or a lift that will support the weight, with a good margin of safety. Don't try to rotate tires with just the emergency jack that comes with the car.
Reinstall the proper tires and tighten them properly. Often overlooked but extremely important is proper tightness on the rims’ bolts, aka lug nuts. While under-tightened bolts present obvious problems, overtightened bolts can cause a range of problems as well, from component wear to serious safety issues. They may be tough to loosen, but that should not imply they be tightened again with all your strength. A fairly inexpensive torque wrench will eliminate the guesswork when tightening bolts to the manufacturer’s recommended settings.
Get criss-crossed. Tighten bolts repeatedly in a criss-cross, star-type pattern. First, snug them hand-tight while the vehicle is supported by the jack, then tighten further with your wrench. Once the vehicle is on the ground again, make final adjustments with your torque wrench.
Check the pressures. Once tires are rotated, remember to adjust air pressure between the front and rear tires if necessary. Even though you may have same-sized rims and/or asymmetrical tires, the vehicle manufacturer may call for staggered air pressures for tires mounted fore and aft. This can compensate for weight bias and help neutralize handling.
Reset tire-pressure monitors, if recommended. Even with proper rotation, the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) may still associate the tires’ prior positions on the vehicle. This could lead to incorrect readouts, and a system reset could be required.
If your vehicle has a temporary spare sized differently than the primary wheels and tires, note the “temporary” intent of its design and follow any maximum mileage and speed warnings labeled on the wheel or in your owner’s manual.
Let someone else do it, when you need to. Finally, as much as we bemoan the lost art of drivers performing their own work, we do not condone getting in harm’s way. Have a shop rotate the tires if you do not have the proper environment, experience or tools. That especially applies to tire changing. When any circumstance prohibits safe tire changing, always call for roadside assistance or a tow.
It bears another mention--in fact, it is valid for every point here--check with your owner’s manual or a tire technician for help and guidance with your specific vehicle. But following a few basic tire rotation and tire changing tips will maximize performance and service life.