When you think about the composition of a car’s tires, the first thing that comes to mind is rubber.
But have you ever stopped to think about the gas used to fill them? Turns out, most vehicle tires are filled with air. This consists of 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, and 1% extra gases.
In recent times though, car enthusiasts have begun exploring other options like helium. So in this article, I’ll look at helium in tires – pros and cons.
In quick summary, putting helium in tires minimizes their risk of corrosion; extending the tire life.
However, this gas also leaks out of the tires faster; hence, reducing the tire pressure.
Can You Put Helium in Tires?
If you’ve been wondering whether helium-filled tires exist, the answer is yes! This experiment done by Novice Garage shows that you can indeed fill car tires with helium and they’ll ride just fine.
However, doing so presents several challenges (discussed later in the article).
Is Helium Good for Your Tires?
No, it’s not. The drawbacks and risks of using helium in tires far outweigh the benefits. For this reason, I wouldn’t advise you to put helium in car tires for long-term use.
The biggest disadvantage of putting helium in tires is that it leaks out of the rubber casing much faster than air does.
Helium is ranked the second lightest element following hydrogen.
Just to give you an idea of its weight, I’ll compare it to air. Air weighs about 28.965u while helium weighs just 4.003u. This means that air is at least seven times heavier.
Since helium molecules are significantly smaller and lighter, the gas leaks out into the Earth’s atmosphere much faster than air does.
As a result, tires with helium lose pressure gradually.
Obviously, a constant loss of tire pressure can lead to other problems. Not only does it make the tires less stable but also reduces traction – both of which can affect the car’s handling.
So do you reap any benefits when you put helium in tires? Well, there’s one noteworthy advantage. This is the fact that it mitigates the risk of corrosion inside the tires.
Here’s the deal – car tires are usually filled with compressed air.
This compressed air is made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% extra gases, and tiny amounts of water vapor.
This vapor condenses easily forming water, which then corrodes the metallic parts of the tire.
In contrast, helium is completely non-corrosive. This means there’s zero risk of corrosion happening inside the tires.
As such, you’ll never have to worry about the premature wear and tear cons that would stem from corrosion.
What Would Happen If I Put Helium in My Tires?
If you’re able to fill your tires with enough helium to achieve the recommended pressure, you might be able to drive your car but only for a short distance.
As explained earlier, helium seeps out really fast. So you’d end up with flat tires after driving for just a few miles.
Why Do People Put Helium in Their Tires?
The number one reason why people put helium in tires is to improve their car’s fuel economy.
This school of thought stems from the concept of using helium in weather balloons.
Since helium is an incredibly low-density gas, it’s able to displace the air in the balloons; hence, enabling them to float in air. Put simply, these balloons get their buoyancy from using a much lighter gas like helium.
Based on this phenomenon, people expect a considerable improvement in fuel economy by putting helium in tires.
They assume that since helium is light, the tires will roll more easily without subjecting the car’s engine to a lot of hard work. This should then reduce the gas mileage, right? Well, not quite.
Even though it’s a very low-density gas, the difference in weight is negligible. So it doesn’t make much of a difference to the fuel economy.
Furthermore, the practicality of it is just not possible. The helium atoms are so small, causing the gas to leak out of the tire rapidly.
If you were to put helium in tires, you’d be forced to inflate them every few miles to maintain the recommended tire pressure.
This would not only be time-consuming but also expensive. And unlike air, helium is not readily available.
Is It Better to Fill Your Tires With Nitrogen Instead of Air?
On some occasions, it’s better to fill tires with nitrogen instead of air. That’s because nitrogen tires maintain pressure better than their air-filled counterparts.
Here’s a closer look at the pros and cons of using nitrogen-filled tires:
Reduced rate of tire pressure loss
The easiest way to understand this is to illustrate using bike tires. If you were to leave your bike in an outdoor shed for a really long time, you’d find the bike tires deflated.
This happens because the air seeps out through the tiny holes in the rubber casing.
This also happens to truck tires and other vehicle tires. It’s for this reason that newer vehicles come fitted with tire pressure monitoring systems.
The good thing about a nitrogen atom is that it’s physically larger than that of air.
As a result, numerous nitrogen atoms occupy more space in the rubber, reducing the rate at which this gas seeps out. This leads to better retention rates of tire pressures.
Less vulnerable to temperature fluctuations
Nitrogen is usually viewed as an inert gas, and this means that it doesn’t react easily with other compounds.
The benefit of this is that it causes more consistency in the tire pressure.
For tires filled with regular air, the air molecules contract in cooler temperatures and expand in warmer temperatures.
This expansion accelerates pressure loss, forcing you to inflate your car tires frequently.
Conversely, tires filled with pure nitrogen remain unaffected by such temperature fluctuations. So you’ll notice more consistency in the tire pressure readings.
Extends tire life
Being an inert gas, nitrogen rarely reacts with the rest of the elements used to make the tire. Plus, it does a good job of removing the traces of moisture present in air.
These two factors combined allow nitrogen-filled tires to last longer than those filled with regular air.
Ideal for specialty vehicles
Did you know that most tire trucks and race cars use nitrogen-filled tires? This is because the tires are able to maintain pressure consistently.
This is also one of the key reasons why airplane tires are filled with nitrogen. The nitrogen promotes constant pressure, reducing the maintenance work required and the costs that come with it.
Another reason why airplane tires use nitrogen is the fact that it’s non-flammable.
If the tires were to be filled with air – which contains a high proportion of oxygen – they would ignite if exposed to a heat source. Thus, nitrogen offers a safer alternative to air.
Air is readily available everywhere. If you drive to most gas stations, they’ll allow you to use their air machine for little to no cost.
However, filling your tires with nitrogen is pretty expensive. Some facilities charge up to $30 to switch to nitrogen tires.
Contrary to popular belief, air isn’t the only thing that can be used to fill car tires. Inert gases like helium can also be used although this presents a couple of challenges.
Wondering about helium in tires’ pros and cons? Well, the only advantage is the minimized risk of corrosion.
As for the disadvantages, helium seeps out of the tire faster than air and it’s not readily available.