Flat Tires: Best Ways to Fix a Flat

Last Updated Jun 27, 2011 1:27 PM EDT

A funny thing happened last week as I was preparing to write about flat tires: I got one myself.

Fortunately, I had a small "donut" spare and was able to put it on the car. But many new cars are being sold with no spare tire at all; drivers are supposed to rely instead on temporary repair kits or "run flat" tires that are supposed to keep rolling even if all air is lost.

Do you know how you would handle a flat? Do you have a spare -- and can you change it, if needed? Would you call roadside service? With flat tires as with much else -- both automotively and not -- you can minimize your hassle if you know in advance how you plan to react.

Automakers are scuttling spares in part to save money, but especially to save weight and help meet the increasingly tough federal mileage standards. About 13% of new cars have no spare now, and the number is rising, according to the Los Angeles Times. Run-flat tires have been installed especially in luxury brands like BMW. Other makes often have tire repair kits that include sealant and plug-in compressors to re-inflate the tire.

Run-flat tires can roll for about 50 miles without any air, says Michael Calkins, head of the approved auto repair program for AAA -- so that should likely get you to a tire repair shop. Some run-flat tires may have a stiffer ride than regular tires, he notes. And Calkins and others say it is not yet clear how well the tire repair kits work.

In my own case, I had changed tires before on my 2003 Ford Escape. So with a quick check of the owner's manual, I recalled how to position the jack. Fortunately, I also had a four-way tire wrench (pictured at left) that gave me enough leverage to loosen the tire bolts. Within about half an hour, I was rolling again on the donut spare; I was able to get the tire fixed the next day.

To make sure a flat does not leave you stranded forlornly by the roadside, take these steps before you ever leave home:

Check Your Equipment
See if you have either a full-sized or donut spare. (If not, your dealer probably failed to mention the absence.) Check out the jack that came with the car -- and if you have a tire repair kit or run-flat tires, read the owners manual to see how they work.

Practice Changing a Tire
"The best time to learn to change a tire is before you ever have a flat," says Calkins of AAA. "With the car in your driveway, read the manual, see if you can use the jack and see if you can loosen the lug nuts." If the single-handled wrench that typically comes as standard equipment won't do the job, buy a four-way tire wrench at any auto parts store.

Get a Spare
If your car doesn't have a spare, consider buying one. Some new cars offer a spare as an option for around $100. Even if you plan on calling roadside assistance (see below), you are more secure with a spare. The roadside crew can put on the spare, avoiding your odds of being towed -- which usually carries an extra charge.

Consider Roadside Assistance
Like many drivers, you may not have either the ability or the desire to change a tire yourself. If you are a AAA member, roadside assistance to help with a flat tire is free for up to four calls per year. You may also have other sources of roadside assistance. Many new cars now come with that service for some period of time, often paired with free maintenance. (See Free Car Maintenance from U.S. Luxury Models.) Calkins says about 12% of AAA roadside calls are for help with flat tires.

If you know in advance whether you will try to change tires yourself or use roadside assistance, you will simply feel more secure traveling.

Flat tire photo courtesy of Flickr user Marufish. Lug wrench photo courtesy of Flickr user Todd Kopriva.
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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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