Winter is coming, and if you live in a cold climate area, it’s time to start thinking about winterizing. In addition to bringing out the warmer wardrobe items, prepping outdoor plants for the cold, and wrapping exposed pipes, this means getting your car ready for winter road conditions. But don’t just rush out and buy the first set of snow tires you can find. Check out our handy guide to winter tires and shop smart.
What Are Winter/Snow Tires?
Just like you have different footwear for summer and winter, your car needs different tires to handle well in different road conditions. In the winter, it’s wise to switch to tires specifically designed for cold weather as they provide better traction and a safer drive.
Typically winter tires have a different tread pattern, with larger gaps for improved traction. They are often made from softer rubber than typical tires, which helps them perform better in colder temperatures. Additionally, high quality winter tires may include high-tech materials that help them grip the road, even in icy and slushy conditions.
Some winter tires may also include metal or ceramic studs to help in conditions with hard-packed snow or ice, but these are not permitted in all areas because they can cause extra wear and tear on road surfaces.
As recently as twenty years ago, it was important to know about factors like temperature, traction, or wear ratings in order to figure out which tires are designed for winter use. Fortunately, a unified labeling standard has since been adopted throughout the US and Canada. Today, the easiest way to identify tires that are safe for winter use is to look for the symbol of a snowflake on a three-peaked mountain. This symbol denotes that the tires meet certain specific safety standards, and are approved for use in snowy or icy conditions.
Winter Tires vs All Season Tires
So then, shouldn’t “all season” tires work just as well as snow tires? After all, they often carry the snowflake symbol too.
The difference between all season and winter tires is mainly in the rubber compound. All season tires tend to be made from a harder rubber, in order for them to perform well in warmer conditions. Winter tires are made from softer rubber, which will wear down more quickly, but maintains flexibility in cold temperatures.
While all season tires do perform better on snow and ice than standard tires, Popular Mechanics put them to the test against bona fide winter tires. They were tested on both all wheel drive and four wheel drive vehicles, for four factors: braking, acceleration, snowpacked skidpads, and hill climbing. In every test, the winter tires came out on top, sometimes by quite a significant margin.
The bottom line: all season tires are fine for areas with few winter storms, or where the temperature doesn’t dip below freezing very often, but if you live in a colder area, it’s best to invest in the real thing.
How to Buy Winter Tires (and Not Go Broke!)
Winter tires can typically run anywhere from $50-$200 a piece, depending on the size of tire you’re purchasing. How do you get the most bang for your buck when buying winter tires? After all, they’re quite an investment!
1. Buy early. Manufacturers start rolling out their new winter tires in October. If the snow hasn’t started in your area yet, it’s still a good idea to get your tires purchased while demand is still low. At many retailers, the price will begin to rise come November.
2. Take advantage of insurance discounts. Check with your insurance provider and you might be able to get a discount for using proper winter tires. It’s not likely to pay for the cost of the upgrade, but every little bit helps!
3. Buy four tires. Always. It may be tempting to purchase only two winter tires, and install them just on the front or back of your vehicle, wherever the drive end is. This is a bad idea that can result in unpredictable handling, and can actually be more dangerous than skipping the winter tires altogether.
4. Invest in separate wheels for your winter tires. It may seem counter-intuitive, but you’re actually going to save more by purchasing separate wheels for winter tires. This is because remounting wheels causes more wear and tear to the tire’s bead, so swapping them this way will cause both your winter and summer tires to wear out faster. Spring for a set of cheap steel wheels for winter use, and you’ll also save your pricey alloy wheels from exposure to the corrosive salt and sand used to clear the roads in the winter.
5. Consider thinner tires for winter use. If you’re buying new wheels anyway, you won’t be locked into the same wheel width you use during the warmer months. This is a really useful feature because narrower tires dig into the snow better, which in turn improves traction.
6. Don’t use them in the summer! The softer rubber of winter tires is great for cold temperatures, but don’t be tempted to leave them on your car year-round. These winterized rubber compounds wear out quickly on hot surfaces.
7. Don’t forget the coupons! Of course we have a great selection of coupons for all of your winter tire needs. These can help you save on the purchase of tires, wheels, storage accessories, and installation too. Check out discounts at stores like Discount Tire, TireBuyer, Tire Rack, and Sears.
How to Store Tires
A good set of winter tires should last you around 3 years, if stored properly. Follow these tips to get the most out of your investment.
- Clean your tires before storing. You want to make sure you get all of that corrosive salt and other impurities off the rubber, and dry them completely before storing.
- Keep your tires in a cool, dry place. Heat can dry out the soft rubber and cause it to crack. Your garage might not be the best option unless it’s insulated and climate controlled.
- Use dark, airtight tire bags (or heavy duty black trash bags sealed with tape) and try to get as much air out of them as possible before sealing them up. This will keep the lubricating oil within the compounds from drying up.
- If your tires are not mounted, it’s best to store them upright. Mounted tires should be stacked or hung instead. A tire rack can help keep them all neatly in one place, but isn’t necessary if you don’t want the added cost.
- Remember to rotate them roughly every four weeks while they’re stored. If you stack your tires, this will keep the bottom tire from bearing the weight of the rest for six months at a time. If they’re upright, this will keep them from aging differently on the side that was resting on the ground or touching the hook or rack where they were stored.
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