As cars get more technologically complex, the average driver’s essential knowledge is an ever-shrinking encyclopedia. Checking and changing the oil, replacing spark plugs or adjusting a timing belt all used to be common knowledge to anyone with a license. We now have cars that warn us well in advance when a service is needed so we can get to the mechanic before anything goes up in smoke. And even if you wanted to do a few of the aforementioned basic tasks, it may require you to plug into a computer and use software that only dealers and professional mechanics have. But there’s one essential piece of knowledge left that everyone should know, would benefit greatly from and won’t need an electrical engineering degree to complete: changing a tire.
Sure, you can call AAA if you get a flat, but that takes time and you may not always have cell service. So what do you do, wait it out and hope someone comes along? No, jack up your car and get to it. And, until someone comes along and literally reinvents the wheel, changing a tire is pretty universal, no matter the make or model, whether you’ve got a temporary donut or a full-size spare. Here’s how to change a tire, with a few tips and tricks thrown in to make the whole process easier.
Always be prepared. You probably won’t get a flat every time you hit the road, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune to shitty luck. In your trunk, always keep a wrench (every new car should come with one that fits its own lug nuts), a jack powerful enough to lift your car, jack stands, tire blocks to stop your wheels from rolling, a tire-pressure gauge and, for really dire situations, a flashlight and a poncho.
Find a safe spot. If you have a blowout or a slow leak that’s gotten too dangerous to continue driving on, slow down and find a safe place to park. If you’re on the freeway, take the nearest exit or, if that isn’t possible, pull as far onto the shoulder as possible. Also, make sure the spot you choose is flat as possible, as adding extra slant to to the situation makes things increasingly more difficult and dangerous.
Gather your tools. Before you get out of your car, turn on your hazards if you haven’t already. Then get all your tools and bring them to the wheel with the flat. This is where you’ll be setting up camp.
Brace yourself. Before you jack up the car, make sure the emergency brake is on, leaving manual transmissions in gear and automatics in park. Place the tire blocks under the end opposite your flat tire. (When the car is jacked up at an angle, all that prep will keep a couple tons of steel and aluminum from coming down on you and rolling away.)
Loosen up. Loosen the lug nuts while the car is still on the ground, but don’t completely remove them. If you have hubcaps, take them off and keep them handy. If the lug nuts are being stubborn, try standing on the wrench arm or use a mallet/something else heavy to hit the wrench arm to unstick them.
Jack it up. Different cars have different jack points, so your owner’s manual will be your best reference. But if don’t have the manual handy, a good rule of thumb is to find a point along the frame inside the wheelbase that is close to the wheel you’ll be replacing. Then, raise the car until the wheel is four to six inches off the ground. (You’ll most likely be kneeling over, so take one of your floor mats out, fold it and kneel on it. Your knees will thank you later.) If you have jack stands, situate them farther down the car’s frame for additional safety and support.
Don’t pull your back and lose your nuts. Take the lug nuts completely off and place them in the hubcap for safe keeping. If you don’t have hubcaps, then a hat, cup or even your pocket will do. When you go to take the wheel off, make sure you’re balanced and set. Even the lightest of high-performance wheels can be enough to throw out your back. Gripping the wheel with two hands towards the bottom (at 5 and 7 o’clock), pull the wheel directly towards you and off the base.
Keep the nuts loose. Line up the holes in the spare tire with the lug-nut posts on the hub. Screw the lug nuts back on, but don’t tighten them 100 percent — just enough to hold the rim flush on the base. This is also a good time to make sure your tire is at the correct pressure and inflate it if necessary.
Bring it back down. Remove the jack stands and slowly lower the jack, bringing the car back down. Then, remove it from under the car.
Tighten up, clean up and head out. When you tighten the lug nuts, don’t go in order. To make sure the wheel is equally and securely fastened, tighten the first nut (still not 100 percent), then the one opposite it in the pattern on the hub. Repeat this process until you’ve secured every nut, then once more to tighten them all the way. Once that’s done, collect your tools and be on your way.
Modern cars may require more advanced knowledge to do routine maintenance, but there are still some things you can do at home. These are the tools every at-home mechanic should have in his garage. Read this story