It’s inevitable: If you drive a vehicle often, sooner or later you’re going to get a flat tire. While advances in tire technology have reduced the likelihood of experiencing random catastrophic tire failure, road hazards like nails, glass, and cavernous potholes are still omnipresent and capable of inflicting punctures severe enough to ruin your day. But we’re here to help. Follow the steps below to get back on the road as quickly and safely as possible.
Know Before You Go: Check your owner’s manual for your vehicle’s proper tire-changing procedure so that you’re familiar before you have a flat. Then do a quick rundown of all the required tools and supplies. Common items include a jack, lug wrench—some double as the jack handle—and obviously a spare tire. Most passenger vehicles now have a small, space-saving “doughnut” spare tire, although some still come equipped with full-size spare; others have a can of tire sealant and an air compressor. Whatever the case, remember that the doughnut or sealant generally have very specific speed and mileage restrictions, and are intended only as stopgap measures to get you to a service center. And don’t forget to check the spare’s inflation pressure whenever you check your other tires.
Add Some Kit: Consider packing a couple of reflective safety triangles, a tire-pressure gauge, wheel chocks—a wedge of old lumber will do the trick—a blanket, some rags, and a packet or two of hand cleaner. While changing a tire is a hassle, there’s no need to be dirty or unsafe.
Before You Jack It: OK, now it’s happened: You have a flat. Once you ease the vehicle to the side of road and turn on your hazard lights, grab those safety triangles and position them on the shoulder a decent distance behind the vehicle. Make sure the car is in park and the emergency brake is set. Remove the tools and spare from their storage places, and pop off a hubcap if required. Unless your vehicle has had a recent service, it’s likely the lug nuts (or lug bolts) will be a little snug, either from rust or previous installation by 800-pound impact-wrench-wielding gorilla. For this reason, it’s a good idea to loosen them before jacking up the car to keep the wheel from spinning as you flail away in vain. Get them loose, but don’t remove them completely; you want the wheel to stay on the studs when you lift the car, lest it remove itself onto your foot.
Technically You’re Changing the Wheel, Not Just the Tire: Don’t be intimidated by the sometimes flimsy-looking factory jack; they might not be NASCAR pit-lane ready, but they’ll get the job done. Chock at least one other wheel—usually the one diagonal from the flat—and place the jack under the car. Most manufacturers have very specific “lifting points” for jack placement, and if you read your manual you’ll know where they are. Don’t forget to raise the car high enough to not only remove the flat, but also to slip on the inflated spare tire. Remove the lug nuts and pull the wheel clean away from the studs. If it’s stuck and needs some gentle persuasion, proceed with caution; knocking a car off a jack is possible and can be extremely dangerous. If it just won’t budge—or you were unable to loosen the lug nuts at all—reach for the cell-phone and dial a tow truck or roadside assistance.
Chock Full of (Lug) Nuts. Place the spare on the wheel studs (or hub if you have lug bolts), and spin the nuts on finger tight. It’s crucial to make sure the wheel seats squarely against the hub, and tightening the nuts in a star pattern helps ensure the wheel goes on properly.
Bring It Down: Lower the car fully, and use the lug wrench to tighten the lug nuts with the weight of the vehicle on the ground. Tighten the nuts as much as you can, following the same star pattern as before. For piece of mind, check the pressure in your newly mounted spare. Gather your tools, climb aboard, and be on your way, taking care to mind the recommended maximum speed of your spare. Regardless of your spare type, your car is probably going to feel and drive differently than before.