Fleets cannot operate without drivers, fuel or tires. With the current driver shortage, controlling labor costs will only become more difficult as the competition offers higher pay and better benefits. Worldwide oil production is barely able to keep up with consumption, so it's relatively safe to say that we will never see fuel in the neighborhood of $2/gal. again. In addition, every major tire manufacturer has announced price increases in the past year, with all of them citing higher raw material and energy costs. Tough times are definitely ahead for those in the business of moving things by truck.

History is littered with products that claimed to be cure-alls, fix-alls and do-alls for a variety of problems. Most were a direct response to a situation where people were so desperate for a solution that they were willing to try anything. Of course, the requisite “plants” in the audience and distracting sideshows probably had something to do with the products' commercial success, but the fact remains that desperation is one of the strongest human motivators.

In the past few years, the nitrogen inflation industry has struggled to gain acceptance on a mass scale for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious obstacle is the fact that the air we breathe is already 78 to 80% nitrogen. Since there's a cost associated with removing the remaining oxygen and other gases, it becomes even more difficult to justify the added expense of inflating tires with “almost pure” nitrogen.

Because nitrogen molecules are larger than oxygen molecules, they will bleed out of the tire at a slower rate. And since the equipment eliminates most of the moisture during the process of purifying the nitrogen, the tires would be filled with a dry gas that would definitely have a positive effect on wheel and rim performance. The nitrogen message sounds fairly appealing to fleets in desperate search of solutions to the problem of premature or irregular treadwear.

But almost-pure nitrogen is not free. Special equipment, including consumable filters, is needed to extract the nitrogen from the atmosphere. Even if it's only a few dollars a tire, when those costs are multiplied by thousands of wheel positions, the end result is a fairly substantial amount. Fleets are going to need more than a slick brochure and a couple of testimonials to spend that kind of money in today's economy.

To make the situation even more challenging, all of the tire manufacturers have basically agreed that almost-pure nitrogen does not have a significant effect on tire performance either way. Without a ringing endorsement from a tire company, most fleets won't even consider the option of nitrogen inflation.

And finally, I keep referring to almost-pure nitrogen because it's almost impossible to inflate a tire with 100% nitrogen. The air that's in the tire when it's mounted is going to contaminate the nitrogen, so the best most fleets can hope for is something in the range of 95 to 98% in most cases.

Desperate times may lead to desperate measures, but the jury is still out on whether or not a fleet can get the necessary return on investment when inflating tires with nitrogen. The tire manufacturers collectively agree that nitrogen will not void the warranty, but they also caution that it isn't a magical gas that allows fleets to ignore their tires. Remember, it will never stop a nail.