5 Impacts of Low Tire Pressure and Prevention

Key Takeaways:

  • Low tire pressure can decrease fuel efficiency, lead to uneven tire wear, increase the risk of flats and blowouts, compromise vehicle handling, and create unsafe driving conditions.
  • Check tire pressure at least once a month using a pressure gauge, inspect tires visually each day, ensure the TPMS system is working, and use fleet tracking technology.
  • Most passenger vehicle tires require 32-35 PSI – check the sticker inside the driver’s side door or owner’s manual for specifics.
  • Driving any distance on significantly underinflated tires is risky – inflate them as soon as possible once the low pressure warning light comes on.
  • Keeping tires properly inflated improves safety, optimizes fuel efficiency, extends tire life, and reduces maintenance costs.

Proper tire pressure is one of the most fundamental yet overlooked aspects of vehicle maintenance. While everyone knows tires need air, busy fleet operators often let tire pressure slide until it becomes an urgent problem.

Low tire pressure might not seem like a big deal on the surface, but it negatively impacts your fleet in several key ways. Underinflated tires reduce fuel economy, cause premature tire wear, increase the chances of flats and blowouts, compromise braking distances and handling, and create unsafe driving conditions.

Now, we’ll explore the five major effects of low tire pressure and how fleet managers can proactively avoid them through consistent monitoring and early intervention. We’ll also answer common questions about optimal PSI levels, how far you can safely drive on underinflated tires, and technologies that help automate tire pressure management.

Proper tire inflation is vital for saving money on fuel and maintenance, extending the life of your tires, and keeping drivers safe on the road.

Let’s dive in!

Effect #1: Reduced Fuel Economy

One of the most costly effects of low tire pressure is reduced fuel efficiency throughout your fleet. When a tire doesn’t have enough air, more surface area contacts the pavement, increasing rolling resistance. This requires more effort for the engine to move the vehicle forward, burning extra fuel.

According to the Department of Energy, every 1 PSI drop in inflation decreases fuel economy by 0.2 percent. With tire pressure just 5 PSI under the recommended level, gas mileage can decrease by a full 2 percent.

For a fleet of 50 vehicles averaging 24 MPG and 15,000 miles per year, that 2 percent reduction equates to around 750 extra gallons of fuel wasted annually, costing over $2,500 at current fuel prices.

The impact expands exponentially for larger fleets and more severe underinflation. Even minor differences in tire pressure can siphon thousands of dollars in wasted fuel costs over time. Maintaining optimal PSI levels in your tires is one of the fastest ways to improve MPG and reduce gasoline expenditures company-wide.

Effect #2: Premature and Uneven Tire Wear

In addition to burning more fuel, low tire pressure accelerates tread wear and causes uneven tire wear patterns. When air pressure is too low, more surface area drags on the road, generating excess heat through friction. Higher operating temperatures degrade the rubber compounds, shortening the tire’s lifespan.

Uneven tread wear also occurs because the tire’s contact patch distorts under inflation, concentrating force on the outer shoulders. This escalates shoulder wear while leaving excess tread depth in the middle. Uneven wear promotes instability in wet conditions, makes alignment issues harder to correct, and causes rapid wear on shocks and steering components from improper angles.

Continuing to drive on extremely underinflated tires eventually exposes the steel belts under the tread, known as a “bald” tire. At this point, the tire is prone to sudden air loss or a blowout, putting drivers at serious risk. Low pressure rapidly accelerates the need for tire rotation, alignment, or full replacement.

Effect #3: Increased Risk of Flats and Blowouts

One of the most dangerous consequences of low tire pressure is a higher incidence of flats and blowouts. Every 10 PSI drop in inflation doubles the chance of a tire failure. At 50% below recommended pressure, the likelihood of sudden air loss increases by a factor of 8 times.

Why does low pressure create a greater blowout risk? Several factors are at play. First, underinflated tires generate more heat through internal friction, degrading the rubber. Second, less air volume is available to absorb impacts from potholes or road debris. Finally, the distorted sidewalls are more prone to punctures, cuts, and ruptures.

Blowouts often happen without warning and cause drivers to lose control of the vehicle. SUVs are especially prone to rollovers after a tire failure. Quick air loss while traveling at highway speeds makes blowouts extremely hazardous. They are responsible for over 78,000 crashes annually according to the NHTSA.

Effect #4: Compromised Handling and Braking

Underinflated tires negatively impact a vehicle’s braking distances, steering precision, and overall handling stability. Because low pressure allows more flex in the tire’s sidewalls, responsiveness and grip are reduced.

During hard braking, underinflated tires require longer distances to come to a complete stop. The squishy sidewalls deform instead of transmitting maximum deceleration forces. Brake fade can also occur as the flexible tread distorts under pressure and generates excessive heat.

Steering responsiveness also suffers as sidewalls bend and distort rather than remaining rigid. This makes the vehicle feel sluggish or disconnected during sudden maneuvers. Low pressures magnify alignment issues and promote early steering component wear.

Traction is compromised in wet or icy conditions when tires can’t cut through standing water or penetrate snow effectively. Hydroplaning and loss of control happen more easily with inadequate inflation levels. Hard cornering also reduces stability as the contact patch “squirms” rather than maintaining rigidity.

In an emergency situation where split-second reactions are necessary, compromised handling could mean the difference between a near miss or a serious accident. Keeping pressures optimized ensures your vehicles respond predictably and safely when it matters most.

Effect #5: Dangerous Driving Conditions

All the above effects culminate in an overall dangerous driving experience when tires are under-inflated. Stopping distances lengthen, stability margins decrease, blowouts become more common, and handling predictability suffers.

Low tire pressure directly impacts the most safety-critical systems on your vehicles – the foundation of traction, braking, and dynamic handling. As inflation drops, your ability to accelerate, steer, and decelerate your vehicles in a controlled manner is progressively compromised.

This puts not only your drivers at risk but also pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and other motorists sharing the roads. A tire failure or loss of control can easily result in a rollover accident or collision with vulnerable road users with catastrophic consequences.

Several large-truck and motorcoach accidents resulting in fatalities have been attributed to inadequate tire inflation. Don’t let preventable tire pressure issues put lives at risk – conduct regular pressure checks and keep your tires filled to spec. Safety depends on it.

How to Avoid Low Tire Pressure

Now that we’ve explored the five major effects of underinflation, let’s discuss best practices for avoiding low tire pressure proactively in your fleet. Adequate inflation requires consistent monitoring, early intervention, driver training, and help from technology. Here are some tips:

Check Pressures at Least Monthly

Once tires are inflated to the proper specification, pressure drops gradually over time due to permeation through the rubber membranes. The natural diffusion rate is around 1-2 PSI per month. Checking pressures at least monthly ensures you catch any significant drops before they reach critical levels.

Conducting tire pressure checks is quick and straightforward. Simply use a calibrated gauge to measure inflation levels at the valve stem. Compare the reading to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended PSI located on a sticker inside the driver’s door jamb or in the owner’s manual. Add air as needed if any tire is below spec.

Keep in mind that ambient temperature impacts inflation pressure. Tires heat up and pressures rise when driving. For the most accurate measurement, check tires when they are cold before operation or at least before your fleet vehicles have been driven more than a couple miles.

Inspect Tires Visually Each Day

The best early warning of an underinflated tire comes from visual inspection. Train drivers and maintenance staff to incorporate a quick tire check into their daily walk-around. Look for any obvious signs of underinflation:

  • Low tire height compared to others
  • Bulging, distorted sidewalls
  • Excess tread squirm when rocked
  • Uneven tread wear patterns

Catching pressure drops visually between monthly pressure checks ensures you can address issues before they escalate. Empower your staff to inflate on the spot or pull vehicles from service for inflating as needed.

Ensure the TPMS System Functions

Newer vehicles feature Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems that use sensors mounted inside each wheel. TPMS alerts drivers through a warning light when inflation drops 25% or more below the placard pressure.

However, fleets often overlook maintaining the TPMS itself. Like any electronic system, sensors have a finite life of around 10 years. Batteries deplete, components corrode, and sensor failures occur. Replacing non-functional sensors ensures this valuable early warning system remains active.

TPMS warning lights should illuminate briefly during startup as a self-check and extinguish shortly after. Any vehicle showing a persistent low pressure warning requires immediate attention to identify and correct the underinflated tire. Never ignore TPMS alerts.

Leverage Fleet Tracking Telematics

sophisticated fleet tracking platforms like Force offer continuous automated tire pressure monitoring. Special sensor valve caps mounted on each wheel transmit real-time PSI data through the fleet tracking device to the cloud.

Dashboard alerts notify you immediately anytime a tire dips below a set threshold. You can dispatch a mobile tire service or alert the driver to add air before a minor pressure loss becomes critically low.

Advanced tracking systems like Force even estimate remaining tire life based on inflation levels over time. This allows intelligent tire rotation and replacement planning to optimize spend. Telematics offer 24/7 tire health visibility between manual checks.

Train Drivers on Proper Inflation

Your drivers are your first line of defense against low pressure situations. Even with TPMS technology, drivers play a crucial role in identifying issues before they escalate.

Train all employees on:

  • Proper PSI levels for the tires on their vehicles
  • How to spot visual indicators of underinflation
  • What to do if they suspect or confirm an underinflated tire
  • Safe driving precautions if a tire rapidly loses air pressure

Emphasize that identifying and reporting inflation issues early is vital to their own safety behind the wheel. Make adding air as easy as possible by providing mobile inflator kits and authorizing immediate repair stops.

What’s the Correct Tire Pressure?

One common question surrounding tire inflation is what the proper inflation level actually is. Tires are engineered for the loads, speeds, and handling dynamics of a particular vehicle. The correct pressure is whatever the vehicle manufacturer recommends for that specific tire and trim package.

Never rely on the maximum pressure molded into the tire sidewall. This indicates the tire’s pressure capacity, not the optimal inflation for your vehicle. The only authoritative inflation guidance for your specific tires comes from:

  • The vehicle placard sticker, usually located inside the driver’s door jamb.
  • The tire inflation tables in the owner’s manual.
  • The OEM manufacturer’s official specifications.

If unsure, always default to the door jamb sticker value for front, rear, and spare tires. For many passenger cars, this falls around 32-35 PSI normally. Light trucks and commercial vans may spec slightly higher inflation levels.

Remember that the placard pressure assumes cold tires before operation. Add 2-4 PSI when checking inflated hot tires after driving. Never bleed off air to match a hot reading unless extremely overinflated.

How Low is Too Low?

At what point does underinflation become critical? Any significant deviation from the placard spec compromises performance and safety to some degree. However, an inflation drop over 25% below the recommended pressure is considered the critical threshold.

For example, if your tires are supposed to be inflated to 34 PSI cold:

  • 1-2 PSI low may start impacting fuel economy and tread wear
  • 5-6 PSI low will significantly affect handling and braking
  • 8 PSI or more below spec (26 PSI actual) represents the critical danger zone

The Tire Pressure Monitoring System turns on its warning light around 25% below placard pressure to alert drivers of critically low inflation requiring immediate correction. Don’t ignore TPMS alerts.

How Far Can You Drive on Low Tire Pressure?

You might be wondering how far you can safely drive once discovering an underinflated tire. The answer depends on just how significantly the tire pressure has dropped.

If inflation is within just a few PSI of the recommended level, you can carefully drive a reasonable distance to have air added at a gas station or repair shop. The key is observing the vehicle for any signs of handling trouble or evidence of damage to the tire itself.

However, if pressure has dropped dangerously low, more than 8-10 PSI under spec, the only safe recourse is to inflate the tire immediately before driving any further. Serious underinflation at highway speeds can cause sudden catastrophic tire failures and loss of control.

If conveniently and safely possible, install a spare or switch to a different tire rather than attempting to limp along on a severely underinflated one. And remember that TPMS systems only alert drivers once inflation has already dropped 25% below the placard level, at which point immediate air addition is critical.

FAQs about Tire Pressure

Let’s wrap up with answers to some frequently asked questions about tire pressure:

Does temperature affect tire pressure?

Yes, ambient temperature has a measurable impact on inflation pressure. The ideal gas law dictates that gases expand when heated and contract when cooled. A general rule of thumb is that tire pressure decreases or increases around 1 PSI for every 10° F of temperature change.

Always check pressures when tires are cold, before driving has caused heat buildup. If checking pressures when hot, make sure they are within 2-4 PSI above placard pressure, rather than matching it exactly. The warm tires will drop back into spec as they cool.

How do I find the recommended PSI for my tires?

Check the placard sticker inside the driver’s door jamb or the tire pressure tables in the owner’s manual. The placard lists the OEM’s official recommended cold inflation pressures for front, rear, and spare tires. Don’t rely solely on the PSI molded into the tire sidewalls.

How often should I check tire pressures?

Check pressures on all fleet vehicles at least monthly. Supplement with daily visual inspections by drivers and maintenance staff for any signs of underinflation. More frequent pressure verification is wise during seasonal temperature swings.

Can I drive with the TPMS light on?

Only drive with the Tire Pressure Monitoring System light illuminated long enough reach a safe place to check inflation levels, such as a tire shop. TPMS doesn’t alert until pressures are 25% or more below placard spec. Never ignore the warning or continue driving any real distance.

What’s the easiest way to inflate tires?

Carry portable tire inflators like Slime 40088 12-Volt Digital Tire Inflator to quickly add air as needed in the field. Keep inflators on service trucks and teach drivers how to use them. Approve immediate repair stops for adding air when tires look or test underinflated.

Conclusion: Prioritize Proper Inflation

As we’ve explored, insufficient tire pressure negatively impacts fuel efficiency, tire lifespan, vehicle dynamics, and most importantly, driver safety. Preventing low inflation must be a top maintenance priority.

With a protocol of monthly pressure verification, daily visual inspections, functional TPMS, and driver training, your team can stay proactively on top of inflation levels. Use tire pressure monitoring telematics for real-time visibility whenever possible.

Remember, the only way to maintain proper tire pressures is consistent, frequent checking coupled with early intervention when issues arise.

Don’t wait for TPMS alerts. Stop pressure loss before it starts by making inflation a priority across your fleet team. Keep your vehicles safe and your tires rolling with air where they need it, when they need it.

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