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 the last days of 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 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 at the time.
You’ll learn a bit more about this incident below. But this anecdote is to show you my street creds on tire-related 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. I became so good at it that I often used a donut to rotate my cars’ tires at home in subsequent years 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.
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 plugging a Tesla tire here, but overall, this is not a how-to post.
Table of Contents
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 store one. 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.
A tire repair kit comes to the rescue
So what do you do in case of a flat tire? You can supposedly 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, 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.
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.
We recently took a 2000-plus-miles desert trip to Salt Lake City with no issue. My Tesla tires proved invincible! By that, I mean I forgot about all tire-related matters.
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.)
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. This time, the warning appeared again 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 the phone out 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.
Facing the reality
If you have never had to park by the side of a freeway, it’s scarier than it seems. Take my word for it.
It was a narrow shoulder — our car was just a foot or so from the open road where vehicles whizzed by at full freeway 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, the 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. 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 punctured tire
According to my Tesla’s manual, the car’s tire is pluggable when:
- The puncture is not larger than 0.25-inch (6 mm) in diameter.
- The angle of the object (nail) is close to 90 degrees — it goes straight in instead of sideways.
- The puncture is not on or near the sidewall of the tire.
These apply to most cases when you hit a small nail.
Below is a picture of my Tire Repair Kit. I’d recommend it or something similar since it comes with everything you’d need — the included gloves really help. Note the tools and the plenty of Repair Plugs. (Use some to practice beforehand!)
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 going to 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 (or back) of the car — you can drive the vehicle a bit, even with a completely deflated tire — to get more room for the job.
Specifically, if the puncture is closer to the tire’s inner sidewall, you’d need to make it face the front or back of the car to have enough room to work on it. 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.)
2. Remove the nail
Use pliers to remove the object if it’s still there. That 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
Get a sticky Repair Plug and put it through the eyelet of the plug insertion tool. This part is the most tricky since it seems impossible — the Repair Plug is much thicker than the eyelet. I initially thought I got the wrong parts. (Again, I’d recommend you practice this part beforehand.)
Tip: Use the pliers to flatten one end of the plug strip, get it partly in the eyelet, then pull it halfway through.
4. Ream the hole
Use the T-handle Reaming Tool to poke into the puncture to enlarge the hole. This part seems counterintuitive, but it’s necessary. 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!
Push the Plug Insertion Tool with the Repair Plug into the punctured hole. It might seem hard at first, but it will go in. If you need help, a bit of grease on the tool’s tip will make it easier.
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
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.
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, repack the car, take a few deep breaths, and even snap a couple of photos.
In the end, I was able to get us back on the way after some 45 minutes or so, most of which on figuring out how to put a Repair Plug through the Insertion Tool’s eyelet.
No matter how comfortable you are with handling tires, chances are your skills no longer apply when driving an EV — 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. So, 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.