Any discussion around winter tires is awash with myth and misconception. Are they really needed? If so, how many? Can one skate by with a decent set of all-seasons? If you have all-wheel drive, you don’t need winters.
Tom Harper knows these kinds of conversations better than most. As co-owner of Harper’s Tire, which opened in Calgary in 1931, he’s part of the third generation of Harpers to sit at the helm of one of the city’s oldest tire companies.
Bald tires endanger everyone
As one of the patriarchs of the Calgary tire service industry, Harper encounters such winter tire fallacies on a regular basis. For him, one of the most irritating things to witness in the winter are drivers operating vehicles with bald or nearly-bald tires.
“I’ve been on roads where guys in front of you have been spinning around, like on Deerfoot,” says Harper. “It’s not good…. that’s one thing for me, the danger. I’ve got a child, too. I don’t want to have them risked because somebody isn’t driving appropriately.”
But those aren't the only problems associated with winter wheels, and Harper hopes to clarify some misconceptions and answer some common questions.
A quick primer
“Everybody has their different myths about whether winter tires are worthwhile or not, and the best thing to say is that once you drive on one you’ll never not drive on one again,” says Harper.
There are a few major differences between tires specifically designed for handling winter conditions and those that are designed for year-round use. The first is the softer rubber compound that remains more flexible as temperature drops. This leads to better traction on ice and snow.
Harper says the cost of a tire is roughly $200, but the difference between driving with them and without them is “night and day.”
There are many types of tires that range from entry-level to high-performance. They include snow tires, all-season tires, and all-weather tires, which are designed to operate better in snowy conditions than all-seasons but don’t work as well in warmer temperatures.
Can I just buy two tires, not four?
Some people believe that only two out of four are needed depending on if a vehicle is front-wheel or rear-wheel drive.
“If you had the two new snow tires on the front, and two all-seasons that are worn, you’re going have that amazing grip on the front,” says Harper. “But as soon as [you] drive out here, you’re going to spin around. It’s safer for [you] to run on the worn all-seasons than doing that.”
If I buy winter tires, should I use my summer rims?
Harper also recommends buying tires on their own rims, which is most cost-effective in the long run.
How tires should be stored in the off-season:
“It costs less to put on a wheel and tire package then it does to change them over,” says Harper. “A misconception is that it’s harder on the tire if you don't have it. But if you have it at a reputable tire store and they install them properly, you’re not going to have an issue — it just costs more.”
When not in use, generally over the summer months, winter tires should be stored away from light — which can cause the rubber to dry out and crack — and away from the elements outside, preferably in tire bags.
How can I measure my treads?
Another important consideration is tread percentage, deduced by calculating the wear on a tire when compared to new. A simple way to calculate tread can be done by taking a quarter and placing it in between the ridges of a tire. On a new tire, one-half to two-thirds of a quarter should be visible. If almost the entire quarter is still visible, it’s probably time to buy new tires.
What should I watch out for?
According to Harper, the biggest limitation is that at the end of the day, it’s still a tire. Depending on weather and road conditions, tires are going to behave differently, and each are designed to work best in specific situations.
“You can’t change the composition of a tire, right?” says Harper. “It’s hard to make it do everything.”
Watch Tom Harper de-bunk some common tire myths below:
- By Alec Warkentin