Having winter tires installed just got more complicated

Consumer Reports News: December 04, 2012 09:08 AM

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If you rely on winter tires and still haven't gotten them installed, don't delay. I'm reminded to make that public service announcement after an obscure government ruling held up my own winter-tire installation this year. Don't let this happen to you.

Four years ago, when my wife and I went to a two-wheel-drive vehicle after years of all-wheel-drive, I sprang for a set of our then highly-rated General Altimax Arctic snow tires, mounted on dedicated steel rims to make semi-annual changeovers easier. At the time, tire-pressure monitoring systems were newly mandated in all new cars, and the in-wheel sensors in our Volkswagen Eos cost $110 apiece. Faced with a $1,000 winter-tire bill, I decided to save the $440 and resolved to check the pressures regularly myself.

Since then I've swapped the tires over twice a year, and regularly checked the pressures. So far, so good.

This year, when it came time to pull the regular tires off the car, I couldn't budge the lug bolts, even after buying a longer lug-wrench for more leverage. After a day and a half of trying, I gave up and decided to take the car back to the tire shop, where they had offered to swap them for me for free. They said I need new lug bolts.

But after looking up my file in the computer, they determined that my winter wheels didn't have the needed tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) sensors, so they refused to mount my winter tires. When I protested, they presented a press release from the Tire Industry Association stating that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had issued a ruling in 2011 clarifying that tire stores can be held liable and fined for "knowingly [making] the TPMS system inoperative"-for example by installing winter tires that their own records show don't have TPMS sensors.

The gentleman at the counter explained I had three options: Go home and mount the tires myself (after buying new lug bolts); pay the store to mount the snow tires on my summer wheels, which did have the needed sensors (and pay them again to do the reverse next spring); or buy new sensors for the winter wheels. Given the choices, the latter was the most appealing, except that it couldn't be accomplished that evening, because my car didn't use the generic sensors the store kept in stock. They'd have to be purchased from the Volkswagen dealer when it opened in the morning. Frustrated, I went with the first option and did it myself.

The lesson for other consumers: If your car has a TPMS system (mandatory in all cars manufactured on or after September 1, 2007 with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 lbs. and under ), winter tire switchovers just got more expensive. If you plan to buy a second set of wheels to make changeovers easy, you'll have to buy a second set of TPMS sensors. Otherwise, you'll have to pay somebody to pull the tires off the wheels and install winter tires on your car's everyday wheels, and vice versa, twice a year.

A tire pressure monitoring system helps keep tires properly inflated

Eric Evarts

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