I’ve written a number of stories about wheels and tires, the tradeoffs between buying new or used, and options for mounting and balancing. In preparation for winter, I just went through it again and discovered an option previously unknown to me.
First, the snow tires. My 2003 BMW E39 530i sedan is a fabulous car, but like most rear-wheel drive vehicles, it’s nearly useless in snow without proper snow tires on it. Two winters ago, I got stranded in my own driveway on snow tires whose tread depth had gotten too skinny. Last winter, I got away with it because I bought an all-wheel-drive X5, but I sold it in the spring. So when we had a surprisingly early October snowfall, it was a reminder that I needed to deal with snow tires. Again.
I know that I’ve raised some folks’ ire by talking about buying used snow tires, but personally, I just don’t see the difference between reusing the winter tires you have from last season versus reusing someone else’s winter tires from last season, as long as you’re not fooling yourself on the tires’ condition. In my case, the date codes on the sides of my Blizzaks were from 2005, and two of them had worn down to 5/32-inch of tread, so pretending that they weren’t garbage and that I could get another winter out of them was foolish. Last December, I discussed what to look for in used tire ads on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, but there’s no substitute for showing up in person with a tread depth gauge. I pounced on an ad for a set of very well-priced 215/60R16 Toyo Observe GSi-5s, checked that the date codes were less than five years old, used the tread depth gauge to verify that each tire had every bit of 10/32-inch of tread, and then gleefully met the seller’s $120 asking price. Hey, I’m barely driving these days, and these fit my budget. If you make different choices, vive la difference.
That just left mounting and balancing. As I wrote a few weeks ago, there’s a hole-in-the-wall shop not far from me that’s as cheap as $20 a tire, and the local Sullivan Tire is $25–$35 depending on wheel size, but for the E39, I needed to transport both the four wheels with the old snows on them and the four new (well, used) Toyos, and I couldn’t fit them all in the E39 at the same time. I tried to think how I’d done this in the past and realized I’d either had the wheels already mounted on the car, made two trips, or shoved everything in the Rialta camper, which I’d just pulled off the road for the season.
Then I remembered something on Facebook that my friend and fellow Hagerty contributor Craig Fitzgerald recently posted. It showed a big van with swoopy graphics next to tires scattered in the driveway, along with the comment, “Why would anyone go to a tire shop on a Sunday morning when Jay Condrick comes right to your house?” I was intrigued, looked up Jay, remembered that we’d met once, and arranged for him to come by.
At the risk of this looking like one big advertorial, Jay owns a TreadConnection franchise. The company was formed in 2016 and performs mobile wheel and tire services. The high-top van contains tire dismounting and laser-balancing machinery along with the requisite supply of weights and valve stems. The equipment is powered by a Tesla-style battery pack and an inverter, recharged by the vehicle’s alternator, so it’s not noisy like a generator. Although I was using TreadConnection for in-driveway mounting and balancing of a set of used tires on “loose wheels,” as the tire shops call them, Jay arrives with floor jacks, so he can certainly jack up your car, pull the wheels, and reinstall them if necessary.
He also pointed out that his company is a Tire Rack five-star recommended installer, so you can buy tires from the Tire Rack and have them drop-shipped directly to TreadConnection, which will bring them to your door. In addition, you can order tires through TreadConnection that Tire Rack doesn’t carry, such as Nokian. Other services include flat repair and Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) diagnosis and replacement.
For many people working from home in these COVID-19 times, the appeal of this service is at-home, contact-less tire-swapping, saving you from having to either drop off your car and catch a ride back or sit in a waiting room. For others, the lure could be not having to take a fragile car out in bad weather, or an unregistered or uninsured car out of the garage. In my case, the at-home part was certainly convenient, but I wanted to see how the equipment worked, so I brought Jay a hot cup of coffee, then I stood outside his van in a light rain with my hat and mask on while he did his thing inside the van. And once he was done, he wanted to see the Lotus and the vintage BMWs, so we probably spent another half an hour masked-up in my garage shooting the breeze, as car people are wont to do. Next time, we need to learn to shut up and let each other work. No more in-van hot coffee delivery services from me!
The cost was similar to that at my local Sullivan Tire, but the convenience factor really was off the chart. I posted about it on my own Facebook page, and the “Gee, I didn’t know a service like this existed” response was nearly up there with when people realized they could use Waze on their cell phones not only for navigation but for traffic avoidance and speed trap warning. And a nice side-benefit was that, after Jay left, I realized that the old Blizzaks went with him, leaving one less thing for me to do.
TreadConnection isn’t the only company occupying the mobile tire and wheel space. ASAP Tire sounds similar, but I believe since it’s now owned by Tire Rack, it only installs Tire Rack-purchased tires, whereas TreadConnection will install your already-owned seasonal swaps or new Craigslist scores like mine. There are other outfits that appear to be regional, such as ZipTire in Los Angeles and MyTireGuys in Boston. And all of these vendors seem to draw a line between mobile tire services and emergency roadside assistance, stressing that they’re not trying to take the place of AAA.
I asked Jay about that, and he said that it depends—he’s not going to change a flat for someone in the breakdown lane of an interstate, but if the car is somewhere safe, and he has an hour available, sure.
Who knew that in-driveway tire mounting and balancing was a thing? Not I. But now we both do.
Rob Siegel has been writing a column (The Hack Mechanic™) for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 years and is the author of seven automotive books. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available on Amazon (as are his other books), or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, robsiegel.com.