The Dualie Dilemma: A tale of 6 tires
I’ve written several pieces about “the mouse-infested truck,” the 2008 Chevy 3500HD dualie with the Duramax diesel and the Allison transmission that I bought from my former employer for a song. The main reason it was dirt cheap was the shocking level of rodent damage that had occurred from its being parked outside and little-used for years. But beyond that, it needed new tires.
Although the truck had only 28,000 miles on it, its LT225/75R17 General tires were suffering from extended sun exposure. In particular, the outer right rear tire was badly cracked where the tread meets the sidewall. Something had to be done.
I polled my truck-driving car friends about replacement tires, and the advice was nearly unanimous—pony up for the Michelin LTX Defenders. At nearly $220 per tire, they aren’t cheap, but folks raved about them. However, I didn’t (and still really don’t) know whether this truck will be with me for the long term, and when you add in a $30/wheel charge for mounting and balancing, plus sales tax, the total tickled $1600. I was hesitant to spend the money.
Wait, did you say $1600? How does that add up? Dual rear wheels, sometimes abbreviated as DRW, a.k.a. duallies. So I would need six tires—four in back, two up front.
If you aren’t familiar with them, duallies are on many trucks that are designed for high weight-capacity applications, as four rear tires spread the load much better than two and provide better lateral stability. So, if you need to constantly haul a bed full of gravel, or tow a trailer where a lot of weight is on the bumper (or, in the case of a fifth-wheel trailer, over the bed), a dualie is your friend. Indeed, my former engineering employer bought this truck specifically to tow a 32-foot trailer. When it was practically abandoned, and it became clear that with the rodent damage I could pick it up for a song, I snagged it. My thought was it would be a handy vehicle to own to tow home the occasional crimes of opportunity that constitute my “not quite a car collection.” Of course, for that, it’s massive overkill. This vehicle could easily tow one of those tilt-deck trailers that hold four cars.
But now it’s mine, just one of 13 needy vehicles, so I did what I often do: I tried an interim solution to get by on the cheap. I bought a single used, uncracked matching General tire on eBay for $40 to replace the badly cracked one. Please, save the angry emails. I wasn’t driving the truck anywhere except the half-mile back and forth to the local recycling depot. I certainly wasn’t using it to tow anything. This was just a stopgap measure.
When the used tire arrived, I threw it in the back of the truck and drove it to one of the places I use for mounting and balancing—a hole-in-the-wall shop in Newton, Massachusetts. It’s near my home and is run by a blunt and somewhat eccentric guy who will bite your head off if you step in the wrong place but who also has been extremely helpful to me over the years. Plus, at $20 a wheel for mounting and balancing, he’s dirt cheap.
However, this was not like the set of four loose, 13-inch wheels and tires for a 1970s-era BMW that I usually bring to him. I showed him the cracked tire on the right rear and the replacement tire, and he shook his head. “That’s a ten-ply tire,” he said. “It’s at the upper limit of what my machine can do. Plus, it’s not off the truck yet. This thing’s too big for my lift to pick up. I’d have to jack it up in the parking lot. And duallies are a pain. If you bring it to me as a loose wheel, I’ll do it for $30—if my machine will do it. It’d need to be more like $60 if I have to jack up the truck and pull it off.”
Then he walked around the truck, scooched down, and looked at the tires. “You know that all of these are cracked, right?” Although the outsides of the front tires didn’t show the sidewall cracking that was present on the right rear, he pointed out where the fronts were cracked between the treads.
“I’d be a lot more concerned about those front tires,” he said. “What you want to do, replacing just that right rear, doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”
I do appreciate it when someone tells me I’m being an idiot.
Still, I did just pony up $40 for the used tire, and I didn’t see the harm of using it to replace the one that was badly and visibly cracked. So, on the way home, just to get another data point, I swung by a repair shop that I used a few years back to replace a popped brake line on my Suburban when I didn’t have the time to do it myself. The guy didn’t rake me over the coals in the same way about only replacing one tire, but he said something similar about how his lift couldn’t pick the truck up, how he’d need to jack it up on the garage floor, how duallies are a pain because the mating flanges of the dual rear wheels often stick together and are difficult to get off. He quoted me a similar cost, about $30 to mount and balance if I brought him the loose wheel and tire, and $50 or $60 if he had to pull the wheel off.
So, I looked into pulling the wheel off myself and bringing it and the tire in loose. The irony, of course, is that I’d either need to swap the spare onto the truck or haul the wheel and tire in my little Winnebago Rialta RV. I successfully dropped the likely-never-been-lowered spare, then test-loosened one lug nut on the right rear wheel with my air impact wrench. Tightening it back to the 140-ft-lb spec was challenging, as the hub is recessed. That required an extension on my torque wrench, the upper limit of which is very close (150 ft-lb); but it was possible. The question was whether I could safely lift the wheel to swap the spare.
I am hyper-careful about jacking up vehicles. In a previous column I talked about the challenges in lifting the Winnebago Rialta. Like the Rialta, the Silverado is both heavy and too tall to fit in my garage, so lifting a wheel requires either positioning the wheel on the concrete sidewalk in front of my house or doing it in the asphalt driveway with a steel plate under both the floor jack and the jack stand. I tried the latter using my three-ton (6000-pound) Arcan floor jack, with a truck jack stand at the ready. I didn’t really feel great about this, as it violates Click and Clack’s oft-quoted Car Talk rule of thumb that, to safely raise two wheels, a floor jack’s rating should be at least 3/4 of the vehicle’s weight (and with the utility body on the back of the truck, it probably weighs 10,000 pounds). However, it was still well inside the rule of thumb that, for raising one wheel, the jack rating should exceed 1/3 the vehicle’s weight. The Arcan floor jack works perfectly on my passenger cars, but on the truck, while lifting the wheel it slowly depressurized due either to overloading or a leaking seal. I stopped immediately.
To follow things to their logical conclusion, I began looking into buying a truck jack, rationalizing that the day would certainly come when I needed to do the Silverado’s front brakes. But new floor jack prices climb steeply when you get beyond a three-ton rating, and there didn’t seem to be any used, well-priced ones nearby on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. When the economics of it looked like I needed to spend north of $300 for a jack in order to avoid paying an extra $20 or $30 for a shop to lift the wheel, I stopped.
Trying to find another alternative, I called and emailed around to some of the local shops which advertise used tires for sale (again, this is a vehicle that I didn’t know whether or not I was going to keep), but LT225/75R17 is an odd size. I found only one place—a shop in Rhode Island, which could put together a set of six tires with at least 7/32-inch of tread, mounted and balanced, for $650. I loved the idea of saving nearly a thousand bucks over new Michelins, but when I asked for details, they said that the fronts and rears would be different brands and the date codes on the tires were from 2011. While this was certainly better than the 14-year-old cracked tires currently on the truck, it didn’t feel like it was the right path.
So, I did what I sometimes do, which was … nothing. Well, not nothing. I went into an active monitoring mode, looking at the price of the Michelins on The Tire Rack, Simple Tire, Amazon, Costo, and eBay, and waited for them to go on sale, which they never did. In the meantime, the truck never ventured more than a mile (at 30 mph) from my home.
And then, the kind of thing happened that makes you realize what an idiot you’re being. No, it wasn’t a blowout. In November, a potential drop-everything project car—a 1972 BMW 2002tii—appeared on my radar screen. Unfortunately, the car was in Milford, Connecticut. There were multiple reasons why I didn’t drop everything, but one of them was that while running cardboard boxes down to the dump was one thing, there was no way I was going to drive the truck six hours round trip, towing a trailer and a car, on knowingly cracked tires. I owned a dualie diesel tow monster that I couldn’t use to tow anything. Yep. Idiot. This guy.
Fortunately, by utter coincidence, right before Thanksgiving, I saw that Costco was offering $150 off a set of Michelin tires, including the Defender LTX. I looked at other vendors, and the discount appeared to be a Costco-only thing, not a rebate from Michelin. I went to Costco’s website, selected the Costco nearest to me, gleefully clicked and added six tires to my cart, and was practically beside myself with joy when I saw that Costco’s installation price (mounting and balancing) was only $19.99 per wheel. Jackpot. Luck favors the well-prepared.
Wait, I thought. What if they won’t install duallies?
Nah. You’re being paranoid. When you buy the tires, they make you specify the make and model of the vehicle. It’s a Silverado 3500HD. HD means dualie. Plus, I’m buying six tires. They have to know it’s a dualie.
Still, just to be certain, I called the Costco Tire Center. “Hey, I’m a Costco member, and I’m about to order six tires for a Chevy 3500HD to be delivered to your location, and I just want to make sure you can do mounting and balancing on a dualie.”
The answer was no. They said that their equipment couldn’t lift a dualie.
I called three other Costcos. Same answer.
I should say that, right from the get-go, there were some surprising issues with the truck being a dualie. When I first took it in to get it inspected, my regular service station looked at it and I was told, “Can’t do it. It’s a commercial vehicle.” I explained that, in Massachusetts, the law used to be that any dualie had to be registered as a commercial vehicle, but that the law had been changed, and that this truck is registered as a personal vehicle. The guy opened the door, showed me a tag that reported the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) as over 10,000 pounds, and said “Nope. Over 10,000 pounds. Commercial vehicle.” It took some sleuthing to learn that there’s a special class of inspection for personal vehicles that are in excess of 10,000 pounds, most of which are duallies.
I thought, OK. Hang the Costco-only $150 discount. This is stupid. I need the tires. I went to The Tire Rack, figuring that its free road hazard protection wasn’t a bad consolation prize. As with Costco, I selected the vehicle, added the six tires to my cart, looked at the list of recommended local installers, sorted them by price, called all of the inexpensive ones—which ranged from mom and pops to chains like Firestone—and not one of them said they would do a dualie. Some said they couldn’t lift it. Others said it was a question of the tire-mounting equipment. A few said that their balancing machine couldn’t handle a center bore that large.
I’ve had great experience with The Tire Rack over the decades and was really quite surprised that you could obviously be buying tires for a dualie and yet have them show you installers that wouldn’t install them. The only purchase/installer package I found was through Simple Tire, which offered one installer who clearly dealt with dualie commercial vehicles, but the cost was $40/wheel. A friend who owns a mobile tire installation business (mounting and balancing equipment in the back of a van) offered to do it, but knowing the vagaries of my asphalt driveway, I didn’t want to saddle either him or me with the task of jacking up the truck and pulling the wheels off without an actual truck floor jack.
My salvation came from a surprising source. This past summer I wrote a piece about a J.P. Carroll’s, a nearby salvage yard / auto repair shop that also has an old-school radiator shop. Mr. Carroll had mentioned that he’s also a Michelin dealer. I went down to the shop, told him about the trouble I was having ordering Michelins and getting them installed on a dualie, and said that I’d rather give him the business than Costco anyway.
“I can’t touch that price,” he said. “That $150 discount must be a Costco-only thing. But go ahead and buy the tires at Costco, then bring ‘em to me. I’ll mount ‘em and balance ’em for $20 each.”
So, that’s what I did.
When buying the tires on the Costco website, I found that there was no way to delete the installation charge. I assumed that I’d need to schedule an appointment, show up, have them say, “Oh, we can’t do a dualie,” have them refund the installation charges I’d paid online, and load the tires in the back of the truck. But I was unable to schedule an appointment at all using their online tool. It showed no appointments available in November or December. It did, however, say that walk-ins were handled on a first-come, first-served basis.
So, a few days after Thanksgiving, when I received the email that the tires had arrived, I drove the truck to the local Costco Tire Center before the doors opened to ensure that I was the first walk-in. I told the guy, “I know you won’t install on duallies; I just want the tires.” To my surprise, he said, “Oh, we would’ve installed them. We can’t lift duallies; they have to be done on the floor with a floor jack, so they take a lot longer. So, yeah, we hate them, but we’ll do them. You just have to call so that we know to schedule a two-hour slot. And we can’t do it today as a walk-in. We’ve had a COVID outbreak and are restricting the number of people in the waiting area.”
I didn’t explain that I had called and had been given a flat “no,” as there was nothing to be gained, but I thanked him as he quickly processed my installation refund and loaded the tires in the back of the truck.
I drove from there to J.P. Carroll’s, where all six tires were mounted, balanced, and installed for $120. I watched the guy do it. He used a floor jack not much bigger than mine. As he was lifting the rear and putting his back into pumping the jack handle, he deadpanned, “Heavy truck.” I tipped him for his efforts.
So, in the end, I was rewarded for my patience, sleuthing, and thriftiness, and got it all done for about $1300, a cost that felt was reasonable. It was more than I’d ever paid for tires for any vehicle, but then again there were six of them. Thank you to J.P. Carroll’s for saving my butt.
Maybe tire shops (at least the ones not subsidized by big box stores) saying “no duallies” (at least not at cheap $20 per wheel prices) is more prevalent in an urban area like Boston than in other parts of the country. But the take-away message for me is that wandering across the border into truck-land has its surprises.
I don’t need a dualie. But I find myself owning one. Perhaps the key is that I shouldn’t be looking for the next car. I should be looking for the next four. After all, I now have the tires to tow them all at once.
Rob Siegel’s new book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally-inscribed copies through his website, www.robsiegel.com.