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Your tires support the weight of your vehicle, right? Well they don't! It's the air pressure inside them that actually supports the weight. Maintaining sufficient air pressure is required if your tires are to provide all of the handling, traction and durability of which they are capable.
However, you can't set tire pressure...and then forget about it! Tire pressure has to be checked periodically to assure that the influences of time, changes in ambient temperatures or a small tread puncture have not caused it to change.
The tire pressure recommended in your vehicle's owner's manual or tire information placard is the vehicle's recommended cold tire inflation pressure. This means that it should be checked in the morning before you drive more than a few miles, or before rising ambient temperatures or the sun's radiant heat affects it.
Since air is a gas, it expands when heated and contracts when cooled. In most parts of North America, this makes fall and early winter months the most critical times to check inflation pressures...days are getting shorter...ambient temperatures are getting colder...and your tires' inflation pressure is going down!
The rule of thumb is for every 10° Fahrenheit change in air temperature, tire pressures will change about 2% (up with higher temperatures and down with lower). This means that light-duty, standard-pressure tires (typically inflated to 30-50 psi) used in applications on cars, vans and light trucks will change by about 1 psi; where heavy-duty, high-pressure tires (typically inflated to 80-100 psi) used in applications on recreational vehicles, busses and trucks will change by about 2 psi.
In most parts of North America, the difference between average summer and winter temperatures is about -50° Fahrenheit...which results in a potential loss of about 5 psi as winter's temperatures set in. And a 5 psi loss is enough to sacrifice handling, traction, and durability!
Additionally, the difference between cold nighttime temperatures and hot daytime temperatures in most parts of the country is about 20° Fahrenheit. This means that after setting tire pressures first thing in the morning, the vehicle's tire pressures will be almost 2 psi higher when measured in the afternoon (if the vehicle was parked in the shade). While that is expected, the problem is when you set your vehicle's tire pressures in the heat of the day, their cold pressures will probably be 2 psi low the following morning.
And finally, if the vehicle is parked in the sun, the sun's radiant heat will artificially and temporarily increase tire pressures.
We put some of these theories to the test at the Tire Rack. First, we mounted two tires on wheels. We let them sit overnight to equalize and stabilize their temperatures and pressures. The following morning we set them both to 35 psi. One tire and wheel was placed in the shade while the other was placed directly in the sun. We then monitored the ambient temperatures, tire temperatures and tire pressures through the day. As the day's temperatures went from 67° to 85° Fahrenheit, the tire that was kept in the shade went from our starting pressure of 35 psi to a high of 36.5 psi. The tire that was placed in the sun and subject to the increase in ambient temperature plus the sun's radiant heat went from our starting pressure of 35 psi to a high of 40 psi. In both cases, if we had set our tire pressures in the afternoon under the conditions of our evaluation, they would have been between 2 and 5 psi low the following morning.
Next we evaluated the effects of heat generated by the tire's flexing during use. We tried to eliminate the variable conditions we might encounter on the road by conducting this test using our "competition tire heat cycling service" that rolls the tires under load against the machine's rollers to simulate real world driving. We monitored the changes in tire pressure in 5-minute intervals. The test tires were inflated to 15 psi, 20 psi, 25 psi and 30 psi. Running them all under the same load, the air pressure in all of the tires went up about 1 psi during every 5 minutes of use for the first 20 minutes of operation. Then the air pressures stabilized, typically gaining no more than 1 psi of additional pressure during the next 20 minutes. This means that even a short drive to inflate your tires will result in tires that will probably be under-inflated by a few psi the following morning.
Add all of these together, and you can understand why the conditions in which you set your vehicle's tire pressures are almost as important as the fact that you do set it.
It's important to remember that your vehicle's recommended tire pressure is its cold tire inflation pressure. It should be checked in the morning before you drive more than a few miles, or before rising ambient temperatures or the sun's radiant heat affects it.
And by the way, if you live in the North and park in an attached or heated garage you will lose pressure when you leave its warmth and venture into the real world outside during winter. Add 1 psi cold pressure tire pressure to compensate for each 10° Fahrenheit temperature difference between the temperature in the garage and outside.
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