Tire Shopping 101: Choosing the Right Tires for Your Car

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car tiresBuying tires isn’t like going to the grocery store, and choosing the right tires is a lot more important than the kind of soup you buy (and a lot more expensive).  Use these tips so you can make the right decision and purchase the best set of tires for your vehicle and your driving style.

Tire Size

You can find the size of your tires on the side of your tire, in your user manual, and sometimes on the inside of the driver-side door (or you can ask the experts when you head in to buy). Tire size is written in a series of letters and numbers, such as P255/55R17.

The first letter indicates the kind of vehicle the tire is intended for.  Here are some of the most common letters you find in tire sizes:

P-passenger cars

LT-light truck

T-Temporary spare

After the letter is a number, these numbers specify width, in millimeters, between the two sidewalls.  In our example above the width between the two sidewalls is 255. The second number, in this example 55 is the aspect ratio.  The number is a percentage, and the higher the percentage, the larger the sidewall of the tire. The last number, 17 in this case, is the diameter of wheel that the tire fits on.

Driving Style & Conditions

Once you’ve determined the size of the tires you need, it’s time to decide which tire is ideal for your driving style.  Are you looking for tires for your muscle car?  Look for tires with a higher speed rating.   Do you need tires for a daily commuter? Look for tires that can make it through all the miles you put on, maintain safe tread depth, and give you a quiet ride. Do your research and give the tire shop you contact all the information about your car and driving styles. If you drive in wet, snowy, and icy conditions, ask the experts to recommend a tire with a proven record on winter roads.

Snow Tires

Sometimes the right set of tires is two set of tires.  All-season tires, the most common tires on our cars, are designed for rain, heat, cold and snow. They give you a good all-around tire for those conditions, but the “take” is that they are not specially equipped for winter.  Snow tires are specially constructed with a softer compound and tread pattern designed specifically for gaining additional traction.  If you have to routinely head out in the winter weather, snow tires give you an added advantage (along with these safe winter driving practices).  If you want the advantages of both tires but don’t want to have to deal with mounting and unmounting the tires twice a year, buy a second set of tires and rims so you can easily have the right tires when you need it.

7 Parts of Your Car to Check this Spring

couple in convertible on road trip after getting car checked by mechanic for springWe don’t care how warm it gets; no one wants to be stranded on the side of the road this spring.  Make sure you get these parts of your car checked so your car doesn’t break down in this fantastic spring weather (or in a spring storm!).

Tires

Tires are the obvious choice since they are your primary source of traction. The number one way to gain that traction is by having tires with adequate tire tread for driving.  To find if your tires pass the test, make an appointment with your mechanic.  An experienced mechanic can check your tires to see that they have been wearing evenly (uneven wear might indicate a problem with your suspension or alignment) and have enough tread to make it until fall.  You can also use the penny test to check tire tread: put the penny in the tire tread.  If you can completely see Abraham Lincoln’s head, you need new tires.

As long as you are checking your tire tread, check the pounds-per-square inch (PSI) of your tires as well (or have your mechanic check the PSI).  You can find the correct PSI for your car on the decal on the inside of the driver’s side of your car.  It’s normal for your car PSI to be low after a cold winter weather; now is the time to make sure you have the correct tire pressure for safe summer driving.

Battery

The heat of our Wisconsin summer is hard on your car battery (even harder than the cold!). If you have been having problem with inconsistent starting or a long, rough start, now is the time to get your car battery tested.  A mechanic can tell you if you need a new car battery (usually when your batter is 3-5 years old).

Brakes

Don’t let our spring showers fool you: it’s normal for car brakes to squeak occasionally when they’re wet.  Any noises beyond that are a clear sign it’s time to get your car into the mechanic; squealing, grinding noise, a pulsating brake pedal, or a soft brake pedal are all signs it’s time for new brakes.  Make an appointment as soon as you can to get your brakes replaced.  Failing brakes are a safety hazard—especially when the spring and summer storms make our roads wet and slippery.

Air filter

An air filter is one of the most overlooked parts of your car, even though a clogged air filter can affect the performance of your car. Your air filter should be inspected annually and replaced as needed (when clogged and dirty).

Alignment

Rough winter roads and spring pot holes are the worst case scenario for any car, causing your car to be unbalanced and wear on your suspension parts and tires unevenly. If your car pulls to the left or right, steering wheel does not stay straight when driving or your tires wear unevenly, make an appointment for a wheel alignment before you head out a long spring or summer trip.

Windshield wipers & Headlights

Before you get stuck driving in a spring or summer rainstorm, check your windshield wipers and headlights so you have optimal visibility. Ask your mechanic to check your windshield wipers and headlights at your next oil change or check them yourselves to make sure your car is ready for spring and summer driving.

Another flat tire! Why does my car tire keep going flat?

tire that needs to be inspected for small holeA tire that goes flat again and again can cost you a LOT of time. After all, who wants to be stopping every few miles to fill up a tire with air?  Or stranded in the garage every morning with a flat? It’s inconvenient and a huge pain when you need to get somewhere FAST.

The way to get rid of that pesky inconvenient flat?  Figure out what’s causing your repeated flat, so you can figure out how to keep your tires full of air and on the road (and you don’t always have to replace the tire!).

Small leak

The problem: A small object, such as a nail, can puncture your tire and cause a small hole that leaks.

The solution:  Jack your car up and remove the tire.  Check the tire over carefully for any small holes or punctures.  If you can’t find any obvious holes, fill the tire with air and put your ear to the tire.  Listen very carefully for the sound of air escaping.  If you can’t hear anything, use a spray bottle to apply soapy water to the tire.  Small bubbles indicate there is a leak in the tire.  Schedule an appointment with your mechanic so they can fix your tire and get rid of that annoying leak (or so they can find the leak if you don’t want to).

Bad valve stem

The problem: Tire valve stems can go bad over time, causing air to seep out a little at a time.

The solution: To determine if your valve stem is the cause of a repeated flat tire, spray your valve stem with soapy water and look for bubbles.  If your valve stems are bad, the fix is a very affordable new valve stem.

Bad tire bead

The problem: Your tire bead is the outside surface that seals your tire to your tire rims.  If the tire bead is damaged, usually from corrosion from road chemicals, your tire is going to slowly leak air.

The solution: Contact a mechanic to fix the problem or use the spray bottle and soapy water to find out if your tire bead is the source of the leak.  If the tire bead is the source of the problem, it’s time to make the call and order a new set of tires.

Leaking rims

The problem: Dented or bent tire rims can cause a persistent tire leak, and you may not even notice the rim is warped.

The solution: Often, a good spray of soapy water can tell you if your tire rims are the source of the recurring flat.  Contact your mechanic to confirm your rims are faulty and purchase a new set of rims.

Cold weather

The problem: Cold winter weather can cause tire pressure to drop, though it should not cause so much air to leak that your tire pressure monitor system dash light repeatedly comes on.

The solution: Check your tire pressure (instructions for checking tire pressure here) and add a quick pound (or several pounds) of air to your tire.  Wait for the warm weather that’ll eventually come and eliminate your flat tire.

Everything You Need for a Complete Car Emergency Kit

woman trying to repair broken down carOur Wisconsin forecast is full of unpredictable highs, lows, thunderstorms, snow storms, hail, and everything in between: all times when you don’t want to be unprepared and stranded on the side of the road.  While you can’t always help being stranded, you can pack a kit with all the necessities you need next time your vehicle is broken down in the middle of nowhere.

Roadside assistance card or tow truck phone number

You don’t always know if you’re going to have decent coverage to look up tow truck numbers and websites when you’re stranded, so plan ahead.  Program numbers for roadside assistance or a tow truck company into your cell phone. In addition, carry your roadside assistance card or your tow truck number card in your purse or wallet, and put a spare copy in your emergency kit.

Flashlight

Your flashlight doesn’t have to be very large, but it does need to be bright so you can use it when you need it the most.  Periodically check the flashlight’s batteries so the flashlight is ready to be used when you need it most.

Blanket

A think blanket can be helpful during the summer or winter.  If you don’t have a lot of room in your vehicle for the blanket, fold it tightly to keep it a compact size.

Jack and lug wrench

Most likely, you can find a jack and lug wrench with your spare tire; however, some newer compact cars do not always include a jack and lug wrench.  Make sure you know how to use it; a jack and lug wrench won’t do you any good if you don’t know what to do.  If you do have to put your spare on, make sure you contact your mechanic ASAP to get your tire fixed or get a new tire mounted.

Jumper cables

Extreme winter and summer temperatures can do a number on our car batteries (as well as an occasional light left on), so make sure you have a set of jumper cables for when your car won’t start.  To keep from getting stranded from a dying battery, watch for signs of a battery that’s not going to make it.

Boots

Ever tried to shovel out your car with soaking wet shoes on? Not pleasant. Pack an old, waterproof pair of boots that you can use in case you need to slop through the mud or snow.

Shovel

A small shovel can be helpful during the winter or summer.  If you don’t have a lot of room for storage, purchase a foldable shovel that can be stored easily.

First aid kit

A first aid kit can come in handy when you’re stranded, headed out to the park, or for any time you’re on the go.  Make sure you refill your first aid kit after you use any bandages or other supplies.

3 Questions You Should Ask Before You Swap Your Snow Tires

mechanic removing snow tires from a carWhen to change your winter tires to summer tires is not always a question with a clear answer—especially with our unpredictable Wisconsin weather!  But it’s a question that needs to be answered, especially when you’ve invested so much of your time and money into your snow tires.  Here’s what you should ask yourself before you remove your snow tires, and why.

Is it going to snow again?

Your put snow tires on your car for a reason—to get you through the snow safely—so wait until the weather forecast does not include any chance of snow any time soon.  We’re not going to lie to you: that’s not always easy to do, especially when we get an occasional snow surprise in March or April (sometimes May!). Try not to take off your snow tires too soon. You don’t want to get stuck in a spring snow storm on all-season tires when you bought a set of snow tires for safety and increased traction.

What is the temperature?

When the temperatures start hitting the upper 40’s or low 50’s on a regular basis (note the regular part, we know we get occasional spring weather in February and March), it’s time to take those snow tires off (and not a moment too soon).

Snow tires are made of a soft rubber compound that can wear heavily when the road temperature gets too warm. With this in mind, make sure you remove or make an appointment to have your snow tires removed before the roads dry out and the temperatures heat up. If you wait until summer to take your snow tires off, your snow tires are going to be too worn to use again next winter.

How much of a pain is it to get them off (and on)?

If it’s easier to take your snow tires off and on, your decision to remove your snow tires is simpler than a car owner who has to break the bead, mount, and remount their snow tires every time.  If you want to make swapping your snow tires and all-season tires easier, consider purchasing a second set of rims specifically for your snow or all-season tires.  Make sure you purchase rims that are the right size for your car or truck, or ask your mechanic to find a set of right-sized rims. Your mechanic can mount your snow tires (or regular tires) to your second set of rims so you don’t have to go through the hassle of breaking the bead, removing and remounting tires every fall and spring.  While the cost of a second set of rims is one more expense, it can save the cost of a tire because you don’t have to worry about damaging your snow tires or all-season tires during the removal and mounting process.

What do the lights on my dashboard mean?

check engine light on dashThe lights on your dashboard are more than just an annoyance; they are a sign that your car needs attention—and some dashboard warning lights need attention NOW.  We’ve put together a list of the most common dashboard warning lights and what you should do about them (and when!).

Important note: When a warning light comes on, note whether the light is yellow or red. If the warning light is red, the problem is urgent and you should not drive your car.  Call your mechanic immediately.  A yellow car warning light indicates that the car needs to be checked, but you can still drive the car. Don’t wait too long to get your car into the mechanic though, though, as a yellow light left unchecked can lead to permanent damage, a higher repair bill, and you being stranded.

Battery alert

What: A small light in the shape of a battery, often with a small positive and negative sign.

What the light means: Your battery alert light is letting you know there is an issue with your car’s charging system and that your voltage level is low.

What you should do: Make sure your battery connectors and cables are correct and tight. Contact your mechanic to see if you can get an appointment soon; your car is going to break down if the battery cannot recharge.

Brake light

What: A brake light may say ‘BRAKE’ or can be a circle with an exclamation point in the middle.  Some cars have more than one brake light.

What the light means: A brake light can come on for a few different reasons, but usually it indicates that there is a problem with the braking system.

What you should do: Before you panic, make sure your parking brake is not on. If your parking brake is not the problem, make an appointment immediately to get your brakes checked. Don’t wait! Worn or failing brakes are a safety hazard that can lead to a serious accident.

Check Engine light

What: The check engine light is in the shape of irregular rectangle.

What the light means:  The check engine light comes on when your car has an issue that throws a code in your car’s computer system.  There are a number of reasons for this; the reason can be found out when hooked up to a computer by your mechanic.

What you should do: Schedule an appointment to find out what the reason is for the Check Engine light.  Your mechanic can tell you what the reason is, and if the repair is need immediately.

Coolant temperature warning light

What: The coolant temperature warning light looks like a thermometer with a round bottom, often with squiggly lines that look like waves.

What the light means:  Your engine is overheating, and needs attention to prevent engine failure.

What you should do:  Pull over to the side of the road right away. DO NOT unscrew your radiator cap.  If your engine is hot, the fluid could boil up and injure you. Once your car has cooled, check your antifreeze level and add water or radiator fluid to the radiator if needed. If the engine happens repeatedly, your car may have a radiator leak or have another problem that makes your car overheat. Schedule an appointment with your mechanic as soon as possible.

Oil pressure

What: The oil pressure warning light (or low pressure warning light) looks like an oil can, often with a drop of oil coming out.

What the light means: This light means that your car has a low oil level, or low or no oil pressure.

What you should do: Check your oil level as soon as you can with a paper towel.  If the problem was a low oil level, the warning light should go off eventually. If your car oil level is normal, your car may be running with minimal oil pressure. Do not drive your car with the oil pressure light on, especially not for long trips.  This can damage your engine. Call your mechanic immediately.

TPMS light

What: The TPMS light has the letters ‘TPMS’ which stands for tire pressure monitoring system.

What the light means: Your tire pressure monitoring system has sensors in the tires which alert you when your tires are very low and need air.

What you should do: Fill up your tires with air immediately. Your TPMS warning light comes on when your tires are 20% (sometimes more than that) below pressure. By that time, your tire pressure is dangerously low—and dangerous to drive on. If your TPMS light comes on regularly, schedule an appointment with your mechanic to see if your tire has a leak that needs to be fixed.

Transmission temperature

What: The transmission temperature light usually looks like a gear with a thermometer in the middle.

What the light means: If your transmission temperature comes on, your transmission is overheating, which can lead to transmission failure if you continue on for an extended period of time.

What you should do: Check your transmission fluid as soon as possible.  Driving with an overheating transmission is most likely going to lead to total transmission failure (and leave you stranded).  Schedule an appointment as soon as possible to get the problem diagnosed.

Wheel alignment: The What, How Often & Why

tire that needs a wheel alignmentWhen the weather temps start to look like a roller coaster, our Wisconsin roads can start to feel like an amusement ride.  All the jostling from pot holes and uneven roads can take their toll on your car, causing a whole host of problems down the road.  An unbalanced car can lead to extensive repair bills and car breakdowns if you don’t get your car in for a wheel alignment.  Here’s how to know when your car needs a wheel alignment, how often it should be done, and all the other questions we frequently get asked about wheel alignments.

How to know your car needs an alignment

There is no hard and fast way to tell your car needs a wheel alignment: you can’t look under the hood or the carriage of the car and know for certain.  What you can do is notice a vibration or shake that worsens as your car goes faster. Typically, the shake starts at around 40 mph and gets worse as your speed increases, and may also be felt in the steering wheel.  You may also notice uneven tire tread wear when you rotate your tires (or replace them), or a pull to the right or left when you drive.  Another way to tell is to look at your steering wheel when driving straight down the road: is it straight?  If not, it’s time to schedule an appointment for a wheel alignment.

How often you should schedule a wheel alignment

The answer to this question depends on the amount of miles you put on your car annually, but usually your car needs a wheel alignment every 6,000 miles.  You can also ask your mechanic to check for signs of an unbalanced car when you take the car in for an oil appointment.

Where you should go for a wheel alignment

A wheel alignment is not a simple task that can be done in your garage.  Every model of car needs a different, precise alignment that adjusts the camber, caster and toe angles (if adjustable) to the manufacturer’s specifications. (Additional parts and labor may be necessary on some vehicles – see your customer service manual for details.)

Why your car needs a wheel alignment

Think of an unbalanced car like a body skeleton that’s out of whack; you can keep walking but other parts of your body are usually injured from unbalanced movements.  Same with a car out of alignment: while you can drive an unbalanced car, a car with balance issues needs more repairs over time and can become a safety issue. A car without regular alignments wears through tires faster and may need suspension part repair and replacement. Driving your car with a shake or pull can also be a safety hazard when roads become slippery.

What should I do about a check engine light? (& Why it might be on)

check engine light on dashYikes!  When the check engine light glows on your car dashboard, it’s natural to feel a little (or a lot) panic.  Why is the check engine light coming on?  How much is this car repair going to cost?  What’s the cost to find out what the problem is?

Don’t hesitate if the light is red.

For most warning dashboard lights, there are two colors: red and yellow. If your check engine light (or any warning light) is red, get your car to a local repair shop IMMEDIATELY.  The fact that the light is red means that the issue is significant and needs to be looked at immediately.  A yellow light is not as urgent; if your car has a yellow check engine light, make an appointment to get your car diagnosed by a technician.

Get your car in to find out the cause.

There are lots of reasons your check engine light could be on, but there are five very common reasons for a check engine light, such as:

  • Catalytic converter
  • Mass airflow sensor
  • Oxygen sensor
  • Spark plugs (or connecting wire issues-here are more signs of failing spark plugs)
  • Gas cap issue

These are the most common causes, but there are other issues that can cause your check engine light to come on.  If you want to find out the cause of your check engine light—what’s really the cause, not just conjecture—schedule an appointment so your mechanic can hook up your car to a computer and get the answer.

Talk to your mechanic.

If you need to wait to get the cause of your check engine light fixed, make sure you ask your mechanic how long before you should schedule an appointment.  Remember, they can’t see into the future, so they can only give you an estimation of how long you have—or before the issue causes other problems.  We know of one family that waited so long to replace their spark plugs that the catalytic converter failed, significantly increasing the cost of the repair.

Don’t procrastinate.

Don’t procrastinate and don’t ignore the check engine light. Schedule an appointment. Yes, we’ve all heard stories of drivers who went thousands of miles with a check engine light with no problem. However, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be one of them. You don’t want to end up stranded and waiting for a tow truck.

How do I know if my car battery is dying?

battery under open hood ready to be checked to see if it is dyingDying car batteries are annoying. Dead car batteries are even more annoying when you’re stranded. However, that’s exactly what’s going to happen when you don’t watch for the signs of a failing car battery.

Inconsistent starting

If your car won’t start randomly, your battery could be the culprit. Instead of dealing with having to jump your car over and over (which eventually won’t work), talk to your mechanic about testing your battery.  Sometimes, your mechanic can tell there is an issue or they can diagnose the real reason your car won’t start.

Slow, rough starting

That long, drawn out rrrrrrr that you hear when your car is slow to start is more than an irritation—it’s the sign of a dying battery.  Don’t put up with it too long, because the battery is eventually going to permanently die.  Talk to your mechanic about a new battery now—and have them check for other causes—-so you don’t have to sit around and wait for your battery to fail.

Warning light

If you have a dashboard warning light come on that signals an electrical problem, call or email your mechanic and schedule an appointment. The problem could be an alternator or any number of problems, but one of the first places they are going to check is your battery.

What should I do if I think my car battery is dying?

Contact your mechanic to get your battery checked as soon as possible.  Your mechanic can hook up your battery to a load tester to see if your battery voltage is (or has been) low.

On average, batteries die between 3-5 years, so make sure you keep your receipt so you know when to ask your mechanic to replace your battery.  There’s also another good reason to keep the receipt: you can take the battery back during the warranty period if you have issues with it.

When does my car need new brakes?

car mechanic working on car with bad brakesWinter roads can be hazardous enough even in the best of situations.  Trying to drive a car with failing brakes on icy roads can be like trying to stop on a skating rink.  That’s why a car owner needs to be on alert watching (and listening!) for signs they need new brakes—before they’re skating down the road with brakes that don’t work.

A soft pedal

One of our friends had a scary experience with this sign of failing brakes.  She tried to stop at a stop sign…and didn’t.  Instead, the pedal of her van went to the floor and she went right through the intersection.  Luckily, she wasn’t hurt, but it is a valuable lesson for all car owners.  If your pedal feels soft, or goes down to the floor when you press it, it’s time to head to your local mechanic for new brakes.

Pulling to the right or left when braking

You may not think much of this sign of failing brakes; it can mean that your car needs an alignment.  A car that pulls to the left or right can also be caused by uneven worn pads, a broken brake hose, or a stuck brake caliper.  For a diagnosis, and an end to that annoying pull, schedule an appointment to stay straight on the road.

Vibrations

If you feel a vibration in your steering wheel when braking, there are a few different reasons your car could be vibrating.  One of those reasons is an unevenly worn brake rotor in the front or rear; your mechanic can tell you exactly which it the problem is.

High pitched squealing & strange sounds

Do people stare when you hit the brakes?  Worn brakes can make a squealing sound when it’s time for replacement.  The squealing is a built-in warning sign so you can head to the mechanic before your brakes are ready for replacements.  Remember, not all brakes make a squealing.  Some brakes are built to make a chattering or grinding sound when worn—not sounds you want to hear too long before you head in for a brake replacement.