You Can Give a Man a Fish...
I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on tires. I’m not even a novice. I’ve never changed a tire and I’m honestly not sure how I’ve managed to make it this long. Maybe it’s my charming good looks? I'm not ashamed to say that I can work my doe eyes with far more skill than a tire iron. So when Scott brought up plugging a tire as a potential blog post, I didn’t give it much thought. Until he decided it would be more informative if we blogged about HIM teaching ME how to plug my own tires. Well I kept those doe eyes out as long as I could but he stood firm. And in the end it really wasn’t that bad! Scott and I both learn better through doing and since we are both so hands on, we decided the best approach would be to practice on a poor old tire with no tread. We weren’t about to intentionally put holes in a good tire and we had this guy lying around from a previous salvage job.
We started with Scott showing me how to find a leak. He first punctured the tire in two separate places. One was a large hole, which had we been riding, would have caused us to have a flat in around ten minutes. The other was a smaller hole, which would more closely resemble a slow leak. Scott showed me how we could find both holes quickly by spraying the tire with soapy water. Literally, it was just some dish soap and water we added to an old Windex bottle. To find a leak in any tire, you will always want it inflated. Because the air is escaping through the hole, it pushes the water off of the surface of the tire. In the case of the larger hole, it was really obvious because the water was spraying away from the tire. We tried to capture this in the photo below, but it was surprisingly difficult to get a shot.
The smaller leak was a little more difficult to find, but not much. Instead of being doused with soapy water, I was able to see lots of larger bubbles forming around the hole in the tire. It reminded me a lot of blowing bubbles as a kid. Thank goodness, this one was much easier to photograph. You can't see the actual puncture (well to be fair, that's why we had to use the soap in the first place), but the large bubbles that you can see in the photo are where the air was escaping.
Now that I knew how to find a leak, I needed to know how to repair it. There are many different types and brands of tire repair kits but our favorite is to use tire plugs. We broke out our Safety Seal Tire Repair Kit and Scott showed me how to use it on my own.
I’ve seen Scott use this kit before before, so I had an idea of what to expect. Even if you’ve never used a tire plug kit before, it is ridiculously simple. The kit we used consists of three pieces: a reamer (AKA a spiral probe), a needle, and plugs. First, we needed to widen the hole so that the plug would fit. Scott plunged the reamer in and out of the leak several times. Don't worry about the water on the floor in the background. This isn't a terribly messy project, we just had the doors open while it was raining.
Then I watched as he threaded one of the plugs through the needle.
With the plug about a third of the way through the needle, he plunged the needle into the hole leaving about a half inch of the plug sticking out.
When you pull the needle back out, a significant portion of the plug will be sticking out. You'll want to trim the plug down to where you have about half an inch.
Like with everything, you want to make sure to read the directions on whatever kit you use. Most plugs are designed so that you leave about half an inch sticking out, and our Safety Seal plugs are one of them. As you ride, the plug will wear down and flatten itself out. We have used this method to plug holes in Scott’s tires before. The photo below should show you what the plug will look like after riding on it for awhile.
And just for good measure... a photo to show you what a plug should NOT look like.
The photo above shows what the plug will look like if it is trimmed too short. Remember we said to leave about half an inch sticking out? This plug was done on a used ATV we came across. You can tell that whoever plugged it got a little happy with the clippers. Because there wasn't enough of the plug sticking out, it never got smushed down (I'm pretty sure that's the technical term) and therefore never properly sealed the puncture. It may have slowed the escaping air, but this tire still has a slow leak and will need to be replugged. Now that I knew how to find a leak and plug it, I thought I would be off the hook. But don’t forget, this was meant to be hands-on learning experience. The plan was to head home to plug the two slow leaks in my ATV but due to some pretty severe thunderstorms, that would have to wait a day or two. Fortunately for you, our new camera arrived during that time so the following photos are much higher quality. Fast forward a few days, and we've finally got some time to give my tires some attention. Since Chief was in a teaching mood anyway, we walked through some basic PMCS first. We mentioned in our PMCS post a few weeks ago that tires are the first thing we notice but the last thing we check. Once we (me, with supervision) gave everything the all clear, we were finally able to move onto the tires. We knew I had two slow leaks. One in the front and one in the back. So out came the bottle of soapy water and right off the bat, we found this...
Yikes! Do you see the way the bubbles are all massed around the wheel? This is what a bead leak looks like. Obviously, there is no way to plug a bead leak. We're all about doing things ourselves, but in this particular instance, you're really better off to take the tire to a dealer to repair. Why? Taking this tire to a dealer would cost around $10-$15 and about ten minutes. Most people don't have the tools to break down the bead, repair it, and reseat it at home. You can find all kinds of videos online of how to do it, but it will most likely take you more than ten minutes. In this particular instance, it was worth it to us to have someone else repair it. Once we realized we were going to need to take the front tire into the dealer, we moved on to the back tire. But this time, the soapy water just wasn't doing the trick. We used an entire bottle and went over the whole tire twice but couldn't find a thing. We knew it had to have a leak because we were constantly needing to inflate it. After sitting all winter, it had actually gone totally flat. We just weren't finding it with the soap. Luckily, Scott had a few other tricks up his sleeve.
We picked up this kiddie pool at Lowe's for about $12. I had wanted one anyways for our dogs, so it wasn't like it was an added expense. You could also use an empty cooler if you had one. My front tire would have fit in the cooler but the back was just a little too wide.
This was a really really small leak. It took us a little while to find it but you can see the tiny string of bubbles in the photo above. Once we were able to find it fully submersed, we tried the spray test again. It's easy to see how we missed it the first time.
Our tiny little leak wasn't the bubbles you can see clearly in the photo. It was actually hiding in a cloud of really really tiny bubbles. But now that we found it, I could finally get to work on getting it fixed. And just in case you're wondering what happened with the pool, there was a lot of this...
Followed by a whole lot of this...
That was on repeat for the rest of the time we worked on the tire. But back to business... Since this was such a small hole, it really took some work with the reamer to get it wide enough for the plug. I widened the hole before threading the needle. It worked out ok to leave the reamer in the tire so that the air didn't escape, but next time I will probably have my needle threaded and ready to go before this step.
Then I spent a little while trying to get the plug through the needle. My grinning husband may have helped a little...
Once the plug was finally in the needle, I was ready to move on to the easy part. (Pause for laughter). One thing that we both really love about the Safety Seal tools are the T-handles. I know there are some kits out there that have a screwdriver-like handle on both the reamer and the needle. I used all of my body weight trying to get that plug into the tire but I still felt pretty stable because I had the large T-handle to rest my weight on.
After an undetermined amount of time twisting my body into every position I could think of and some unfortunate facial expressions later, Scott graciously stepped in and helped me out. But this time he had more than a grin...
Just to be clear, I had it started. But don't worry, I didn't let him do it all! I got to trim the plug. But I definitely don't recommend a box knife.
Working together on this was a really fun experience. I think we both learned a lot. Obviously I learned how to plug a tire but Scott got to have a lot of fun teaching, which always seems to be learning experience in and of itself. So what did I take away from this? The whole point was for me to learn how to fix my own leaky tires. I would say that we definitely accomplished that. There were some steps that took me a lot longer than I expected, but that's pretty normal for the first time you try anything. Even though I had Scott's help, we're both pretty confident that if I ever had to I could do it by myself. In the meantime, I've become the resident Tire-Fixer Upper around here. That means that I get to plug every leak in every tire until I get the hang of it. But more important than the new skill I've acquired, I have a new appreciation for everything that Scott does for me. I love riding but up until this point, I haven't been that involved in the maintenance of our ATVs. When we were working on my tire, it was hot and humid out. I know that I was really slowing things down, but it's really nice that he takes the time to get me involved and show me new things. Hopefully someday when we're both exhausted and the sun is beating on our backs, he won't be alone pulling us out of the mud or fixing a tire or working on whatever has gone wrong that day. I'll be able to help out and that makes me feel good. So if you've got some time and want to score some appreciation and invest in some help down the line... go out and teach a man to fish. Or a woman to plug a tire. Whatever. And for goodness sake, tell us what you think! Do you involve your family with maintenance of their ATVs? Have you ever taught someone how to repair anything? Do your dogs give the grass more attention than you? We want to know!