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How To (Safely) Get New Tires Installed On Your Airstream

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The Common Refrain

I don’t know about you, but when we’re not traveling we live in a suburban area where tire shops primarily cater to normal sized cars and trucks. There isn’t a shop in town with a parking lot spacious enough to safely maneuver our 30 foot Airstream in or out. Yet whenever the question of how to get new tires for an RV is posed online, the majority of answers almost always seem to boil down to two simple words: Discount Tire.

I like Discount Tire. When a screw punctured the tread of one of our tires a few months ago, they patched it for free. That’s pretty cool. Still, there’s NO WAY I’d ever attempt to pull our Airstream into their parking lot. Like every other tire shop around here, it’s too small and too congested. And that’s not even the scariest part! This is what really freaks me out:

Admittedly, the damage illustrated in two of the four pictures above was caused by owners—not by tire shop employees—but the point remains the same: if you aren’t careful when jacking up your trailer, bad things can happen. How often do you suppose your local tire shop works on travel trailers like Airstreams? In our area, I’d guess only once in a blue moon. That begs the question, will they actually know what they’re doing? Will they know how to position their floor jacks so they don’t accidentally crush your fresh water tank or smash your belly pan? Is that a chance you’re willing to take?

A number of folks doling out tire advice online recommend hovering over the tire shop employees like an anxious helicopter parent, dictating proper technique. That’s probably wise if you insist on taking your trailer into a shop. Then again, if you already know how to properly jack up your trailer, why bother taking it in at all? Wouldn’t you rather assume the risks yourself rather than transfer them to someone else who won’t care nearly as much as you do about well-being of your beloved trailer? Sure, they might be liable for any damage incurred, but I think I’d rather have a colonoscopy than spend the next twelve weeks chasing down a reimbursement check from their insurance provider. (A colonoscopy—including prep—takes less than 24 hours. Sure wish insurance claims were processed that fast!)

You Can Do It! đź’Ş

When we first got our Airstream, I just assumed we’d have our local dealer replace our tires when the time came. As a couple of RV noobs, this made perfect sense. Our dealer was reasonably close by, they have plenty of space with large service bays, and we’d almost certainly be back for regular maintenance and repairs. However, it didn’t take long for this naive fantasy to fade away. For one thing, our selling dealership’s service department quickly proved itself to be about as reliable as a 1987 Yugo. For another, even if they provided decent service, they’re still 25 miles away. A 50 mile round trip—plus labor costs—just for a new set of tires seems… excessive. Besides, I’d bet most dealers don’t even have the equipment to mount tires anyway. They’d most likely pop the wheels off our trailer, throw them in the back of a pickup, and run them over to a local tire shop to have them mounted and balanced. At that point, the only thing we’d really be paying the dealer to do is to jack our trailer up without damaging it in the process. That 50 mile round trip sounded less and less appealing the more I thought about it.

When we got our first flat tire a few months ago, I was glad I had noodled these things over in advance. We discovered it late on a Thursday afternoon, while preparing for a long weekend at a Texas state park about three hours away. The plan was to work a half day on Friday, then head to the park early in the afternoon so we’d arrive in time to cook dinner. When I got to my checklist item that reminded me to check the trailer’s tire pressure, I flipped on our TPMS and waited for it to connect to all four tire sensors. In the past, this meant waiting five or so minutes, verifying that the pressure was as expected, then turning off the TPMS and moving on to the next thing on my list. This time, only three tires had the expected pressure while one downcast little fellow was twenty pounds low.

Things like this always seem happen when you’re in a hurry. sigh

I was awfully tempted to simply top off the low tire and defer the problem until the following week when we got back home. But then some helpful folks in the Airstream Addicts Facebook group persuaded me to take the leak a bit more seriously—unless I was eager to try my hand at fixing a blowout on the side of the road. (Which I am not.) So first thing Friday morning, I converted my half day off to a full day, pulled the offending wheel off the drum, threw it in the back of my truck, and raced over to Discount Tire. As I indicated a few paragraphs ago, they patched it for free within about an hour. I hurried home, put the wheel back on, and we quickly departed for our weekend excursion at Lake Brownwood State Park. (Highly recommended if you’re ever in the area.) If anything, this situation demonstrated how completely impractical it would be to depend on an RV dealership for tire repairs or replacements.

One Tire, Two Tire, Three Tire, Four 🛞

Taking off a single wheel from our dual axle trailer was simple. I didn’t even need a jack. We just pulled the front wheel forward onto a set of leveling blocks, thereby suspending the rear wheel high enough for easy removal. You could also use one of these popular tire ramps to accomplish the same thing. That’s great, but what if you want to remove more than one wheel at the same time? And what if your trailer only has a single axle?

One day—not too long from now—I will need to replace all four tires on our Airstream. When that day arrives, I’m planning on using a bottle jack and two jack stands to raise the entire rear end of my trailer high enough to remove all four wheels simultaneously. Just like before, I’ll toss ’em in the back of my truck, have Discount Tire mount and balance the new tires, then haul them home and put them back on the Airstream. The whole process should only take a couple hours. If you have a dual axle trailer and want to avoid using a jack, another option is use leveling blocks or tire ramps to raise and remove two wheels at a time. Going that route eliminates all risks of a “jack-cident,” but will cost you an extra round trip to the tire shop. Pick your poison.

Unfortunately for you single axle owners, I don’t think there’s any way to escape using a jack regardless of how many wheels you want to remove.

No matter what the situation, I still recommend against towing your trailer to a tire shop. Remove the wheels yourself, at home, in the comfort of your own driveway or garage, throw them in the back of your tow vehicle, and take them to whatever tire shop your prefer. Don’t assume the tire guy will know what he’s doing. Learn how to do it yourself and do it right.

That’s my exalted advice in a nutshell. Removing the wheels yourself and driving them to a local tire shop gives you the flexibility to go to any shop you like, regardless of the size of their parking lot or service bays, eliminates all risk of damage from an incompetent employee, and saves you a potentially long drive to your RV dealership. There’s always some risk of inadvertent damage, but personally I’d rather own that responsibility myself.

If you’re interested in some competing points of view, here’s a pretty typical debate on the merits and demerits of simultaneously removing all the wheels on your trailer.

Pro Tips!

  • Be sure to loosen the lugs nuts on every wheel you intend to remove before raising them off the ground. If you don’t, the wheel will just spin as you try to unscrew the lugs. (I have to wonder if applying the brakes by pulling the emergency breakaway cable would provide enough resistance to remove the lug nuts? Really not sure. If you know, let me know in the comments!)
  • When using a jack, make sure you position it correctly! Affixed underneath the rear of your Airstream should be two placards, one on each side, that both say “JACK!⬆” This placard is NOT where you place your jack! Rather, it is simply pointing to where your jack must be placed. Watch the video below for a better explanation. If the jack plate is missing, look for the hole where it was originally riveted to the body and use that as your guide. When we had our rear axle replaced recently, the mechanics told me that a jack can be safely placed anywhere along the frame rail. “How do you know where the frame rail is?” I asked. Imagine a straight line that travels from the front of your trailer to the rear and intersects the hole where the jack plate was originally riveted. You should be able to place a jack anywhere along that line, as long as it’s rearward of the axles. If you look closely at the first two pictures in the gallery above, you can see that the mechanics placed a bottle jack a few inches rearward of the jack plates and put jack stands directly underneath the plates.

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