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Tesla Flat Tire on a Model Y and a Real Story of Driving without a “Donut”

Of dreadful things about driving a car, in my book, having a flat tire ranks among the top. There’s no way to prevent it effectively. It’s never good timing. And it sure is a pain when you get one in the middle of nowhere.

In 2014, I took my then-girlfriend and our dog to Carbo San Lucas — that’s more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) round-trip from the San Francisco Bay Area — by way of La Paz to visit some good friends.

On the way there, two tires of our aging sedan got seriously punctured at the same time in the middle of the Baja California desert.

We were literally more than 100 miles (150 km) from a town in either direction, with nothing to survive on but a couple of beers and some water bottles in the trunk. I wasn’t very well prepared.

You’ll learn a bit more about this incident below. But this anecdote is to show you my street creds on driving mishaps.

In the aftermath of the event, I learned to master the process of switching a car to a spare tire — the “donut,” as we often call it — and vice versa. In fact, I became so good at it that in subsequent years, I often used a donut to rotate my cars’ tires at home instead of getting that done at the shop.

As for the girlfriend, she said she’d “fly the next time.” She didn’t leave me. We even got married and have a couple of toddlers now. And that brings us to what happened just over the weekend with our Model Y.

No, it wasn’t as adventurous — we were just about 120 miles from home. But it was nerve-racking nonetheless, if not more so.

If you have a Tesla, this might help you get prepared. If not, well, it’s a fun read.

Dong’s note: You’ll find some tips on how to plug a Tesla tire here, but overall, this is not a how-to post.

Tesla Flat Tire on a Model Y Shoulder
Tesla flat tire: It’s never fun to be stuck in a narrow shoulder of a freeway, especially in the middle of almost nowhere.

Tesla and spare tire: You’re (almost) on your own

When you buy a Tesla (and many new cars these days), you’ll note that there’s no donut included (nor a jack and other related accessories.)

The company doesn’t make one for any of its vehicles. And no Tesla car, so far, has a designated place to put one in. So, the Model Y is my first ride without a spare tire.

But that makes sense since carrying more than ten pounds of basically deadweight at all times is a terrible waste of energy, especially when you drive an electric vehicle — I’ll talk more about the range and other related issues in a different post.

That said, I brushed off the idea of getting a third-party donut or an extra full-size wheel. The exorbitant cost aside, again, there’s nowhere in the car to store it properly anyway.

Before Image After Image
Our car and the punctured tire in the Baja California desert in 2014. This happened to both the car's right tires. Clearly, there's no plugging with a hole this big.

Tire repair kit comes to the rescue

So what do you do in case of a flat tire? Well, supposedly, you can call Tesla roadside service via the app, and they will come and replace the wheel with a temp one. After that, you can swap back to yours at a service center later.

That’s nice! But it only works if you have cell signals, and there’s a Tesla mobile service within a reasonable distance. Typically, you’ll have to wait, sometimes for hours on end — I learned this from friends and acquaintances.

Another way is to get a tire repair kit, which is a much easier choice. Tesla sells one for some $70, but I’m not too fond of it because it seems proprietary — it might not work on other cars — and a bit big. That’s not to mention it’s expensive.

So I decided to get my own, including this repair kit (•) and this electric Tire Inflator, for less than $50 in total.

I stuck both, still in their unopened boxes, in the car — they weigh less than 5 lbs (2.3kg) combined and fit in perfectly under the car’s main cargo. “Just in case,” I thought to myself, hoping that I would never have to use them.

And that was the case for my Model Y’s first 7k miles. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve done multiple road trips, testing out the Autopilot, the Full Self Driving feature, the real-world ranges in different conditions, and what’s not.

See also  Tesla Full Self-Driving Explained: Is It Worth $199/Month?

We recently took a 2000-plus-miles desert trip to Salt Lake City, with no issue at all. My Tesla tires proved invincible! By that, I mean I forgot about any tire-related issues.

And like all things in life, surprises come when you least expect them. (OK, that’s why they are surprises, but you catch my drift.)

Getting rescuse on Baja desert
Here are me and our Mexican hero who offered a used tire good enough for us to drive (together with our donut) 175 miles to the next town, where we bought two new tires for the rest of the trip, during which I had opportunities to use the donut many additional times. Qué viaje! 

The no-good nail and a bad decision

It happened just over the weekend. We were on our way back from Hopland, CA, some 120 miles North of San Francisco.

It was mid-morning, and we were driving slowly on a scenic road for the kids to look at farm animals. They were getting hungry, but we planned to get to Santa Rosa for lunch, about 50 miles away. (I still don’t eat lunch, but the rest of the fam does.)

Suddenly, my car’s screen showed a warning I had never seen before: the tire pressure on the front right wheel was “getting dangerously low” at 2.5 BAR compared to the 3 BAR of the rest.

I got out, literally kicked the tire. It seemed fine. I got back in and drove slowly for another 20 miles. The warning appeared again, this time with a 2.2 BAR pressure registration on the same tire.

I pulled over on a large patch of land near a vineyard, checked again, and this time saw the culprit. A small nail stuck to the bottom of the tire.

I had a decision to make: stay there and fix the issue or continue to a tire shop some 20 miles away — per the suggestion of my phone. I picked the latter.

Technically, I could get to the tire shop with 1.9 BAR left, right? Hell, I might be able to get all the way to Santa Rosa! That math, plus the fact I had never used the tire kit before, made driving another 20 miles seem a risk worth taking.

In hindsight, that was a dumb decision.

Indeed. We got on the freeway, and as soon as I hit 65 miles per hour, the tire’s pressure got precipitately lower and lower. It got under 1 BAR within a few miles, and I had to pull over to the shoulder. By the time the car fully stopped, the tire was completely flat.

I got out. The sun was hot. I pulled out the phone and thought, “it’s time to check out Tesla mobile service.” Alas! There was no signal. And right then, I realized I just got us in a pickle.

Lands End
Cabo San Lucas Land’s End was totally worth the trouble in our 2014 adventure.

Facing the reality

If you have never had to park by the side of a freeway, it’s actually scarier than it seems. Take my word for it.

In our case, it was a narrow shoulder — our car was just a foot or so from the open road where vehicles whizzed by at full free-way speed. Some honked at us because they wanted to say hi, tell us to get the hell out of there, or they were just happy seeing a Tesla being stranded.

That didn’t help with the anxiety, which was growing by the minute.

That was because, from my point of view: the asphalt was hot, the family was hungry, kids were whining, the iPad was out of battery (we had Netflix kid shows downloaded for “emergencies”), and the charging cable was broken.

The only thing I had going for us at the time was the car’s half-full charge to keep the AC running on the inside. Also, I was lucky that the puncture was on the right side, away from the road.

I remember missing my old car with the donut for a long moment. It would have taken me like 15 minutes to get going again. And I hated myself so much for having decided to take the risk. The earlier patch of land near the vineyard never seemed more heavenly.

But it was time to face the music, and I pulled out the brand new Tire Repair Kit and the electric Inflator from under a heap of luggage while keeping my fingers crossed that they would work. I had never even taken them out of their boxes.

Well, I was a bit ahead of myself.

After a glance at the instructions, I realized they applied to a free tire. That was not an option since I didn’t pack a jack. There was no way for me to remove the wheel!

When it rains, it pours!

OK, you’re reading this after the fact. So clearly, this story had a happy ending. We lived. In the end, I did manage to resume the trip.

I won’t bore you with more embarrassing and sweaty details. Instead, I’ll share the lesson I learned, namely how to plug a (Tesla) tire without removing the wheel.

How to plug a punctured (Tesla) tire

Considering the stress I endured, I can almost call myself an expert in plugging a Tesla tire now. You can call me whatever you want, though. One thing is for sure: there’s no need to remove the wheel from the car.

When you can plug a puncture tire

Before we continue, note that you can’t plug just any puncture — you have to be lucky (enough) to have one that is pluggable.

Here are the conditions when you can opt to plug a tire (I learned this from the manual):

  • The puncture is not larger than 0.25 in. or 6.1 mm in diameter.
  • The angle of the object (nail) is close to 90 degree — it goes straight in instead of sideway.
  • The puncture is not on or near the sidewall of the tire.

These apply to most cases when you hit a small nail. And it was indeed my case.

With that out of the way, below is a picture of my Tire Repair Kit. I’d totally recommend it since it comes with everything you’d need. Note the tools and the plenty of Repair Plugs — use some to practice beforehand.

Tire Repair Kit
My Tire Repair Kit, from left to right: the pliers, the Plug Insertion Tool, the Repair Plugs, the little knife, and the T-handle Reaming Tool. I used them all.

Steps to plug a (Tesla) flat tire, without removing the wheel from the car

OK, here are the steps to plug that tire, with nuances from my experience.

(By the way, I took most of these pictures when I was already at home, and I wasn’t gonna put another nail in my tire just for a demo. Among other things, you’d note that the tools had been used.)

1. Get it to the right position

Move the puncture hole to the top of the tire or the front of the car — you can drive the car a bit even with a completely deflated tire.

This will give you more room to work with. Clearly, if the puncture is closer to the tire’s inner sidewall, you’d need to move it to the front of the car. But if it’s near the outer wall, it’s OK to get it to the top position.

(By the way, this is when the Summon feature of a Tesla comes in handy, but you can have somebody eyeball that for you.)

Tesla Tire Nail Puncture Before
It helps to move the puncture to the top position of the flat tire. By the way, if the nail is just a tad closer to the tire wall, the puncture is no longer safely pluggable.
2. Remove the nail

Use a plier to remove the object if it’s still there. This will make the tire completely deflated if it’s not already.

Tip: You can later push a deflated tire down to create more room to operate the tools.

3. Thread the needle
Getting the plug trip through the plug insertion tools eyelet
Getting a Repair Plug through the Plug Insertion Tool’s eyelet is the most tricky part of the job. The pliers will help. Note the opening at the tip of the tool, which will leave the Plug inside the tire when you pull it out.

Get a sticky Repair Plug and put it through the eyelet of the plug insertion tool. This is the most tricky part since it seems impossible — the Repair Plug is much thicker than the eyelet. In fact, I initially thought I got the wrong parts. (I’d recommend you practice this part beforehand.)

Tip: Use the plier to flatten one end of the plug strip, get it partly in the eyelet, then again use the pliers to pull it halfway through.

4. Reaming the hole
T handle reaming tool
The T-handle Reaming Tool helps make the puncture hole on a flat tire larger.

Use the T-handle Reaming Tool to poke into the puncture to enlarge the hole. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s necessary. Do it! Remove the tool when done.

Tip: Be firm but gentle — you don’t want to hit the inside of the rim too hard, if at all.

5. Plug it!
Plug insertion tool with plug strip
Push the Plug Insertion Tool with the Plug Strip into the flat tire’s puncture hole straight down.

Push the Plug Insertion Tool with the Repair Plug into the punctured hole. It might seem hard at first, but it will go in.

Tip: Do it slowly but firmly — push it straight in. Stop when there’s about an inch (2.5 cm) of the plug’s ends sticking out.

Now turn the Insertion Tool some 90 degrees, and pull it out while pressing the Repair Plug down. The tool will go out, leaving the Plug in its place.

6. Trim it and pump it
Tesla Tire Nail After
The flat tire’s puncture hole is now plugged.

Use a sharp knife to trim both ends of the Repair Plug (or leave them there if you don’t have a knife).

Tip: A pair of scissors works, too.

And that’s it. Now use the Inflator to pump the tire back up.

Electric Pump
The little Electric Inflator comes in handy. My Tesla flat tire is no longer flat.

And yes, my new Inflator worked flawlessly in my case, and the tire got back to 3 BAR in about 10 minutes — thank goodness — just about the amount of time I needed to clean up, take a few deep breaths, and even snap a couple of photos.

In all, I was able to get us back on the way after some 45 minutes or so, most of which was spent on figuring out how to put a Repair Plug through the Insertion Tool’s eyelet.

The takeway

No matter how comfortable you are with handling tires, chances are your skills no longer apply when driving an EV. In a way, going electric means, you might have to get out of your comfort zone.

Sure, you can get a third-party spare tire and a jack. But that’d mean you’ll have to sacrifice range at all times. That said, knowing how to plug a tire can come in handy to prepare for that time when your luck runs out.

Speaking of preparedness, when we were having the well-deserved break in Santa Rosa an hour after the ordeal, my lady told me how she was grateful that I had been “so well-prepared.” That was sweet of her. On the inside, I felt like a fool for having put the entire family in unnecessary danger.

But let’s leave it at that. She doesn’t read my posts anyway.

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6 thoughts on “Tesla Flat Tire on a Model Y and a Real Story of Driving without a “Donut””

  1. Hi Dong:
    The day I picked up my model Y in Nashville, TN, I was on the way home (near Cookville, TN – think miles and miles from civilization). The left front pressure went down quickly and the only place to stop was the next exit. Then I pulled in behind a church. It was late afternoon, nearly dark and snowing hard.

    And – yes – We were following the biggest snowstorm in decades for middle TN. And the next wave was coming in on top of us while we sat there waiting. There were no Uber drivers out that far (80 miles from Nashville) to catch a ride. And no one was driving because of the weather. Fortunately we were able to reach Tesla Roadside Service, and they would send someone “as soon as they could” because of the weather. Four hours later we rode in the tow truck with the driver and he delivered us back to our original hotel. I gave him a generous trip 🙂

    I like your repair kit and air pump idea. I have even looked at several as an option. Eventually, I decided on a spare and a jack. They take up about the same room as a medium suitcase, and the Y still has plenty of room for me, my wife & daughter. I just take the range hit as a trade off.
    By the way, our defective tire had a bad valve and could not have been plugged.

    Thanks for your story, and hopefully this one will help someone too.

  2. Hi Dong,

    Way to go! Being prepared is the solution and as my car has no spare either I will be picking up a small compressor and tire repair kit myself.


    • Do it, Frank! It works and it’s much easier than you’d think. As I mentioned, getting the plug through the little hole of the tool is the hardest part of the job. 🙂

  3. High Tech, low tech, Dong continues to provide example that with determination and persistence we can all accomplish what we desire. I enjoyed this story and found it especially refreshing to read about tires on a tech blog. Thanks Dong.


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