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

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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.

Tesla Model Y Flat Tire
Tesla flat tire: It’s never fun to be stuck on 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 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.

Tesla Model Y: Driving, charging, and that range anxiety

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.

Tire Punture Baja California Desert 4Tire Punture Baja California Desert
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.

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.

So I decided to get my own, including this repair kit and this electric Tire Inflator, for less than $50. (There are many other options)

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.)

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. 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.

Friends at Lands End
We made it to our little cruise to El Arco de Cabo San Lucas during one of 2014’s final sunsets. This moment alone made the tire-related ordeal worth the effort.

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!)

Tire Repair Kit
My Tire Repair Kit, from left to right: the pliers, the Plug Insertion Tool, the Repair Plugs, the little knife, the T-handle Reaming Tool, a little box of extra accessories, and a little container of grease. I used most of them for my first job.

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.)

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 shown here is just a tad closer to the tire wall, the puncture is no longer safe to plug — I’d need a new tire.
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
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 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
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 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!
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. 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
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, 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.

The takeaway

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.

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

  1. Second flat and each time they tell me the tow service doesn’t have a loaner tire available. Makes me think a loaner rim is just a myth or lie but it’s a flaw for sure. While waiting 2 hrs for the tow truck to arrive I ordered a spare doughnut from an aftermarket, thanks to them for making it available. Didn’t know about the tire repair kit but will order that too. Disappointed a high end car company let’s their costumers go through this inconvenience.

    Reply
    • That sux! Sorry to hear, Francisco. The repair kit will come in handy in your case — you can never depend on a third party on this front. I’ve got another one since this post, and it worked perfectly. If you get a donut, make sure you get some lift pad, too. By the way, beware of the fact that the car is heavier than it seems.

      Reply
  2. Here is what happened to me. Got a flat on my model S, 75 miles from home. Called Tesla Roadside assistance. they checked and said that they did not have a loaner wheel or a new replacement tire. I told them I have a puncture and can see the nail in the center of the tire – hence likely to be repairable. I asked them to send their mobile repair van. They said they will not because it may not be possible to repair and they ONLY send the mobile repair car IF they have a loaner tire of my size or a replacement new tire of my size (as my cost). Since neither were available they would only send a tow truck which will tow to the nearest tesla repair shop or garage or home (up to 50 miles) – my home was 75 miles so home was not an option. It was Saturday and we were 70 miles from our home and I would be stuck at the tesla service shop which was closed for the weekend. I called a nearby Costco and they do not fix the tesla goodyear tire which has acoustic foam (they don’t carry goodyear tires) so getting towed to Costco was not an option; a 2nd garage was closed. . Luckily I had AAA and we got our car towed to our home. The AAA allowed us to sit in the tow truck.

    Turns out the tire was repairable and if the tesla mobile tire truck had come to repair we would have been able to continue our trip. They refused to come because they did not have a loaner wheel or a new tire of my size and did not want to have a wasted trip to attempt to repair. The local tesla shop charged me $81 to repair. (costco would have done it for $15 if it had been a brand they carry (e.g Michelin, Bridgestone, …)

    This sucks — I rather have a small spare tire – the front trunk would possibly fit it if Tesla had designed for the small spare.
    Tesla’s their mobile tire repair model is broken – there are too many tire sizes of teslas for them to have a matching size loaner or matching new tire. Here is the other another catch: I have heard that if your tires are worn more then 50% you have to replace both tires on the axle – in my case that would have been $900 and I would have to buy whatever brand they happen to have.
    Next day I had the tire repaired and few months later got all 4 tires replaced at costco since they were 3/32ned thread left (Legal limit is 2/32ned). This increases my options for a puncture repair.

    So moral of the story
    1) get AAA even if you have Tesla roadside. I am appalled that they will not come and attempt a puncture repair if they don’t have a loaner wheel with matching sizer or new matching tire size.
    2) Carry a tire inflation device (12V outlet or rechargeable battery) – if your leak is slow you could drive and refill every 20-30 miles and get home or to a garage.
    a. If you are handy with the repair kit get that if the mobile repair van won’t come due to lack of loaner or lack matching new tire)
    b. Look into the repair foam such as Slime – not sure if it damages the valve on the tire or not – In my case with 3/32’ed left on tire I would have risked it to get home.
    3) If you are replacing your Tesla’s worn Goodyear tires consider a brand that costco carries as there are more costcos than tesla service shops around (of course the wait can be long but if you are close to home than you can drop it there in the early morning and pickup in the evening).
    4) Appeal to Tesla:
    a. Please come for an attempted puncture repair even if you don’t have a matching loaner or new tire – Tesla has not provided a spare and so they owe that much to Tesla owners.
    b. Tesla, Please give an option for a tiny spare tire – let the customer decide – some will want it and others not. Please consider redesigning the front trunk to fit a small spare.

    Reply
    • Tesla’s claim that they didn’t have an exact match for your specific tire/rim is nonsense. There are plenty that will fit. Even smaller tires/rims would be fine as a temporary solution to get you home. In stead they choose to leave you stranded. Great customer service Tesla!

      Anyway, my advice is to get run flat tires. They will allow you to continue driving (max 50mph) if you have a puncture. And you don’t need to pack a spare and/or compressor.

      Only when you have a large tear then you will need a real spare tire (repair sets and compressors won’t help in that case either. But how often does that happen?

      Reply
      • Run-flat tires are terrible for range, among other things, Han. You can get an aftermarket donut or another wheel, that’d still be better in terms of range.

        Reply
        • These days run flat tires only increase fuel consumption by around 1%, which is largely offset by the weight reduction of not having to carry a spare.

          Many luxury cars (BMW, Mercedes, etc) have run flats fitted by default.

          Reply
  3. Two great tire stories, Dong! Good stuff. Like your Model Y, my ICE-powered vehicle came without a spare tire – just an electric inflator pump and some fix-a-flat stuff. I haven’t had the “opportunity” to see if that setup works as the vehicle manufacturer intended, but understand inflating a tire with the “goop” effectively ruins the tire for further service later on. One question: while using a tire repair kit might be required in some instances, if your leak had been slow enough, would it have been possible to use the pump to over-inflate the tire and allow you to limp to the tire service center? I’ve had a couple of instances in my other vehicles where the leak was slow enough that over-inflating allowed me to travel an additional 10 miles to get the tire repaired permanently.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Tom. That depends on the leak. But generally, if the nail has been removed, there’s no way you can inflate it fast enough. But with a slow leak, you can totally do that. Just don’t drive too fast since that might make the nail come out by itself — my case.

      By the way, you can’t really mess up plugging a tire. At worst, you might fail and need a tow but that’s already the case. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Great story. I once had a flat tire in the middle of nowhere in Africa, and fortunately I had a compressor – deflating/inflating tires is like a daily job on serious off road tracks. Inserted the plug and was able to continue in less than 30 minutes. Felt more like 30 hours though, knowing that lions and leopards roam freely in that part of Namibia…

    A word of caution though:

    Using these plugs is a temporary ‘bush fix’. they will start to leak after a while, and there are many reports of tires literally exploding if you drive too fast, especially on hot tarmac.

    Reply
  5. 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.
    Edgar

    Reply
  6. 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.

    Thanks
    Frank

    Reply
    • 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. 🙂

      Reply
  7. 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.

    Reply

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