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It’s time to get down to the science of the air vs. nitrogen debate when it comes to tires and tire pressure. You’re probably wondering if there’s something wrong with the compressed air you’ve likely been pumping into your car’s tires all along, or if nitrogen is something that you should’ve already been looking into, but we’re here to help you sift through the varying opinions. Let’s start with the actual science of what’s currently in your tires, be it compressed air or nitrogen.
The Science Behind it
Air - the kind we breathe, even the compressed kind that you’ve probably pumped into your tires a bunch of times, is comprised of 78 percent nitrogen itself, 21 percent oxygen, while some water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other noble gases fill out the rest. To reap the benefits of nitrogen in tires, the purity needs to be between 93 and 95 percent, as opposed to the 78 percent found in compressed air. Nitrogen molecules are larger than oxygen molecules, therefore, pure nitrogen is less likely to seep through the tire rubber, which means that tire pressure will remain stable over a longer period of time. Additionally, tires filled with nitrogen are not as subject to expansion during temperature changes because of the absence of moisture in the overall composition. There’s a reason why auto racers figured out rather quickly that nitrogen was the way to go as they were burning rubber on the pavement.
Is it right for you?
This is really a trick question, and it depends largely on your habits - your car maintenance habits and your spending habits. It’s true, not only race cars and airplanes can benefit from more stable tire pressures, passenger cars can and should be able to as well. The main downside to pumping compressed air is that moisture will be present in the line, and humidity is not what you want to have inside of a tire. Water, be it in its gaseous form as vapor, or as liquid, has the ability to cause more pressure changes than actual outside temperatures. To make matters worse, it can also help corrode the steel or aluminum of rims - that’s why you often find that rims are coated in a gunky substance to prevent this from happening.
All in all, nitrogen will help your tire pressure remain more constant, helping you save in fuel costs and tire maintenance. Whether tire pressure-induced costs are a problem for you depends solely on how often you check on your tire pressure. The tire-pressure monitoring systems in modern cars are not enough to counteract lapses in pressure checks because they only activate a warning once the tire pressure is already low, not as it gradually decreases. If you don’t consistently check your tire pressure then nitrogen is for you - as the saying goes: “set it and forget it.”
Additionally, filling tires with nitrogen isn’t as simple as filling them with compressed air - it requires a technician to fill and bleed the tires until purity is achieved. Some shops like to charge a hefty price for this service, so beware that if you’re interested in making the switch you’ll need to shop around. Keep in mind that this tiny investment will save on fuel costs and tire maintenance, so it’s essentially a trade-off.
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Photo Source/Copyright: Traction Tire