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Alternative Pressure: Performance Customers are Good Targets for Nitrogen Inflation

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What’s wrong with air? Like a slumbering giant, the passenger and light truck tire industry is slow to evolve and slower to accept new products and ways of thinking. Take the current buzzword going around: nitrogen. That inert gas has the industry and, as I found out, consumers, in an uproar about who and what to believe.

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Never mind the fact that small, insignificant organizations like NASA, NASCAR, the aerospace industry and the military have been using nitrogen as an air substitute in tires for decades, with superb results. (If you don’t believe me, see page 23 in this issue.)

Well, it’s time to take a look at this from a different perspective – not from the science or equipment aspect, but from the viewpoint of a dealer who faces the same type of consumers that you do.

So that I can give you some personal feedback, I decided to have my tires filled with nitrogen. Jennifer Wheeler with Vannoy’s Tire in Pensacola, Fla., has had some experience with nitrogen over the last year.

“We have seen customers get better gas mileage after inflating tires with nitrogen,” Wheeler says. “One customer, in particular, who owns a Volvo with a fuel economy display showed immediate improvement in average miles per gallon.”

She goes on to say that “tires run cooler and handle a little differently than when filled with regular air. Also, the moisture content here on the Gulf Coast is very high. Then, you add in salt. We see a lot of wheels come in with leaks, mainly due to corrosion. This is especially true when you have a chrome-plated wheel.”

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As we have discussed in the past, chrome-plated wheels do not like salt or moisture. Nitrogen is dry and conceivably much better over the life of the tire and wheel. This could be a great selling point. I’m sure that most of you have removed a tire and found the bead seats of the wheels corroded or the drop center peeling. Take a picture, and display it at the counter near your brochures.

Like many other high-tech offerings in your shop, this is another that will have to be marketed to the consumer. Visual images will have a more dramatic effect than just telling someone that they need to spend an extra $20 dollars for “air.” Check out the promo sign, shown here in Vannoy’s lobby, for an example.

Pat Logue, director of marketing at Dunn Tire, echoes Wheeler: “It’s a win-win situation. Dunn Tire has something that competitors don’t. We generate repeat business with ‘out the door pricing,’ which includes nitrogen fill.

“First, we educate the consumer that nitrogen is a safe gas, which takes longer to seep out, and has other benefits,” she continues. “The win for the consumer is that it improves gas mileage.”

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When Dunn Tire decided to add nitrogen, it went all the way – all 26 Buffalo, N.Y.-area stores.

“According to NHTSA, about four out of five consumers have improperly inflated tires,” Logue says. “That costs all of us, because it increases demand on fuel. A typical consumer will benefit from having nitrogen, but a super-conscientious consumer will probably not see a dramatic increase in mileage because he or she already maintains proper inflation.

“Another unique item that Dunn Tire has developed is a green washer that fits under the standard valve cap,” says Logue. This is in lieu of the bright green cap that is typically supplied. Many customers do not like the green cap (shown here).

After getting my tires filled and installing a green cap, I immediately drove 40 miles on the highway at 70 mph. After the drive, I recorded barely a 3 psi increase in tire pressure. Ambient temperature was 88ºF, which puts it at around 95ºF on the heat index and hotter on the pavement. I don’t have any gas mileage figures yet, but as you have read, there are plenty of testimonies as to the increase.

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Practical Selling

Now, let’s look at some problems that could arise. What if a repair shop doesn’t offer nitrogen, and a consumer has to fill one tire with regular air, while the rest are filled with nitrogen? How will the vehicle react if the left front is filled with nitrogen and the right front is filled with regular air? Good questions all.

From the technical data, we know that the nitrogen is not going to expand at the same rate or as much as compressed air. This leads to a bias in ‘hot pressure’ that could result in a pull that might get worse as the tire heats up.

A road test by a technician after the vehicle has been sitting for a while may not indicate any pull at all. It may take several miles of highway driving conditions to create the effect.

Here is another opportunity for you to gain a customer. You can provide a simple solution by offering a nitrogen filling station on site. More importantly, you can diagnose a problem without spending unnecessary time or money.

You probably already know that many racing organizations have been using nitrogen for years, but how do you convey that information to a consumer and make it profitable?

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Dave Martin, senior project engineer for motorsports programs at the Hankook Technical Center in Akron, Ohio, had this to say: “In a race tire, and even in street performance tires, the ability to control ‘hot pressure’ is critical. For every 1-psi increase in pressure, the vertical spring rate of the tire increases approximately 50 lbs./in. This translates into a stiffer ride, and it also changes the shape of the contact patch, which can have a negative effect on the handling characteristics of the vehicle.”

For an average passenger/light truck tire, it is feasible that replacing regular air with nitrogen could deliver a smoother ride. “My husband noticed a difference in how his truck rides compared to regular air,” says Wheeler. Perhaps, without stating it, what he felt was the consistent air pressure delivering a better ride.

No matter which selling point you choose to apply, be sure to tailor it to the individual and vehicle. To a young consumer with a sports car, talk up the performance aspects of nitrogen. For a senior citizen, talk about the lower maintenance of having to adjust air pressure as frequently or the potential increase in gas mileage.

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For light trucks, a consistent pressure could help reduce center wear on the rear tires, while maintaining proper load carrying capacity.

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