Publishing this post required some mandatory humility on my part. But hopefully you can learn from my mistake so you know how and where to find free air for your car tires – for the rest of your life.
My wife and I have been battling a slow rim leak in one of our car’s tires for the past year. Depending on temperature, this suspect tire will drop below the recommended minimum PSI rating about once a week. Not good – for many reasons. In researching an article I previously wrote about how to check your tire pressure and inflate your tires, I learned that low tire pressure can lead to notably lower fuel efficiency. According to the U.S. Department of Energy,
You can improve your gas mileage by 0.6% on average—up to 3% in some cases—by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure. Under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by about 0.2% for every 1 psi drop in the average pressure of all tires. Properly inflated tires are safer and last longer.
Under-inflation can also lead to increased wear on a tire, decreasing the tire’s lifespan. And in some cases, it can also lead to a damaged wheel or other vehicle damage.
Knowing the importance of having a properly inflated tire, whenever we noticed that the tire pressure was low, a variation of the following request would take place:
Hey hun, that freakin’ tire’s air pressure is low again. Would you mind filling it up the next time you drive by that gas station?
Find Free Air for Tires at Gas Stations
Unfortunately, finding free air for tires is not as easy as it used to be. Within a 5 mile radius of our house, we know of exactly one remaining gas station that still offers free air. Some states require all gas stations to offer free air, but most do not. In states that do not (like Michigan), some gas stations may voluntarily offer free air, but most do not. And paid air compressor use at gas stations can be highway robbery @ $1-2 per fill (under the stress of having to rush before you time out).
If you’re in a pinch, freeairpump.com offers a user-generated map of gas stations that offer free air compressor use. Keep in mind that it is user-generated and some of the locations could no longer offer free air and some stations may have not been added yet.
If you do use a gas station’s air compressor, you should pick up a tire pressure gauge (like this one) if your car does not have built-in monitoring with digital readout out on your driver information display. Many gas station air pumps do not have a tire pressure display and you should know the precise tire pressure so you don’t go too high and blow the tire (or too low, which can result in tire damage).
Buy a Portable Air Compressor to Use as a Tire Inflator
Instead of making excuses to drive miles away to find a gas station that offers free air – I’d highly recommend that you buy a portable air compressor to use as a tire inflator instead. A few searches on Amazon led to me finding this very highly rated VIAIR 85P Portable Air Compressor, which you can plug directly in to the auxiliary outlet, for $48. Having a portable air compressor is extremely convenient for use when traveling. In my opinion, this alone makes the product worth more than the price.
A bonus to portable air compressors is that they almost all have a tire pressure gauge that allows you to see the actual tire pressure while you’re filling it. As noted previously, the ones at gas stations often do not.
You May Already Have a Free a Portable Air Compressor
Here’s where the humility in this story comes in. I was perusing Amazon reviews for the best portable air compressor to buy to keep in my trunk, when a thought hit me,
Wait a minute! Our car didn’t come with a spare tire, so maybe there is some sort of manufacturer-supplied air compressor that I can use as a tire inflator in the trunk.
I excitedly ran out to the car, popped open the trunk, and removed the floor covering to find a portable air compressor tire inflator. Bingo!
We’ve had this car for 4 years – with dozens of trips to gas stations – and didn’t even realize the entire time that we had a much more convenient solution in our own trunk! Lesson learned: if you have purchased a car that does not have a spare tire, check your trunk. There may be more than just junk in your trunk (*wink*) – you may have a lonely portable air compressor just waiting to be used.
Use a Bike Pump to Fill a Car Tire
Here’s a pro tip for those who don’t mind getting sweaty and have some time on their hands: if you don’t want to buy a portable air compressor and don’t have a gas station nearby that offers free air, you can use a bike pump to fill a car tire! Here’s a highly rated bike pump that you can use on a car tire.
How is this possible? Bike tire tubes have either a Schrader valve or a Presta valve for tire inflation. Car tires in the U.S. all use Schrader valves. Bike pumps usually have a two-hole nozzle to adapt to either type of valve – so they will also work on car tires.
You can keep the bike pump in your trunk and use it on your car or bike when needed. I will warn that this method is not for the faint of heart. It can take dozens (maybe even hundreds) of pumps to move the needle on the pressure gauge a few PSI. The bright side is that it’s a free workout. Exercise and energy savings – can’t beat that, right?