Managing tire pressure in the winter isn’t quite the same as it is during the summer. The reason: Cold weather can have a serious impact on the level of inflation inside your tires. Fluctuating temperatures can lead to uneven tire pressure for your vehicle, which, in turn, can have an impact on your safety out on the road.
Winter Gets Skinny
Just like most things, when air gets cold, it starts to contract. Normally this isn’t something you’ll notice in the atmosphere because it’s such a vast system, but within the tight, pressurized confines of a tire, it’s a different story. The colder it gets, the more the air in your tires contracts, which leads to a reduction of tire pressure in the winter that can be difficult to predict.
In fact, even things like which side of your car is exposed to direct sunlight during the course of the day can have an additional impact on a pressure imbalance. The general rule of thumb, however, is that you can expect a drop of a single pound per square inch (psi) for each 10-degree-Fahrenheit slide on the thermometer.
Why It Matters
Uneven tire pressure, where one side of the car is riding on less air than the other, can make a vehicle’s handling more unpredictable, especially when dealing with slippery winter conditions. Even if the drop in tire pressure is even at all four corners, an under-inflated tire is also less safe to drive on for two main reasons.
The first has to do with wear. If your tire isn’t inflated up to factory spec, then the weight of your car or truck will cause the tread to bow in the middle, leaving the outside edges of the tire to take the brunt of the stresses associated with driving. This wears out the outside of your tires more quickly than the inside.
The second reason is safety-related. Since the middle of the tire tread is out of the picture, it won’t be able to assist in channeling snow, water or slush, nor will it offer the full footprint of the tire when turning a corner or braking. You’re effectively cutting out a portion of your vehicle’s ability to grip the road and making your vehicle less capable as a result.
How to Deal
The easiest way to deal with low tire pressure in the winter is to make sure you visually inspect your tires at least once a day to see if they look like they need more air. On especially cold days or days where temperatures have swung by a wide margin, you can double-check them with a tire gauge to see if they’re at the manufacturer-recommended pressures. If not, then a small air compressor or a trip to a gas station’s air hose will help you get things back on track.
Checking your tire pressure is a simple everyday maintenance task — but neglecting it can lead to complications. Make sure to take a little time out of your day in the winter months to save yourself from tire trouble down the road.
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Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time. I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.