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Sean Phillips

TPMS And Winter Tires

By January 14, 2013

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Eric Evarts of Consumer Reports wrote an interesting article last month about his winter tire changeover. It seems that he bought a new set of winter tires with steel rims four years ago in order to be able to change his wheels himself. To save money, he chose not to order new TPMS sensors for the steel wheels, "I decided to save the $440 and resolved to check the pressures regularly myself."

This worked just fine, according to Eric, until he had trouble getting the lug bolts off this winter and brought the car into a tire shop to do the changeover. When the shop found that his steelies did not have sensors on them they quite properly refused to install the wheels.

"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."

Eric further noted that: "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."

I believe this incident to be both good and bad. I seriously disagree with the NHTSA's ruling on this matter for any number of reasons, but I'm glad to hear that reputable tire shops are complying with it.

I've heard it said on many forums, and again in the comments under Eric's article that it's mostly tire dealers which are behind the TPMS rules because it is they who primarily benefit. I disagree. Although I cannot give you the perspective of a large tire dealer, I can tell you all that from the perspective of a small dealer, the TPMS rules are basically a gigantic headache. The rules are arbitrary and still have some rather large gray areas. By having to enforce them, we invariably piss off and inconvenience customers, some of whom will inevitably look for tire shops who do not know of or are willing to go around the rules. As Eric's case makes clear, the tire shop was not going to benefit financially from selling TPMS monitors, since the monitors were only available from the dealer! Finally, in the end, the shop lost Eric's business because of the inconvenience involved in complying with the rules.

The good part, in my view, is that if tire shops are going to be required to be the heavies to enforce TPMS rules, it's for the best that the vast majority of them are really doing so, leaving only the disreputable shops to try to go around the law.

January 16, 2013 at 12:22 pm
(1) Richard Edwards says:

Hi I read the article and I checked with some dealerships for more info on TPMS systems, It seems the only reason they are in vehicles is for improved gas mileage. So in my opinion they are not manditory to be on a vehicle.The tire shops are using it as a cash grab.

January 16, 2013 at 2:22 pm
(2) Sean Phillips says:

Well, on the one hand, yes. Having your tires at the proper pressure contributes to good gas mileage, or rather underpressured tires get worse gas mileage. But that’s not the only or even the primary reason for TPMS. The primary reason is safety. Congress mandated TPMS systems on all cars 2007 or later after the Ford Explorer rollover accidents were shown to have been partially caused by underinflated tires blowing out with no warning. The primary idea of TPMS is to warn you that your tires are losing air before the sidewalls get damaged enough to blow. While I have problems with how the TPMS law is implemented, it’s hard to argue with that general idea.

Here’s the thing: Dealerships are probably making money on TPMS monitors. Heck, dealerships are making money on OEM wheels and any other parts that they can sell. But most tire shops are not making very much money from TPMS. For one thing, only the largest chains have the ability to stock 80-100 different types of monitors, and few customers want to wait for monitors to be ordered. For that matter, many TPMS monitors are still dealer-only parts. I would bet that for the vast majority of tire shops, TPMS is just a huge headache with very little reward.

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