What better way to start off a new year than making a resolution to better maintain the tires in your fleet?

Tire prices continue to rise, making replacement, with either new ones or retreads, more costly. Better-maintained tires also mean better fuel mileage, not to mention reducing the chances of roadside emergencies and expensive downtime.

There are many things that can contribute to a tire's well being - or to its demise. This may seem like a daunting task, but the following 10 tips for keeping tires in top shape will pay off in the future.

1. Inflate & Inspect

"Proper tire inflation is the most important factor in prolonging tire life and getting the best performance from tires," says Doug Jones, customer engineering support manager for North America at Michelin. "Tires are optimized to have a certain amount of air in them to carry the load." There is a small window of variance - plus or minus 10 percent - that can affect the performance of a tire as far as ride quality, fuel economy and tread life. A tire that is underinflated for the load it is carrying will develop irregular wear, will run hotter and will fail prematurely. An overinflated tire will produce a harsher ride, experience reduced traction and become more susceptible to damage from road hazards and curbing.

At Harris Trucking, a fleet with about 175 tractors and 475 trailers based in Madison Heights, Va., every time a truck leaves a company terminal it passes through "safety lanes." There, a technician checks inflation pressure, tread depth and wear and tear.

"Monitoring air pressure is vital," says Jim Harris, CEO. "It's like monitoring blood flow from your heart. A flat tire on the road costs you $500. You have to maintain your tires to keep those problems from happening."

To help alleviate some of the drudgery of checking tire pressure, more fleets are purchasing tire inflation and monitoring systems. Inflation monitoring systems can keep a check on tire pressure and alert the driver (some systems can also alert the fleet via telematics - see No. 10). In addition, automatic inflation systems can automatically inflate tires to the proper pressure if they drop below a certain level.

But proper inflation is only part of tire preventive maintenance.

"Proper maintenance must include a workable, reliable tire program that not only assures proper air pressures, but prevents vehicles from leaving the yard with tires that have the potential to result in a road call, such as having nails, cuts, snags or irregular wear conditions that will result in casing loss due to wear reaching the belt package before the tire is removed to be retreaded," says Tim Richards, project manager for line haul commercial tires at Goodyear.

2. Use Good Valve Caps

There is a purpose to valve caps, besides having the ability to become quickly lost. Then again, if you are using the right kind, this is less likely to happen. A proper valve cap means using a metal valve cap, says Greg McDonald, engineering manager for Bridgestone Firestone North America.

"On a commercial tire, the valve cap is considered the primary seal against air loss, with the valve core being secondary," he says. "Personally I am a big supporter of high-quality flow-through valve caps, which greatly speed up air pressure maintenance and do not provide a temptation to ignore checking pressure on inner dual tires."

3. Keep Air Clean & Dry

The quality of the air inside your tires can have a big effect on how much life you get out of them. Tires are developed and designed to run with air - clean, dry air. Every air compressor should have filters and in-line dryers to ensure the air going into the tire is dry. When air that is contaminated with water gets inside the tire, the moisture can break down the inner liner and the steel belts.

An alternative to air is nitrogen. The benefits, according to proponents, is that it does not migrate as quickly as air through rubber, enabling the tire to maintain the desired pressure longer. The problem is, nitrogen can be hard to find and it requires special equipment to fill up tires. So far, most major tire makers say they see very little advantage of using nitrogen over traditional air.

4. Wash Tires & Wheels

Many a truck beauty show contestant has earned or lost points because of the cleanliness of their tires and wheels. But there's a good reason for keeping them clean other than just looks. Snow, ice, slush or other debris that remain on a tire can cause the rubber to deteriorate prematurely. Salt and other chemicals used on roadways to clear them in winter weather can eat away not only at tires, but also at steel or aluminum wheels.

Tires and wheels should be washed using warm soapy water, making sure the inside duals are given as much attention as the outside tires. While it's not a bad idea to use a high-pressure washer on the wheels, Bridgestone advises never washing tires with high pressure or steam units. Avoid using any petroleum-based chemicals or other solvents, because they can harm the rubber.

5. Buy The Right Tires

No matter how well you take care of your tires, if you're not running the right kind for your application, the process becomes far more difficult.

"Selecting top quality tires, fortified with the latest technology, is essential to optimizing tire mileage," says Goodyear's Richards. The old saying, "you get what you pay for," definitely holds true with tires. Major manufacturers, he says, produce tires with materials, reinforcements and tread designs to optimize performance. This includes tire casings that support multiple retreadings, which helps increase a tire's cradle-to-grave value.

In addition, more and more tires are being developed for specific applications, or for specific goals such as longer tread life or better fuel mileage. Work with your tire dealer to determine which is best for your operation.

6. Watch

Driving Habits

For any fleet, one of the hardest things to control is driving habits.

"Driving style has a major impact on tread wear, just as it does on overall fuel economy, Richards says. "An experienced driver, following good driving and maintenance practices, could achieve up to twice the removal miles of an inexperienced driver."

Michelin's Jones adds that aggressive driving, speeding, and harsh braking, which can result in flat spotting and curbing, will adversely affect the performance and life of a tire.

While it's difficult to know exactly how a driver handles his or her truck on the road, the key is education. Get them involved in doing a pre-trip inspection of their rig before they head anywhere. Not only is it a federal regulation, but it also allows them to take a walk around and spot a tire issue that could be addressed before it leads a serious problem.

One recent study indicated drivers have an enormous impact on maximizing tire mileage, says Al Cohn, director of new market development and engineering support for the tire inflation system maker Pressure Systems International. "Ten drivers were assigned to specific tractors married to specific trailers, and the 10 vehicles had similar payloads and similar routes," he says. "Tires had the fastest tread wear rates on vehicles assigned to drivers who drove fast, made sharp turns and were hard on their brakes."

An increasing number of high-tech systems are able to flag events such as hard braking, and alert fleet managers via telematics or onsite downloads. While the safety department may be most interested in identifying these drivers for additional training, doing this has benefits for tire life, as well.

7. Keep Wheels Aligned

Proper wheel alignment is as critical to keeping a tire in top shape as proper inflation. Total vehicle alignment is important to prevent handling and ride issues, as well as preventing irregular wear from developing on the tires, says Bridgestone Firestone's McDonald.

"A good alignment requires several things: good equipment, a highly trained technician who knows how to 'read the tires,' and a good maintenance program that assures alignments are done in a timely manner," he says. "A good maintenance program will make sure that all axles are checked for alignment, not just a 'set the toe and let her go' program, and it will include the trailers in the fleet, not just the tractors."

A good alignment technician will want to see the tires that have been operating on the vehicle he is to align. If they have been changed, the removed tires should be made available to the technician so he can analyze them. Always get a "before" and "after" record or printout of the vehicle's alignment settings, and keep them in the maintenance file for future reference in case the vehicle continues to have unsatisfactory tire wear.

8. Analyze Scrap Tires

Scrap tire analysis is an excellent way for fleets to understand why tires are failing or have to be removed from service prematurely.

"By evaluating each tire when it is removed from service, reoccurring problems or wear patterns that can be fixed can be detected, minimizing overall downtime," says Michelin's Jones.

He says this will also educate the fleet as to whether they have the right tire for the application, whether or not they are running the correct pressure, or whether drivers are destroying the tires due to lack of training.

9. Keep Good Records

Tire recordkeeping is very important to determine tire cost per mile and to make good tire purchasing decisions. The system used (paper or computer) is only going to be as good as the person or persons recording and tracking the data and information.

Goodyear's Miller notes a good recordkeeping system will store the all the data you need to determine the actual costs associated with your tires. The big question is, how do you start one?

He recommends a Recommended Practice developed by the American Trucking Associations' Technology and Maintenance Council, "which details all of the essential parameters to measure in order to accurately analyze tire related costs. It's something we highly recommend fleets follow."

One way you can make this recordkeeping easier is by using tire-tracking software. While there are several to choose from, one of the newest was introduced recently by Arsenault Associates. The Dossier Tire Management System includes a handheld tread depth and air pressure device that communicates wirelessly with a PDA. Each tire in a fleet is identified by attaching a bar-coded tag that can incorporate an RFID chip. To check tires anywhere, the technician scans the vehicle bar code to display data about the truck and its tires. Then the Dossier Tire Probe is used to electronically measure air pressure and tread depth, which is wirelessly transmitted to the PDA, worn on the technician's belt. It transmits all the tire data wirelessly in real time to the computer housed in the shop and running the full Dossier software system. It also automatically alerts the technician of low tire pressure, tread depth or other issues.

10. Consider Tire Telematics

For years there have been tire pressure monitoring systems, but telematics takes things a step further. Instead of just sending an alert to the driver in the cab, these systems alert fleet management in real time via the truck's mobile communication systems.

There are a wide range of capabilities in tire pressure monitoring systems that incorporate telematics. Some systems simply provide the tire pressure. Others send just alerts. Still-more-sophisticated systems analyze the data and provide a wealth of information that the fleet can use to improve its tire maintenance and manage its tire assets.

As a result, fleets can greatly reduce emergency breakdowns and improve their fuel economy, tread wear and tire life - all of which are negatively impacted by running underinflated. Not only can they improve their tire maintenance, but they can also do this with less labor since you "see" what the tire problems are on a vehicle without using a tire gauge.

"The neat thing about telematics is that it enables the fleet operator to know what a vehicle's tires are doing at any time, no matter how far away it is," says Peggy Fisher, president of TireStamp. "It takes the tire decision-making and maintenance responsibility away from the driver - who in most cases doesn't want the job of maintaining tires - and puts it back in the hands of the fleet maintenance and management personnel, who do care about their tires."