How To Fix A Flat Tire Like A Damn Grown-Up

Over the weekend, I pulled into the Firestone Auto Care garage, my camera, notebook and ‘Bout Business attitude all on hand, ready to check this flat tire thing off my list.
Publish date:
February 21, 2013
DIY, flat tire, fixing stuff

Hydroplaning and tire blowouts. Two things that absolutely terrified me back when I was first learning how to drive at 16. Of course, it didn’t help that my Drivers Ed instructor took pleasure in telling us “the things I’ve seen” wet gore stories to better illustrate his point on the dangers involved in piloting a car. (I still think most of those bloodbath videos he showed us weren’t actually DMV-approved.)

Both hydroplaning and tire blowouts boil down to losing control of the car. Both of these things also boil down to keeping your shit together. Step one is always Do Not Panic.

For hydroplaning, which is essentially the king of all crazy skids, I learned that taking your foot of the gas and steering the car where you want it to go is as easy as it sounds. It’s happened to me a few times over the years, and I managed to keep my wig on, no Jesus-take-the-wheel hysterics or anything.

The crapped-out tire thing, though? It still makes me nervous, and it was only heightened by the fact that I was completely clueless about how to change a damaged or flat tire.

I said was clueless. Oh, yes, past tense, homies.

Over the weekend, I pulled into the Firestone Auto Care garage, my camera, notebook and ‘Bout Business attitude all on hand, ready to check this flat tire thing off my list.

I’ve got to be honest -- for some baseless reason, I felt a little ridiculous walking into the drippy, cold garage, like I was about to ask a chef how to boil water. And it wasn’t about anything the garage guys did. They were all very helpful and patient, especially on a chilly, early Sunday morning at their busy workspace.

No, this foolishness was all me. Tucked into my brain somewhere was this cobwebbed idea that the mechanic was going to judge me. He was going to be thinking, “Great, here comes the girl with her pink, girl questions about this gritty, greasy, easy thing.”

And, because human nature is pure genius in action, whenever you think that you’re about to be judged, the knee-jerk response is be defensive, guard yourself with pride, and in the end miss the lesson that’s likely coming your way.

Thankfully, I caught myself just as my back was going up. I had to remember that this guy, Judge McJudgerson or no, knew a lot about this stuff and I did not. Basic fact. Nothing more.

We got started on the task, going through each step slowly, pausing for questions and repeating and “How do you spell that?” and practical tips. Here’s what I gathered:

1. In most cars, all the tools you’ll need are stored with the spare tire in that “hidden” undercarriage in the trunk. You’ll need all of it. But first be sure you’re parked on flat, level ground. The uphill tire-change has Bad Idea Jeans written all over it.

2. For my car, I had to use a little key thingy (I was too busy getting my hands dirty to jot every name down –- just let me be great) to loosen the bolt keeping the spare and the tool bucket locked in place.

3. Take the wheel nut wrench (ah-ha!) to the flat tire and use it to loosen the lug nuts on the hubcap by turning counter-clockwise. Lug nuts are the five fasteners that secure the wheel to the car. Now, this is the absolute worst part. Them joints are so damn tight, you’ll likely have to place the wrench on the nut and then STAND ON THE WRENCH ARM WITH YOUR FULL WEIGHT.

A friend told me to try hitting the wrench arm with a rock. A rock! My mechanic buddy gave me a better tip: he suggested buying a tool called an electric impact gun to use to loosen the lug nuts. It looks sort of like a compact drill that you can plug into your cigarette lighter outlet and let the tool do the work. It’s basically what the tow company person would use when you call them out to rescue you.

4. Loosen the nuts, but don’t remove them yet.

5. Put the jack under the side sill of the “jack-up point” closest to the flat and turn the jackscrew (the crank arm thing) until you see the tire is clearly off the ground about six inches. Another mechanic’s tip: Consider buying a compact pump since the standard scissor jack that typically comes with your spare can be unstable.

6. Now you can remove the lug nuts completely and pull the flat off.

7. Put on the spare tire, reattach the lug nuts and tighten them by hand.

8. Turn the jack handle to the left and lower the car. Remove the jack. Tighten the lug nuts as much as you can using the godforsaken wheel nut wrench.

9. Get thee to the closest garage or repair spot, as your spare tire is not meant for long distances.

Personally, step 10 of this whole thing should be: Avoid having to do any of this, like, ever. Even my mechanic tutor admitted that he’s never had to change a flat tire outside of the garage.

“I would not want to do this on the side of the road,” he said. “It’s not fun.” And after learning how to do it myself, I can definitively say: Amen. After all this I’ll still probably call the professionals in the event of a tire blowout, but at least now I can linger over their shoulder and judge whether they’re doing a good job.