A month ago I was driving down a South Carolina back road when the car in front of me lost the tread off one of its back tires and the driver quickly veered off onto the shoulder. The tread actually came off the rest of the tire and I could see the metal threads exposed where the tire had split in two. As I pulled in front of them to see if everything was OK, two women got out of the car dressed in their Sunday best and stared at the lack of tire on the rim.
I grabbed the jack out of the back of my car and began loosening the lug nuts on her wheel. One of the women proceeded to give me step-by-step instructions, which I didn't need, while the other observed, "Man, I'm glad you're here to do this, I don't know anything about changing a tire." To which the other woman replied, "Honey, I could change that tire for you but this man's here to do it instead."
Getting stranded on the side of the road with car problems can be a major bummer, but being stuck on the side of the road with a very fixable problem like a flat tire shouldn't be. Here are a few simple steps and tips that will teach you how to change your own tire and get you back on your way.
Safety Tip: It is a good idea to put manual transmission cars in first or reverse gear, automatic equipped cars in park and then set the parking brake before beginning. If you happen to have a piece of wood or something similar, place that in front of and behind the tire opposite the one you are changing to help keep the car from rolling.
Step 1: What You'll Need
Most car manufacturers place the essential tools and a spare tire under the floor of the trunk. Lift up the flooring and you should see: a spare tire, a diamond jack and a tire iron. Use your hands to unscrew the bolt holding everything into place.
Tip: Some car manufacturers will place the tools in a closed compartment inside the trunk. As one of my friends from the Ukraine says, "Americans label everything." If you don't see the tools where the spare tire is, look for that compartment along the sides of the trunk, it'll probably have a picture or words describing what's inside.
Step 2: Loosen the Lug Nuts
Before you start jacking up the car, the nuts holding the wheel to the hub need to be loosened. Most of the time they will be on fairly tight, so simply using the force of your hands won't work. Place the tire iron on one of the lug nuts, then place your foot on the iron and use your body weight to loosen the nut. You may have to spring up and down a bit on the iron to get it to move at first.
When your loosening the nuts, be sure that you don't "strip" them, which means rounding off the edges. If you strip the nuts, you won't be able to get them off yourself and you'll soon be riding in the front seat of a tow truck. Also, the righty-tighty, lefty-loosey rule applies to car wheels, so make sure you're applying pressure in the correct direction.
Tip: Some cars may have plastic wheel covers that hide the lug nuts or even plastic caps on the lug nuts that can hinder or prevent you from changing the tire. Make sure to remove these obstructions before attempting to change the tire.
Step 3: Jack It Up
This is the part that many inexperienced tire-changers don't like. But don't let it be intimidating; it's just a simple part of the whole process. The diamond jack (named for its diamond shape when fully opened) is what most manufacturers provide. It opens and closes by twisting the lever attached to the jack clockwise or counter-clockwise. Some jacks may not have an attached lever to turn, but rather use the tire iron to turn the jack. Locate where the tire iron attaches to the jack and use that as the turning mechanism.
One of the most important things to remember when jacking up your car is to place the jack at the correct location under the vehicle. It needs to push up on the frame of the vehicle in order to raise your car correctly. Most frames will have a slot cut into them next to each tire, where the top of the jack will fit. Place the jack directly under that notch and twist the lever to start opening the jack.
The car should start rising up. You'll hear some creaking sounds, which are perfectly normal. Make sure to jack the car high enough to so that the tire being changed spins freely off of the ground.
Tip: Purchasing a separate, good quality jack can help make the tire changing process a little easier. They may be easier to position onto the frame and will jack the vehicle up faster.
Step 4: Out With the Old, in With the New
Since the lug nuts have already been loosened, simply use your hand to unscrew them the rest of the way. Pull the old tire straight off. Take the new tire and match up the holes on the rim with the bolts on the car. Lift it up and place it on.
You'll have to hold the tire in place as you hand-tighten the nuts. Once you've tightened them as tight as they will go by brute force, lower the car down with the jack slowly.
Tip: If you try to use the tire iron to tighten the nuts while the car is still jacked up, the tire will spin. Only use your hands to tighten the nuts at first.
Step 5: Tighten the Nuts
Now that the car is back on the ground, you can finish tightening the nuts with the tire iron. It’s important to note that the nuts should be tightened in a diagonal pattern, meaning that after you tighten the first nut, then tighten the nut diagonally across from the first nut. This ensures that you are tightening the tire evenly onto the vehicle and helps prevent the tire from wobbling when you drive. Apply the diagonal pattern to all of the nuts until they are firmly secured.
Tip: The spare tire is not designed to go as fast or as far as regular tires. Drive your car to a tire shop, car dealer or your trusted mechanic and get a new full-sized tire put on as soon as possible.
Some Things to Remember
Always make sure that you're completely off of the road when you change your tire and never get under the vehicle when it's jacked up. If you don't feel confident in your tire-changing abilities, practice in your driveway until you do. Doing so will make you familiar with the tools and the process and help you feel more comfortable when you have to change a tire in a real situation.