Are winter tires worth the costs?

The first — or second — snow of the year hits the ground and the phones at tire shops begin to ring off the hook.

Drivers suddenly remember it’s time to put on the snow tires or, after almost sliding into an intersection, start thinking about purchasing a separate set for winter.

For those drivers, the cost of the tires, plus the twice-yearly charge to change them over, is negligible in the wider picture.

“My life and my health are worth a lot more than a bunch of tires,” says Jim Vondran, as he waited to have snow tires put on his SUV during one of the first flurries of the season.

But for many, spending hundreds of dollars on a second set of tires is an unnecessary expense, while others question how much better the tires actually are.

Are they better?

Rubber has a critical temperature where it starts to harden, affecting its ability to create friction and grip the road.

Uttandaraman Sundararaj, head of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, says today’s winter tires use a different kind of rubber, therefore staying softer and gripping better in colder temperatures, as well as when there’s snow an ice on the ground.

When temperatures hit about -10 C, regular tires start becoming less effective, Sundararaj adds.

As well, the tread on snow tires has air pockets and a design that provide better traction.

“If you had good tires that were not winter tires and it was around zero, -5 C, you’d probably get similar performance,” he says. “But even in that case the winter tires would be softer than the standard tire and give slightly better performance.

“But once you get past that point of the magical temperature where the rubber becomes hard, then there’s no comparison.”

What will they cost?

Winter tires don’t wear well in summer temperatures, says Don Szarko, with the Alberta Motor Association, necessitating two sets of treads.

“There are differences between winter and all season. Winter tires do give deeper tread and perform better in the extreme cold,” he says.

“But they’re not good for summer driving, not as stable in hot weather.

“You do need to get two sets of tires and that is an extra cost.”

Dan Harper, co-owner of Harper’s Tire, says a customer can spend anywhere from $500 to $2,000 on a set of four winter tires.

Adding rims can range from $75 each for basic black service models to more than $250 a piece for custom designs, Harper added.

While rims mean more money up front, Harper points out they do save drivers money over the long run because it’s less expensive to change over. Tires on separate rims cost about $10 each to change, while tires going onto the same set of rims would be about twice as much, and possibly more, depending on the size of tires and type of vehicle.

Szarko says Alberta drivers average 15,000 kilometres to 30,000 kilometres on the road each year.

If a tire is rated at 80,000 kilometres and only being used half the year, he points out, they could last a decade.

Should you buy?

Szarko says the AMA doesn’t offer advice on whether to purchase winter tires, but “points out the difference and let consumers make the choice. And there is a very clear difference.”

Much depends on the kind of driving being done, he adds.

“It depends on what kind of driving, how far you’re driving, your own peace of mind,” he says.

“Road conditions change every few kilometres in the province.”

Those drivers using all-season tires should make sure there is still a good amount of tread left as winter approaches, Szarko points out.

“If you’re trying to run on all-season with four or five years of travel and it means you’re down to very little tread left, there’s no traction whatsoever,” he says.

Harper believes a second set is worth the money.

“The difference between winter and all-season, the spread is huge now,” he says.

“They’re technically better.

“If you’re driving around on tires that aren’t going to do the job, you put other people at risk as well. You have to look out for yourself and the people you share the road with.”

Harper adds that if they prevent an accident, a driver has saved the cost of a deductible — which is likely the same price as a set of tires.

“And not all accidents are fender benders,” he notes.

Photograph by: Jean Konda-Witte, Times