Being a trucking reporter, I bump into the topic of tires a lot. Sometimes the subject of tires jumps out from the unlikeliest places, reminding me how crucial they are to a fleet's operation, as well as how little the general public understands about them.
Retreads are a case in point. I was on a business trip last year, about to board a plane to Atlanta from Washington, D.C. We were delayed at the gate, so I dug out one of Stephen King's recent bestsellers, “From a Buick 8,” and started to read.
A main character's father — a state trooper — gets killed by a drunk motorist after pulling over a truck driver whose tires had disintegrated on the road. King writes that the trucker is riding on “recaps” to save money, but you know they're cheap substitutes for real tires as they come apart unexpectedly.
Sure, a snippet of plot from a work of fiction that totally gets the reality of retread tires wrong — who cares? Well, I do. Millions of readers who don't know a thing about trucking absorb that information and file it away in the back of their minds in ugly shorthand: “Retreads are bad.”
“Mr. King sure didn't do us any favors,” Harvey Brodsky, director of the Tire Retread Information Bureau, told me recently. “It's this kind of misinformation that clouds the whole issue of retreads in the minds of the public and even among truckers.”
The reality is this: retreading technology has not only improved the safety of recapped tires, none of the cost savings have been lost. Some 20-million retreaded tires were sold in the U.S. and Canada last year, the majority of them medium-duty recaps. Recaps are critical to the bottom line these days; they cost 30% to 50% less than a new tire, and tire casings are designed to be retreaded several times in order to give fleets the best bang for their buck, said Brodsky.
I found that out for myself on a tour of the Raben Tire Co.'s retread facility outside Clarksville, IN, where the company uses Goodyear's new UniCircle retread process. According to Andy Boehman, facility manager, two of the most critical parts in retreading a tire are at the beginning and end of the process.
“We do a complete inspection of the casing to separate out those that can be retreaded and those that can't,” he explained. “That includes looking at the age of the casing and any damage done to the sidewall or tread. Right there, we eliminate ‘bad’ tires from the mix.”
The UniCircle process attaches new tread to a tire casing as one single circle, which helps speed up the process and makes it more accurate and cleaner. Once the retreading is complete, you can hardly tell new tires apart from their retreaded brethren.
But the real key comes at the very end of the process, when each newly retreaded tire gets fully inflated and goes into what's called a ‘boom box’ for a final test, explained Jeff Sevrs, retread plant manager. “The boom-box test helps us find ‘zipper ruptures’ if the tread isn't attached properly,” he said. “So if that tire is going to fail, it will fail in the box, not on the customer's vehicle.”
Brodsky said the beauty of today's retreading industry is that retreads are inspected and tested as thoroughly as new tires. “Under-inflation is the main reason tires fail prematurely, not because they've been retreaded,” he pointed out. “[It's also] a huge contributor to lower fuel economy; we waste almost $2-billion a year in fuel per year by driving on under-inflated tires.”
That's why it's so important to keep the reality of retreads in mind. If we don't combat all the spurious information that pops up from time to time, even in fictional novels, fleets could find the money-savings generated by retreads under attack by an ill-informed public.