Mike Yap is a plumbing and heating contractor near Buffalo, N.Y. He operates two GMC 3500-series cargo vans and two utility trailers. He buys tires from a local auto supply jobber. He's a price shopper.

"I don't have any real problems with my tires, except when I work on a new construction jobsite," he says. "I almost always lose a couple of tires to nails or debris when I go to a new subdivision. It's just a cost of doing business."

Yap says he doesn't see much point in investing in a "better" tire versus a cheaper tire because it's not going to provide any better return.

"To me, a tire is a tire. What can I say," he says.

Yap's viewpoint is shared by many owners of light- and medium-duty commercial trucks, but there are some trends to be aware of for buyers and maintainers of these tires.

Off the shelf

A longhaul, on-highway tire has a potential life span of several years when you retread.

From the time it's new, a well-maintained tire can be expected to run anywhere from 80,000 miles to several hundred thousand miles, depending on the circumstances, There's also opportunity to optimize the tire spec for the truck, the road and the application. You can drill pretty deep into that well to get the best possible tire life.

On-highway fleets tend to focus on cost: cost per thousandth, cost per mile, etc. If there's a fraction of a penny per mile to be saved, highway fleets are doing it.

That's not typically the case when it comes to tires for light-and medium-duty trucks. Someone who owns a couple of panel vans delivering baked goods, or a tree-trimmer who has a few three-quarter-ton pickups with utility bodies, might have other things on their minds To them, tires are like shoelaces: They never get a second thought until they break.

It's not unreasonable to assume that for these buyers, acquisition cost would be more of a factor in tire selection than life-cycle cost.

Compared to tires for Class 8 trucks and tractors, light- and medium-duty tires are relatively inexpensive.

An off-the-shelf, all-purpose LT245/75R/16 tire can be had at Pep Boys for $165 - with a 50,000-mile warranty. For a 14,500-pound-GVW truck, a name-brand tire might run as high $225.

Move up to a 19.5-inch tire, and the prices start looking more like tires for Class 8 highway trucks. Sears carries a name brand 245/70R19.5G tire for a 26,000-pound-GVW truck for $460 - even less on a buy-three-and-get-the-fourth-free sale. Still, at $500 with tax and installation, a little TLC can pay off.

"Some smaller fleets may seek a less expensive tire," says Donn Kramer, director of product marketing innovation, Goodyear Commercial Tire Systems. "However, larger fleets generally look for products that provide the overall lowest cost of ownership, which include tires that offer a balanced performance between fuel economy, mileage to removal, and good start/stop traction," no matter what the tire size.

Tire trends

Many manufacturers have dedicated commercial light truck product lines. But until recently, few options were available to casual buyers of light- to medium-duty tires. Brand, price and tread pattern were as complex as it got.

In the 19.5-inch market, rental fleets such as Ryder and Penske and small package delivery fleets such as FedEx and UPS are the leading tire consumers, says Libor Heger, director of Truck Tire Technologies for the Americas at Continental, who replaced the recently retired Roger Stansbie. "Those companies have driven the market by demanding a long-wearing tire with durable casings to keep lifetime operating costs low. That's what we delivered. There was little room for innovation there, because the largest players in the market were so price-sensitive."

Even though tire makers haven't been adding many new sizes in this segment, the demands being placed on the performance of commercial light truck tires are increasing. With the rising price of fuel combined with the shortage of CDL drivers, many companies are now using more light trucks and vans to deliver freight and to move goods. There's a trend to design commercial light truck products that can carry more weight to maximize the efficiency of these vehicles.

Make way for fuel economy

With the pending greenhouse gas reduction regulations for larger trucks and Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards coming into force for lighter trucks - not to mention $4-a-gallon diesel - there's also some movement toward a more fuel-efficient tire.

"The landscape is changing with regard to fuel economy," says Brad Weaver, product category manager at Michelin. "The impact of the new regulations will be the first step in changing the priorities. The next generation of these tires will have lower rolling resistance."

That's a concept easily understood and appreciated by big, sophisticated fleets. But what about by Bob the Baker? Or the legions of independent small package delivery services, home building contractors and tradespeople?

Weaver says they will get the benefits of less rolling resistance too, though they may not notice or appreciate it.

"They might not look long and deep at the performance attributes that could lower costs over the life of the tire, like low-rolling-resistance compounding, long-wearing tread compounds or improved sidewall armoring, but they are there," he says. "We obviously try to draw their attention to those attributes at the point of sale, but they tend to be much more sensitive to the cost."

When you can buy a name-brand light-duty tire for less than $200 with three to five years of warranty, you might not think of looking into tire pressure monitoring systems, although they could make a difference in how long those tires last.

If you're a light- or medium-duty truck owner, chances are you won't be retreading your tires, so casings matter very little. Better fuel economy would be good, but that's tough to measure if you're operating in a stop/start environment with variable loads and varying operating conditions.

Still, Goodyear's Kramer says truck OEMs have established rolling resistance standards and they have requested that tire manufacturers who supply tires to them comply with the standards. It won't affect in-service trucks or tires, but starting with the 2014 model-year, new vehicles will have "better" tires.

"Fleets that are running non-fuel-type tires today could receive measurable cost of operation benefits by purchasing tire products that are deemed SmartWay-approved," Kramer says.

At least they'll be getting some thing for their money, whether they're looking for it or not.

From the December issue of HDT magazine.