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How to change a car tire

Simple tips to make an unpleasant task safe and easy

Published: June 10, 2015 12:00 PM

Being stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire is a situation every driver dreads. For most people, the best response is to contact a roadside-assistance service, such as AAA or your car company. These hotlines can deploy a local professional who has the tools and training to change the tire safely and quickly. Or you can call a family member or friend for help.

But if you don't belong to AAA, are in a remote area without cell coverage, or are motivated by a DIY spirit, it's time break out the spare tire and change the flat yourself.

Become familiar with how to use the jack and tools by reading your car’s owner’s manual and follow the instructions precisely—failure to do so could result in injury or damage to your car.  Here are some general guidelines:

  1. Before you start work, make sure you are in a safe zone. This might force you to drive on the flat tire a bit farther to find a safer spot, such as a wide break-down lane, turn-out, or side road.
  2. Look for level, solid ground to park on. This will allow you to safely jack up the car. Put the car IN park (for an automatic) or in gear (manual transmission). Then, set the parking braking brake. If you are on the side of a public road, turn on your car’s hazard lights.
  3. Get out the spare tire, jack, and needed tools. Everything should be in the trunk or cargo area.
  4. Remove the wheel cover if there is one. The owner's manual will tell you if it merely pops off or if there are plastic nuts to undo.  
  5. Loosen the lug nuts once they are exposed. Loosen (but don't remove) them with a lug wrench, turning counter-clockwise, before you begin jacking up the car. Some car manufacturers supply a short lug wrench, which may not provide enough leverage to loosen lug nuts. Carrying a piece of pipe in the trunk to slip over the end of the wrench in order to provide additional leverage.  Some cars with alloy wheels have a locking lug nut that requires a special keyed lug socket to remove. Generally the socket is located with the spare or in the glove box.  
  6. Jack up the car. Once again consult the owner’s manual for determining the correct jacking point on the car. Get it wrong and you may damage the car or risk injury. Lift the flat several inches off the ground, then remove the lug nuts and flat. Have the spare tire close-by, ready to swap out the flat.
  7. Install the spare tire. Lightly tighten the lug nuts in a cross pattern—not in a circle but alternating across like you’re drawing a star—so the spare is snug. Then lower the jack and remove it from under the car.
  8. Tighten the lug nuts firmly. Again, do this in a cross pattern.
  9. Secure the flat tire, jack, and tools back into the car. Drive a few miles and then re-tighten the lug nuts one more time.

Learn more about tire maintenance and check our reviews of more than 150 tires.

Don't leave home without a tire pressure gauge.

What to do before you have a flat tire

  1. Don’t wait to learn how to change a spare when you have a flat. Instead, read the owner’s manual, check where the tools are, and practice changing a tire at your convenience, on a nice day in your driveway or secured parking area.
  2. Check out what equipment you have before experiencing a flat. Do you have a spare tire and if so, have you checked the condition and pressure in the tire? Some new cars no longer come with a spare, substituting a compressor and sealant kit to fix a flat or the car may have run-flat tires. In some cases, a spare tire kit can be purchased from the car dealer.
  3. Assemble an emergency kit. You never know what the conditions will be when you get a flat. An emergency kit with a flashlight, gloves, and a towel or mat on which to knee will make changing the flat tire more bearable.
  4. Carry a tire pressure gauge and routinely check tire pressure. That includes the spare tire! Check tire pressure once a month when the tires are cold.

Gene Petersen

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