Basics of Towing 8: Flat Tire Calls

Mar 18th, 2014 | By | Category: From our latest issue

By Edward D. Johnson, coliseum@verizon.net

Editor’s Note: The following article is a more in-depth version of the March issue Tow Times Learning Center topic: Basics of Towing 8: Flat Tire Calls.

Flat tire calls are not the most welcomed jobs for tow truck operators but the proper handling of them is essential to the safety of the customer and good public relations for your company. Liability risks are sufficiently high that every flat tire call should be handled in strict accordance with a policy that your company should have and that every driver should be well trained in.

In over 32 years of business, I have heard of terrible mistakes that resulted in wheels coming off cars while being driven on the highway. Amazingly, very few could be related to improper service by another tow company and most were the result of improper installation at a repair shop or tire store. In many instances, the wheel came off either because the lug nuts were too tight or too loose. Either is the result of stupid or lazy work. There are no excuses for wheels coming off a vehicle after servicing if the job is done correctly.

The vehicle should be parked on a solid surface away from traffic or moved to a safe place for servicing. After this, ask the driver for the owner’s manual so you can check the lug nut torque as shown in the specifications pages. If that manual is not available, you should have a copy of the Tire Guide which is published yearly and sold for about $25 and can be ordered by calling 561-997-9233. The manual lists tire pressures and lug nut torques for the previous ten model years.

Examine the spare tire and make sure it is legal for the highway. Make sure the tread meets state code, which requires at least 2/32s inch of tread. The sidewalls should be examined to ensure there are no bubbles in the sidewalls. One or two minor indentations (not bulges) in the sidewall are a normal part of the manufacturing process. During your inspection, make sure that no cord is exposed on the tire and that it is properly seated to the rim. If the tire is not safe or legal, do not install it.

The tire should be properly inflated in accordance with the tire placard located on the vehicle. Placards are usually on the left front door or doorframe, the left rear door or doorframe, inside the glove box or center console lid. If the tire is overinflated, bleed off the excess pressure or if the tire is not inflated, pump it up. A number of companies sell low cost electrical tire pumps and one should be in every tow truck. Air tanks that are normally used by tow companies do not meet standards of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and are susceptible to internal rusting which can eventually result in an explosion. If you decide to use an unapproved tank, make sure it is drained of water accumulation periodically and replace it in accordance with the expiration date imprinted on the tank.

The parking brake should be set, an automatic transmission should be placed in park or a manual transmission should be in reverse. The ignition should be off and no one should be sitting in the vehicle. The tire diagonal to the one being changed should be blocked front and rear to prevent the vehicle from rolling when lifted. For example, if the left rear tire is being changed, the right front tire should be chocked. Additional chocks are always a good idea.

Loosen (do not remove) the lug nuts and then jack the car up. Every tow truck should carry a small floor jack for raising vehicles. Floor jacks are more stable than those that come with vehicles. After the flat is removed, make sure the spare rim fits the car and that the tire will not come into contact with any part of the vehicle when turning. It is not unusual for people to get a replacement spare tire and find out later that it does not fit their vehicle. After the flat is removed, clean the lugs with a wire brush before installing the tire and tightening the nuts. Never use lubricant on the threads as doing so will result in improper lug nut torque.

Proper lug nut torque is essential to a safe installation. Torque wrenches can be purchased for prices ranging from about $20 to as much as $300 but they are an absolute when installing lug nuts. After the nuts have been tightened to about the right snugness, use the torque wrench to tighten them to the correct measurement. After the first nut is installed, go diagonal to install the second and continue installing the other nuts in a crisscross sequence. After the tire has been changed, the vehicle should be driven a short distance and the lug torques rechecked.

Properly secure the flat tire in the carrier or storage space in the trunk. This will prevent a loose tire from being rammed through the rear seat of the vehicle if it is struck from the rear.

The final step is to advise the customer of any restrictions that apply to the spare tire such as the maximum speed or distance it can be driven. This information is usually printed on the sidewall of the tire.