Primer: How To Rotate Your Tires Correctly

No matter who you are, how you drive, or where you live, your car is going to need maintenance periodically to keep the wheels turning. For some, auto mechanics might as well be an alien art form that will never be understood, but for those looking to be self sufficient in yet another aspect of life, tackling mundane tasks like rotating your car tires is another easily attainable skill you can add to your growing list of merits.

Like some aspects of auto mechanics, the more you drive your car, the more often your tires are going to need to be rotated to ensure their life is as full throttle as possible. Though some tire retailers offer this as a free service, it is overall a fairly quick and easy task to perform if you have the know how and tool set to get the job done. The following how-to guide will explain why you need to be rotating your tires, how often you should be doing it, and what supplies you will need to succeed, along with a thorough guide to the step-by-step process for knowing how to knock this project out of the park. So find a workspace, grab your favorite floor jack, a few tire chocks, and get ready to extend the life of car’s sweet kicks.

Why Rotate?

An even experience for all

Car tires live a high pressure life where they are constantly having to shoulder a load, absorb impacts, and transfer rotational energy in massive amounts, which causes the degradation of the rubber they are made of in a process known simply as wear. On a normal four wheeled vehicle, each of those four tire positions is going to be subjected to unique forces that cause the tire to wear at different rates and locations on the tread. By rotating tires through each of these positions during their life, they effectively get a more well rounded experience, leading to an even wear pattern across each individual tire. In the end, the more evenly the wear can be distributed across each tire, the longer the tire will continue to perform at optimal levels.

Rotating your tires is also the perfect time to give a thorough inspection to the tread for damage, digging out any debris embedded in grooves, and measuring the tread depth. Believe it or not, US law requires a minimum of 2/32-inch of remaining tread depth to operate a vehicle on public roadways. Tire have ‘wear indicators’ built in, which are raised bars in the groove of the tread which will show the relative limit for tread wear on the tire. One trick is to place a quarter indie the groove of the tire and use Washington’s head as a gauge, with the space between the edge of the quarter and his bald head being ⅛-inch, which is a good time to begin shopping for new tires. Another great inspection to perform in concurrence with a tire rotation job is checking for accurate air pressure, which is heavily influential in proper performance, even wear, and contributing to superior gas mileage statistics.

Life Cycle

When is the right time to rotate

Since there are many factors that can affect tire wear, there is not an exactly defined interval for when tires should be rotated, but common ground can be found around this service being done about once every 6,000 miles. In relative terms, this will be around every six months or every other oil change. For those that exert additional abuses to their car as part of their regular drive, like commuting down unpaved roads or hauling heavy loads, then a rotation schedule may be more frequent. On the other hand, cars that only get used on occasion for the weekend getaway and spend most of their life parked can stretch out the time duration, though not too much.

Tire wear is completely interdependent on the mechanical condition of the car’s chassis; the worse a tire is worn, the higher rate the suspension and steering components will degrade, and the further out of alignment the wheels are, the quicker and less evenly the tires will wear. Since tires and the wearable components of the car are not generally inexpensive parts to replace, or tasks that are easy to perform for that matter, it is a good idea to do what you can to help these bits live a long happy life.

Location, Location, Location

Choosing the best place to work

When planning any automotive repair it is a good idea to pick out the suitable workspace to get the job done safely. While pretty much any repair could technically be done on the side of the road, it is not always the best idea to perform maintenance in a compromising situation if possible.

Try to find a flat area to park the car that has room to access the car from all four sides if possible because you will need room for removing the tires as well as moving them to each new location. If you are unable to access a plot of land that is free from incline, always use tire chocks in pairs and on the downhill end of the vehicle when possible. It is also nice to search out a location that is more or less free from bumps which will give jacks more stable footing when shouldering the weight of the car.

Tools Of The Trade

What you need to prepare

To perform a tire rotation successfully, you can ultimately get by with just the emergency tool kit and the spare tire, though this is a less than ideal and probably headache inducing route to getting the job done. You don’t need a full mechanics suite of specialty tools to get this particular task completed, but here is a list of items that will make rotating your tires a snap:

Floor Jack

Sure you can use the scissor jack that comes with your car, but to do the job quickly and easily having a bonafide hydraulic floor jack is a must. This Powerzone 3-ton floor jack is made from lightweight aluminum, but features heavy duty steel for the lifting arm and wheels, giving a sturdy feel when jacking. Always make sure that the jack you choose is rated to carry the weight of your vehicle and that the jack can lift your vehicle high enough to remove the tires.

Purchase: $196

Jack Stands

Another must have for job efficiency is a set of jack stands to stand in for the floor jack once the car has actually been lifted, as it is never a good idea to rely on a hydraulic floor jack alone to hold a car’s weight. Torin Big Red produces a great set of 3-ton jack stands that use a double locking pawl design so you can rest easy that nothing is coming down once it goes up. Having a set of two jack stands is nice, but the full set of four will come in handy down the road.

Purchase: $24

Lug Wrench

Depending on the lineage of your car, the lug wrench may have parted ways with your rig years ago, though this is definitely an essential tool to have in the vehicle at all times. GTE Tools makes a handy universal lug wrench that will fit on pretty much any car on the planet, and its ingenious design allows for the large handle to be folded down for compact storage when not using it for tire rotation jobs.

Purchase: $29

Wheel Chocks

Whenever working on a car, it is always a good idea to throw a wheel chock behind at least two of the wheels to prevent the car from accidentally rolling while you are working on it. By simple design, wheel are inserted on the downhill side of the tire, and gravity prevents the wheel from rolling over the small ramp. This solid rubber set from YM does a great job of finding traction on most surfaces thanks to its stepped face design, making sure the wheel chock holds its ground well.

Purchase: $16

Tire Pressure Gauge

Keeping your tires at the appropriate air pressure is a task that should be done every couple of weeks during regular use, as low pressure is a guaranteed way to lose performance in your car and its components, though during the rotation it is a perfect time to give the valves stems a check. AstroAi makes a nifty digital tire pressure gauge that has a light on the tip for easy alignment and accepts pressure up to 150 psi, making this a useful tool for more than just car tires.

Purchase: $10

Rotating Patterns

Take one down, pass it around

Depending on your car’s particular drive system, there are a few different rotational patterns that should be followed to mount your tires in the correct position during a rotation job. Factors that influence how you tires move around your vehicle will be as follows:

Directional Tires: Some auto tires have a tread pattern that has a specific rotational direction, which will be designated by an arrow on the sidewall of the tire that will always point towards the front of the car, which is the direction the wheel normally travels. Most common passenger car and truck tires will be non-directional, meaning they can be mounted facing any direction.

Different Tire or Wheel Sizes: Various cars actually have tires or wheels that are different sizes from the front set to the rear, which again is not a common feature of traditional cars. If tire sizes or the wheel offset measurement for the front versus the rear is different, they cannot be rotated from front to back.

Drive Axle: As you have probably heard before, the power from the engine in a car is transferred to a specific set of wheel, depending on how the car was designed to operate. Front wheel drive is common on many passenger cars of the modern era, while classic cars and most trucks will be rear wheel driven. There are also cars that feature all wheel drive and others will be four wheel drive, all depending on their intended use. Consult your owner’s manual if you are unsure what type of drive axle setup your car uses.

Full Size Spare: If your car includes a spare tire that is not intended for temporary, emergency use, that tire should be rotated through the positions in the same way the tires mounted to the axles are. Again, if you are unsure the if your car has a full size spare or a temporary use ‘donut,’ industry term, go ahead and consult your factory owner’s manual.

Studded Snow Tires: In the event that your car has tires with metal studs for added traction in snowy conditions, these must never change their rotational direction. It is recommended to rotate studded tires more frequently than a traditional set, with the ideal interval being once every 4,000 miles and at the beginning of every snow season.

Four Tire Rotation

Rearward Cross: The rearward cross pattern is to be used on cars that use non-directional tires of the same size on either rear wheel or four wheel drive systems. The rear tires move forward on the same side of the car, while the fronts get installed on the opposite side of the rear end.

X-Pattern: The X-pattern is a variant of four tire rotation that is for use on cars with non-directional tires of the same size, but can be used with any drive system configuration. The tire from the left rear gets installed at the right front, from the right rear to the left front, and the opposite for the rear.

Forward Cross: The forward cross pattern is for cars with non-directional tires of the same size, but only for those using front wheel drive systems. The front tires move rearward on the same side of the car, while the rears get installed on the opposite side of the front end.

Front-to-back: The front-to-back pattern is to be used on cars that have directional tires that are the same size. The front tires get moved to the rear and the rear to the front, staying on the same side of the car.

Side-to-side: The side-to-side rotation pattern is only for cars that have non-directional tires that are different size in the front versus the rear. The front left gets swapped for the front right, and the same is true for the rear.

Five Tire Rotation

Forward cross: The forward cross pattern is only for cars using front wheel drive systems with non-directional tires that have a full size spare. The spare tire is introduced to the right rear position, then both rear wheels move forward to opposite sides of the vehicle. The left front tire is moved back to the left rear position, and the right front is moved to the spare position.

Rearward cross: The rearward cross pattern is to be used on cars with rear wheel or four wheel drive systems that have non-directional tires with a full size spare. The spare tire is introduced to the right rear position, then both rear wheels move forward on the same side of the vehicle. The right front tires is moved back to the left rear position, and the left front is moved to the spare position.

Remounting

There will be some particular cars that are a bit more difficult to properly rotate the tires on, for one reason or another, usually related to higher performance vehicles. In the case that your tires are directional and different sizes, or the offset of the wheels are different from your front to your rear wheels, then simply rotating the position of the tires while mounted on the wheels will not be appropriate. For these example, removing the tires from the wheels, adjusting their orientation accordingly, then remounting and balancing the tires will be required each time a tire rotation is needed.

Steps To Success

How to get the job done

  1. Park, brake, chock: To start, move the car to the predetermined location, then be sure to put the car in ‘park’ or left in a gear, never in the neutral position. Engage the parking brake and add wheel chocks when necessary.

  2. Loosen lug nuts: While the tires are all still on the ground, use the lug wrench to loosen every lug on each wheel. This is not an easy task once the wheel is in the air.

  3. Jack first wheel: Use the floor jack to lift the first wheel you will be removing, following your specific vehicles jacking instructions, then install a jack stand in its place. Remove the lug nuts completely, then remove the wheel.

  4. Jack second wheel: Use floor jack to lift second wheel, also installing a jack stand in its place. Remove lug nuts and replace this wheel with the first wheel, finger tighten lugs nuts, and remove jack stand if necessary.

  5. Repeat: Repeat step four on remaining wheels of the vehicle, always using a jack stand to steady the car when available. Install all lug nuts finger tight and make sure wheels are fully seated on hubs before dropping from jack.

  6. Drop the jacks: Use the floor jack to lift the car so you can remove each of the jack stands still remaining under the vehicle, so all four wheels are now resting on the ground under the full weight of the car.

  7. Tighten lug nuts: Refer to the owner’s manual for torque specs of the lug nuts, then tighten each wheel individually in a ‘star’ pattern, moving across the the center of the hub to the lug that is directly opposite, never adjacent.

  8. Catalogue: Record the current milage of the car and set a reminder so that you will know you are due for another rotation in 6,000 miles. Give yourself a pat on the back, you have rotated your tires.

THE 6 BEST ALL-SEASON TIRES FOR YOUR RIDE

If you are inspecting your tires during your rotation and you find there is no meat left on the bone, take a look at our pick for the 6 best all season tires to freshin’ up the kicks on your ride.

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