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How Cold Weather Affects Tire Pressure

From corrosive road salt to black ice formed, winter creates plenty of challenges for drivers. Here’s another one to add to the list: Tire pressure dips caused by lower temperatures.

Making sure your tires are properly inflated is an important part of getting the best performance out of your vehicle – especially during the winter months. Because after all, your tires represent the only point of contact between your vehicle and the road ahead.

To keep your car rolling smoothly all year long, here’s everything you need to know about caring for your tires.

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Why is Tire Pressure Important?

Your tires require a certain amount of air pressure, measured in pounds per square inch (psi), to work properly. Failing to regularly check your tire pressure is a bad habit that’s not good for your car

Too little (or too much) air can lead to poor vehicle handling, irregular tire wear and the potential for a flat. Underinflated tires can hit your wallet, too. That’s because the drop in air pressure increases rolling resistance – leading to reduced fuel efficiency.

How Do I Measure Tire Pressure?

There are a few ways to tell if you need to air up your tires. If your vehicle was made after 2007, then it’s equipped with a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS).

This vehicle safety system will display a warning light on your dashboard if a tire has dropped below the recommended pressure. The symbol, which was designed to look like the cross-section of a tire, is similar to an exclamation point between two parentheses – (!).

If your vehicle isn’t equipped with TPMS, you should regularly check your tire pressure using a gauge. To use a tire pressure gauge, remove the plastic cap on your tire’s valve stem. Then, push the gauge onto the stem to get a pressure reading. If you don’t have a tire pressure gauge, you can pick one up at most gas stations or any auto parts store. The automatic tire inflation machines at gas stations typically provide a PSI reading for each tire, too.

Check out our helpful how-to video here:

Does Tire Pressure Drop in Colder Weather?

If it seems like your tire pressure warning light is going off more during the winter, it’s probably not your imagination. That’s because air contracts when it’s cold, causing tire pressure to drop between one and two psi for every 10-degree decrease in temperature. This means that your tires could be inflated 5 to 10 PSI lower on a 24-degree day than they are on a 74-degree day. So, if the last time you checked your tire pressure was during the summer, it’s time to take updated readings.

What PSI Should I Inflate My Tires to?

When it comes to airing up your tires, one mistake drivers sometimes make is to inflate their tires to the PSI rating printed on the tire sidewall. But that reading is the tire’s maximum inflation pressure – which is much higher than the inflation pressure recommended for your vehicle. This not only has a negative impact on your car’s handling – it could potentially lead to a blowout.

To get your vehicle’s recommended PSI rating, check the sticker located on the door jamb of your driver’s side door. The recommended tire pressure should also be printed in your owner’s manual.

How Long Can You Drive with Low Pressure?

When your tire pressure is low, you should inflate the tires to the recommended pressure as soon as possible. Underinflated tires wear more quickly and unevenly. This makes them more susceptible to damage and wear and tear. Handling, braking and fuel economy are also compromised when there’s not enough air in the tires.

Where Can I Get Air?

If you find out that your tires need air, you can either inflate them with your own portable air compressor or use an air compressor at a gas station. For a few dollars, it’s worth investing in your own pressure gauge to keep in the car. The ones at gas stations are convenient, but since they’re used often and exposed to the elements, they’re more likely to be inaccurate.

Some gas stations have free air pumps that are automatic – you just set the intended PSI. Take the time to carefully read the instructions if it’s your first time or ask the gas station attendant for help. It may not be the most fun part of owning a car, but it really is important.

When is the Best Time to Check Tire Pressure?

To get the most accurate reading, you should check your tires after your vehicle has been sitting for a few hours and before you start driving. This is called “cold” pressure, because it’s the pressure reading before your tires (and the air inside them) have a chance to warm up from driving – which raises the PSI reading.

Why Does My Warning Light Go Out After I Start Driving?

If your tire pressure is right on the threshold of setting off your TPMS warning, you may find that the TPMS light goes off after you start driving. That’s because driving generates heat in your tires, and heat causes air to expand – raising your tire pressure. But even if your light goes off after driving, your tires are still underinflated. So, air them up as soon as you can.

You should also make a habit of checking your tire pressure once a month. While you can rely on your vehicle’s TPMS system, a warning light usually only goes off once the tire pressure reaches a certain threshold (typically about 25% below the recommended pressure). That means your tires could be underinflated well before the warning light ever comes on.

Should I Overinflate My Tires if I Know it’s Getting Colder?

Just because the temperature is dropping doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to overinflate your tires. Your vehicle was engineered to perform best with the tires inflated to the manufacturer's recommended pressure. Stick to those numbers, and your tires will perform at their best.

The only time you may want to overinflate your tires is when you plan to park your car for an extended period of time. When your car sits stationary for a month or more, flat spots can start to form in the tires. Essentially, the tires develop a type of memory that prevents them from being completely round. This phenomenon causes vibration when you drive the car after storage – and it’s made worse by low tire pressures.

If you think your tires aren’t up to the job of winter driving, you might want to consider swapping them out for snow tires.

Are There Other Reasons Why Tire Pressure is Low?

Temperatures aren’t the only factor that can affect tire pressure. If you inflate your tires to the proper PSI but they’re low the next day, chances are there’s more than cold weather to blame. Your tires are likely leaking air.

A slow leak could be caused by a small puncture in your tire or a bad seal between the tire and wheel. Either way, your best bet is to take your car to an automotive service center to get it inspected by a professional.

What Should I Do if My Tire is Flat?

If your tire is completely flat, then you have a few options. If your vehicle is equipped with a spare tire and you’re comfortable with the challenge, you can save some time by changing it yourself. For those needing a quick refresher, check out this blog post on how to change a flat tire.

If you’d rather leave it to a pro, Emergency Roadside Service coverage1 can help save the day. It’s an extra service that doesn’t cost a lot, but you’ll be glad to have it when you need it. You can add Emergency Roadside Service coverage to your auto policy for about $5 per vehicle per year if your policy includes comprehensive coverage. Better yet? The service is there for you 24/7.

Get Back On The Road With ERIE

Don’t let a flat tire ruin your day. With ERIE’s Emergency Roadside Service coverage, you can get help with lockouts, flat tires, mechanical breakdowns and dead batteries, and it can even save the day when your car runs out of gas. To learn more about auto insurance from ERIE, contact an insurance agent today.

1Roadside Service coverage (Towing and Labor Costs coverage in North Carolina and Virginia) is only available when comprehensive coverage has been purchased on the vehicle. Limitations vary by state. Delivery of gas is included at no additional cost; policyholder will pay for the gas.

ERIE® insurance products and services are provided by one or more of the following insurers: Erie Insurance Exchange, Erie Insurance Company, Erie Insurance Property & Casualty Company, Flagship City Insurance Company and Erie Family Life Insurance Company (home offices: Erie, Pennsylvania) or Erie Insurance Company of New York (home office: Rochester, New York).  The companies within the Erie Insurance Group are not licensed to operate in all states. Refer to the company licensure and states of operation information.

The insurance products and rates, if applicable, described in this blog are in effect as of July 2022 and may be changed at any time. 

Insurance products are subject to terms, conditions and exclusions not described in this blog. The policy contains the specific details of the coverages, terms, conditions and exclusions. 

The insurance products and services described in this blog are not offered in all states.  ERIE life insurance and annuity products are not available in New York.  ERIE Medicare supplement products are not available in the District of Columbia or New York.  ERIE long term care products are not available in the District of Columbia and New York. 

Eligibility will be determined at the time of application based upon applicable underwriting guidelines and rules in effect at that time.

Your ERIE agent can offer you practical guidance and answer questions you may have before you buy.