Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve caps?

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Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve caps?

Postby Dave Brown » Sat Mar 03, 2012 10:21 pm

Air Versus Nitrogen-filled Tires
The biggest consumer scam in decades


Blue Line is currently working on an article about nitrogen-filled tires and we thought it would be interesting to float this past the BL forum community for comments.

We have been reading about this for years and it is amazing how much misinformation and garbage "science" there is out there. We are also discovering how unethical some of the sellers and proponents of this questionable "feature" can be with their advertising.

We have even discovered faked "scientific tests," including the one that concerns us the most: a test purported to be a scientific, double-blind test performed by Transport Canada (that Transport Canada had NO IDEA was even performed or how their name came to be attached to it.) It turned out to be a "study" performed the B.C.-based Drexan Corporation, who incidentally, sell compressed gas equipment to trucking fleets in Canada.

Basically, we found no scientific evidence that nitrogen was anything other than a scam to pad the bottom line of car dealers and tire retailers. It is basically 100% bullshit; 0% science.

Here are some of the arguments for nitrogen, accompanied by the scientific facts:
1) Nitrogen molecules are larger and leak slower than air.
Well, if anyone ever suggests this to you, we would suggest you stare at them incredulously and ask them if they even know how big a molecule really IS. There can be as many as ten million molecules in an area the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

I may have slept through most of high school physics, but I do remember a few facts: air is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% other. The nitrogen they sell for tires is only 95% nitrogen. This means they are basically selling you repackaged air ... and charging you $5 or more per tire as some kind of a gullibility tax.

Scientifically, oxygen molecules are only 3% smaller than nitrogen. (Look it up the periodic table; they are side-by-side.) Thinking "larger" nitrogen molecules would leak slower than oxygen molecules would be like saying that one could empty the St Lawrence faster with a bucket than with a coffee cup.

Besides, if there was the slightest bit of scientific fact that the smaller molecules leak faster than larger ones, then if you fill your tires with air, wouldn't all that 21% of oxygen all leak out after a few months and so you are running 100% nitrogen in your tires anyway? ( ... for free.)

The only quasi-scientific independent test that has ever been performed on nitrogen versus air was done by Consumer Reports on 31 pairs of tires, where they filled one of each pair with air and the other with nitrogen. Over the course of an entire year, there was only 1.3 PSI difference in leakage on average, which is considered scientifically invalid, and well below the accuracy variation of most consumer tire pressure gauges.

The argument that nitrogen is less likely to leak is thus completely FALSE. If anyone believes this crap, give them some of these: ............

If they run out, here's some more: ............... (Compliments of Blue Line Magazine.) Those periods above have as much chance slowing the leakage from tires as nitrogen.

2) Nitrogen is used in race cars and aircraft tires, so it MUST be better.
Of course. And if you strap a roll cage in your clapped-out Civic and pop-rivet aircraft winglets to the side of your homemade spoiler, you are GUARANTEED to go faster.

Sadly, the truth is much simpler. Large aircraft use nitrogen in their tires because they can go from minus 100 degrees to plus 200 degrees C in seconds, and nitrogen is less prone to expansion and contraction during these ultra wide temperature variations. (This is also why race cars use nitrogen in their tires.) Plus, nitrogen is not a 'noble' gas, but it can be manufactured as an inert gas, which basically means an exploding aircraft tire filled with air would tend to INCREASE combustion to a nearby fire, while a nitrogen-filled aircraft tire would tend to DECREASE or even extinguish nearby combustion in a fire.

Now, I may have even slept through a bit of my flight school too, but I certainly remember that fire + aircraft = bad.

(I DO remember one important lesson from my flight instructor: "The three most useless things in the world are altitude above you; runway behind you; and fuel still in the fuel truck.")

When Blue Line talked to a race driver about why they fill their tires with nitrogen, he explained how it is more stable at the extreme temperatures that race tires can get at 200 MPH, especially when they adjust the handling of a race car with incremental adjustments of a few PSI front or rear. "Plus," as he says, "it comes in a fresh clean tank; it is filtered and dehumidified ... and if we thought we could even gain 1% advantage, it is worth the money."

When I asked if a street driver would ever seen the slightest benefit from nitrogen, he laughed. "Sure! If he liked wasting money for nothing, but wouldn't it be easier and faster to just stand under a cold shower and tear up twenty dollar bills?"

3) Nitrogen will prevent TPMS warnings.
Tire pressure monitoring systems were mandated when the government began to realize that most people were too stupid to check their own tire pressures. We have already determined that nitrogen can, in no way, leak out any slower, so therefore nitrogen is like an extra stupid tax on top of an already stupid tax.

Smart drivers find TPMS a pain in the butt.

4) Nitrogen is less corrosive to wheels/increase the life of tires.
Hmm. Why is it that oxygen is considered anti-aging for humans but seems to magically accelerate aging on tires? Has anyone ever seen inside a used tire? Notice how the inside "aging" is non-existent, in comparison to tire wear from the street and deterioration from UV rays on the outside.

5) Nitrogen is cleaner, better filtered and dehumidified.
Now we have perhaps the only advantage of nitrogen. But if a garage is too incompetent to properly drain their air compressors regularly and change the filters, then we should absolutely trust they are maintaining their nitrogen-filtering tanks in pristine condition at all times and you actually are getting that extra 17% of nitrogen you are paying for?

6) Nitrogen saves money/increases mileage/runs cooler/improves performance.
Sure. So does cat piss. 35 PSI is 35 PSI is 35 PSI. Fill your tires with air, nitrogen, oxygen, nitrogen or cat pee; if they are filled to 35 PSI with ANYTHING, they will perform better, run cooler and get better mileage than 20 PSI.

The bottom line? Well, it is now the opinion of this writer than good clean, properly filtered air is just as good as nitrogen.

When Blue Line talked to a garage owner who asked to not be identified for obvious reasons, he told us, "The bottom line? Of course it increases our profit line. Can you blame us? Besides, it is an inside joke among us in the industry. When a customer comes rolling in to our shop with those lime green valve caps, we know we can sell that idiot ANYTHING!"

If I got nitrogen for free with my new tires, I would be crazy to try draining it out ... but you can trust one thing. As soon as I get my vehicle home with the fancy new tires, I am changing the valve stem caps.

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby smarmy_rebel » Sat Mar 03, 2012 11:38 pm

I always thought the main reason for using nitrogen in tires is because it is less sensitive to changes in temperature... IE, when it gets cold, the "air" in your tires condenses so your PSI reduces. When it gets warm out, "air" expands and increases your PSI. This does affect your gas mileage.

Every winter I have to fill up my tires with extra air and every spring I have to let out the excess so I know that it does happen. This winter has been especially bad because one day the temperature will be 15 and the next -5. Frankly, I don't want to be bothered topping off my tires/releasing them that often. It's not a trifling amount either. The factory setting for my tires is 33PSI. On a really cold day, that can go down to 28. On a hot day, that can go as high as 38...

As I know it, nitrogen is more "inert" and therefore doesn't expand and contract as much so your PSI will always be the right amount regardless of the air temperature (within reason).

From what I've read at the dealer, apparently nitrogen refills are free for lifetime. Whether the gas itself is free but whether they charge you for the technician to do it... I'm not so sure... Have to ask next time.

As for TPMS, I am that "intelligent" driver who does check their tire pressure often. Would I like to have a supplemental system that will tell me should by tires be low? Of course, why wouldn't I? I do check my tires, but not every day.

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby Dave Brown » Sun Mar 04, 2012 12:07 am

smarmy_rebel wrote:I always thought the main reason for using nitrogen in tires is because it is less sensitive to changes in temperature... IE, when it gets cold, the "air" in your tires condenses so your PSI reduces. When it gets warm out, "air" expands and increases your PSI.

This actually makes a lot of sense ... IF it were true. But there is only 3% difference in the size and density of the two molecules so it would take hundreds of degrees of temperature variations before it would have any appreciable effect.

smarmy_rebel wrote:As I know it, nitrogen is more "inert" and therefore doesn't expand and contract as much so your PSI will always be the right amount regardless of the air temperature.

This is the big myth. Most people assume it is true and don't bother checking, but if they did check, they would find out that nitrogen has EXACTLY the same pressure variations as air. It just makes no scientific sense. Even if we could compare 100% oxygen versus 100% nitrogen, there would still be only a few percentage points difference. Now factor in that we are comparing 78% nitrogen versus 95% nitrogen and you can see how silly this argument is.

smarmy_rebel wrote:From what I've read at the dealer, apparently nitrogen refills are free for lifetime. Whether the gas itself is free but whether they charge you for the technician to do it... I'm not so sure... Have to ask next time.

NOTHING is free from the dealers or retailers. NOTHING. You have already paid the cost in the cost of the vehicle or the cost of the tires.

smarmy_rebel wrote:As for TPMS, I am that "intelligent" driver who does check their tire pressure often. Would I like to have a supplemental system that will tell me should by tires be low? Of course, why wouldn't I?

Sure, if they worked properly, didn't give so many false readings that most drivers ignore them and didn't require costly installation and reprogramming every time the wheels are changed or the tires are rotated.

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby JayDeeDoubleYou » Sun Mar 04, 2012 12:14 am

Very interesting read.

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby FedCO » Sun Mar 04, 2012 12:58 am

JayDeeDoubleYou wrote:Very interesting read.


Wish this was posted years ago lol.

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby Dave Brown » Sun Mar 04, 2012 1:54 am

In case anyone is interested, here is what General Motors says about nitrogen. Consider that most of their dealers now offer nitrogen, so they obviously don't want to openly discount any benefits but if one reads between the lines, it is quite clear what they are saying.
Subject:Info - Use of Nitrogen Gas in Tires #05-03-10-020 - (12/22/2005)

Models:All 2006 and Prior GM Passenger Cars and Light/Medium Duty Trucks (including Saturn)
2003-2006 HUMMER H2
2006 HUMMER H3
2005-2006 Saab 9-7X

GM's Position on the Use of Nitrogen Gas in Tires

General Motors does not oppose the use of purified nitrogen as an inflation gas for tires. We expect the theoretical benefits to be reduced in practical use due to the lack of an existing infrastructure to continuously facilitate inflating tires with nearly pure nitrogen. Even occasional inflation with compressed atmospheric air will negate many of the theoretical benefits. Given those theoretical benefits, practical limitations, and the robust design of GM original equipment TPC tires, the realized benefits to our customer of inflating their tires with purified nitrogen are expected to be minimal.


Here is the text of the Consumer Reports test.
Consumer Reports wanted to find out if nitrogen is worth the price, so we purchased a Nitrogen Inflation System and checked out how well the inflation held up over a one year period. We evaluated pairs of 31 tire models of H- and V-speed rated, all-season tires used in our tread wear test from 2006. We filled one tire per model with air and the other with nitrogen. The test was quite simple: fill and set the inflation pressure at room temperature to 30 psi (pounds per square inch); set the tire outdoors for one year; and then recheck the inflation pressure at room temperature after a one year period.

The tires were filled and deflated three times with nitrogen to purge the air out of the tire cavity. We also used an oxygen analyzer to be sure we had 95-percent nitrogen purity in the tire--the claimed purity limit of our nitrogen system, which generates nitrogen gas from ambient air.

The test started on September 20, 2006 and the final measurements were taken on September 20, 2007. The results show nitrogen does reduce pressure loss over time, but the reduction is only a 1.3 psi difference from air-filled tires. The average loss of air-filled tires was just 3.5 psi from the initial 30 pressure setting. Nitrogen-filled tires lost an average of 2.2 psi from the initial 30 psi setting. More important, all tires lost air pressure regardless of the inflation medium, so consumers should check their tires' air pressure routinely. No evaluation was done to assess the aging claim.


Consumer Reports also tested for more stable pressure variations in different temperatures, and could find no measurable differences.

I simply urge people to read the literature, exercise common sense and avoid any pseudo-scientific "tests" or reports written by the people who want to sell you on these extra profit margins.

Think about it for one second: if oxygen leaks out more readily than nitrogen, wouldn't a tire eventually reach 100% nitrogen without one needing to do anything? The whole industry is built on one big scam.

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby Dave Jenkins » Sun Mar 04, 2012 8:51 am

I suppose if you would want to get super picky you could also look at the point that nitrogen, in these cases, should be dryer than regular air. Therefore removing most moisture (water vapour) content from within the tire. Which, in theory, will lead to corrosion. This is extremely minute in its factoring in, but a factor non the less.
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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby Snowman » Sun Mar 04, 2012 8:58 am

On the job we use regularly use nitrogen from a compressed gas bottle for checking leaks in HVAC systems for the reason #5. We have capacity rated dryers and separators on all our air compressors that are properly maintained and still have moisture problems every summer. There is no way a tire shop could ever avoid the same issues and they are not likely to afford the elaborate systems we have to try and maintain and control the very same seasonal problems.

5) Nitrogen is cleaner, better filtered and dehumidified.
Now we have perhaps the only advantage of nitrogen. But if a garage is too incompetent to properly drain their air compressors regularly and change the filters, then we should absolutely trust they are maintaining their nitrogen-filtering tanks in pristine condition at all times and you actually are getting that extra 17% of nitrogen you are paying for?


As far as filling passenger car & worse, SUV/Truck/Van tires with nitorgen, I think this adds to an existing safety problem. People do not pay enough attention to correct air pressure in tires. The problem gets compounded by top heavy & ( heavier) vehicles. Now comes along the nitrogen green valve stem cap gimmick which gives those who are not knowlegeable another false sense of security and they might even be less inclinded to check tire pressure at least once a month. Drive up behind any SUV/Truck/Van and I'm sure you will notice at least one tire that appears to be low more often than not.
Now they have the magic nitrogen, do not check tire pressure, and even if they do check it and find it low wait until they can get to a garage or tire shop that supplies it.

Good article on a scam that has nothing to do with safety on the road and all to do with profits.
Last edited by Snowman on Sun Mar 04, 2012 9:24 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby Snowman » Sun Mar 04, 2012 9:07 am

Dave Jenkins wrote:I suppose if you would want to get super picky you could also look at the point that nitrogen, in these cases, should be dryer than regular air. Therefore removing most moisture (water vapour) content from within the tire. Which, in theory, will lead to corrosion. This is extremely minute in its factoring in, but a factor non the less.

In every case where any rim I have ever had a corrosion issue with, it has always been at the edge bead from water or road deicers working their way into the rim on to the tire/rim edge bead surface area. Maybe it might help slightly, but I don't know how nitrogen would ever help corrosion leading to air pressure leaks from external corrosion. I have never seen a tire rot from the inside, in my experience always from the outside and extremely quickly destroyed from running underinflated. I have replaced more tires with full tread due to cracks & splits from sitting around than wearing them out. Have yet to see one damaged from the inside for the same reasons. My car trailer tires are the worst for this.
I have also read and experienced that most slow tire leaks are from the edge bead & valve stem areas, not through the tire material itself. How can nitrogen fill help these issues ?
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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby smarmy_rebel » Sun Mar 04, 2012 10:31 am

Dave Brown wrote:
smarmy_rebel wrote:I always thought the main reason for using nitrogen in tires is because it is less sensitive to changes in temperature... IE, when it gets cold, the "air" in your tires condenses so your PSI reduces. When it gets warm out, "air" expands and increases your PSI.

This actually makes a lot of sense ... IF it were true. But there is only 3% difference in the size and density of the two molecules so it would take hundreds of degrees of temperature variations before it would have any appreciable effect.

smarmy_rebel wrote:As I know it, nitrogen is more "inert" and therefore doesn't expand and contract as much so your PSI will always be the right amount regardless of the air temperature.

This is the big myth. Most people assume it is true and don't bother checking, but if they did check, they would find out that nitrogen has EXACTLY the same pressure variations as air. It just makes no scientific sense. Even if we could compare 100% oxygen versus 100% nitrogen, there would still be only a few percentage points difference. Now factor in that we are comparing 78% nitrogen versus 95% nitrogen and you can see how silly this argument is.

smarmy_rebel wrote:From what I've read at the dealer, apparently nitrogen refills are free for lifetime. Whether the gas itself is free but whether they charge you for the technician to do it... I'm not so sure... Have to ask next time.

NOTHING is free from the dealers or retailers. NOTHING. You have already paid the cost in the cost of the vehicle or the cost of the tires.

smarmy_rebel wrote:As for TPMS, I am that "intelligent" driver who does check their tire pressure often. Would I like to have a supplemental system that will tell me should by tires be low? Of course, why wouldn't I?

Sure, if they worked properly, didn't give so many false readings that most drivers ignore them and didn't require costly installation and reprogramming every time the wheels are changed or the tires are rotated.


Ya, the reasons I avoided getting nitrogen was because of convenience issues. Should I need a fill up, I really didn't want to have to drive to a dealer just to get it. I like the ability to adjust them myself in my own driveway.

Snowman makes a really good point about people thinking they are safe because of the green caps. It's true that most people never check their tires (men and women). So you tell them that they won't have to worry about them even more now because of nitrogen... I've had family members who drove several kms on a flat tire until they realized something might be wrong and pulled over... The tire was ruined and had to be replaced because they did...

TPMS do need some work. I don't know about other manufacturers, but Ford only tells you when your tires are low. Not too high. And they also only tell you when they are low by like 10+ PSI. Having something a little more accurate would be nice.

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby Dave Jenkins » Sun Mar 04, 2012 2:55 pm

Snowman wrote:
Dave Jenkins wrote:I suppose if you would want to get super picky you could also look at the point that nitrogen, in these cases, should be dryer than regular air. Therefore removing most moisture (water vapour) content from within the tire. Which, in theory, will lead to corrosion. This is extremely minute in its factoring in, but a factor non the less.

In every case where any rim I have ever had a corrosion issue with, it has always been at the edge bead from water or road deicers working their way into the rim on to the tire/rim edge bead surface area. Maybe it might help slightly, but I don't know how nitrogen would ever help corrosion leading to air pressure leaks from external corrosion. I have never seen a tire rot from the inside, in my experience always from the outside and extremely quickly destroyed from running underinflated. I have replaced more tires with full tread due to cracks & splits from sitting around than wearing them out. Have yet to see one damaged from the inside for the same reasons. My car trailer tires are the worst for this.
I have also read and experienced that most slow tire leaks are from the edge bead & valve stem areas, not through the tire material itself. How can nitrogen fill help these issues ?


Thus my post contained "super picky", "in theory", and " extremely minute". Could water vapour be an issue? Yes, in theory! This nitrogen thing is a cash grab to sucker people that don't know any better. People that have not researched the option and simply bought into the hype.

Besides, my car tells me when the tire pressure is low, when it needs an oil change, when the washer fluid is low, when the key fob battery is low.....and so on, and so on....so I add a little air when needed or a little washer fluid...... Its all good! :thumbsup:
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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby Dave Brown » Sun Mar 04, 2012 3:01 pm

Thanks for all the comments. I especially like the one about how those green valve stem caps give people a false sense of security. Everyone experiences a loss in air pressure from time to time, but most often it is because the air (or nitrogen) will contract in colder weather, or they have rim leaks. Nitrogen will have no effect on either, of course. But this is why it is so easy to get unsuspecting consumers to buy in to the nitrogen scam. Like every great scam, it has a certain element that seems to ring true to them.

But the average tire, installed properly on a clean rim, should only lose 2 to 3 PSI a year. (This is exactly what Consumer Reports found.)

The more I research, the more I see there is no scientific basis for any of their claims.

While nitrogen may seem to have some marginal benefits because it is dried and filtered, most rim leaks start happening when moisture (and particularly salty moisture) wicks into the rim from the outside. Another possible cause of eventual rim leaks is the liquid lubricant applied to the outside of the tire rim during installation. It is a fact of life that in certain areas of this country, if you don't replace your tires every five years through wear, you will at least need to break them from the rims every five years and apply a gooey rim sealant to prevent rim leaks.

Plus, if you have ever watched them install tires on rims, it would be ludicrous to worry about a tiny bit of water vapour in the air when they generously slather on the liquid lubricant around the tire edge to get it to seat properly on a rim.

Where even a little bit of vapour can be bad is topping up tires during very cold weather. The warm shop air hits the cold tire air and the moisture that can suddenly condense can even freeze a valve stem in the open position.

If tire shops drained their compressors regularly (water is a natural byproduct of the compression) and made sure their filters are in good shape, then there would be no advantages to nitrogen whatsoever. The problem is that it is hard to compete when everyone else is selling the big scam. Are they going to have a big sign out front saying "We sell air!"

But I talked to one large performance tire retailer in Winnipeg and they have refused to buy in to the nitrogen craze, in spite of ten competitors down the street all upselling nitrogen. They cite all the reasons given, and they also maintain their shop compressors properly.

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby Whistler » Sun Mar 04, 2012 3:03 pm

I once had someone argue with me that the green caps on tires actually meant they are filled with hydrogen...

Would make for an interesting experience when you first hit a big pothole...

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby Dave Brown » Sun Mar 04, 2012 3:26 pm

LOL!

I even heard an argument for nitrogen, saying it was lighter than air and you would get better performance!

Hey, a quick calculation shows that if my tires were ten thousand times larger and filled with helium, it would reduce my curb weight by 10%.

Of course, it would look pretty funny and I would get stuck under a lot of underpasses!

I think I will just pop-rivet winglets to my rear spoiler instead.

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Re: Air vs nitrogen in tires: what colour are your valve cap

Postby devilwoman » Sun Mar 04, 2012 4:09 pm

My Challenger was equipped with Nitrogen filled tires when I purchased it. I have now replaced said tires with aftermarket (went 18 inch to 20 inch) and I use regular old air in them. No noticeable difference. I have not encountered any issues with my TPMS.

Its a habit for me that I check my oil, transmission, steering fluids, as well as tire pressure and lights on my vehicle every wash. If I take a long road trip, I take it in for an oil change and inspection and make sure to check all fluids before I go and during the trip when refueling.

IMHO, If you own/drive a vehicle, you should be doing this and know how to do this.
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