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Monday, May 8, 2017

Why do some tires "explode"

OK, let's see if I can cover the details of why and how a tire sidewall fails due to being run without proper inflation.

The mechanics are essentially the same, be it a textile (usually Polyester) tire, as are most P, LT, and ST type tires, or for tires with steel body cord, as most commercial grade LT tires and "TBR" "Truck-Bus Radial" tires. These cords are referred to as the "body ply."

I think we all realize that tire sidewalls bend when loaded. This can be observed by simply looking at the bottom (near the road) vs. the rest of the tire sidewall. The amount of bending is essentially just a function of tire size, load and inflation. This bending includes some stretching of the outer surface of the tire and of the rubber surrounding the body ply. This stretching results in some heat being generated. You can test/experience this heat generation yourself with a simple test of holding a rubber band against your lip and stretching and releasing the rubber band. Your lip is sensitive enough to feel the temperature rise of the rubber band.

Now the rubber used in tire construction can tolerate some temperature rise. The heat generated can transfer to outside air at about the same rate it is being generated. This is what happens for hopefully tens of thousands of miles and hundreds of thousands of revolutions, i.e., sidewall flexes.

So what happens if there is a leak of inflation air, or if the tire was not properly inflated in the first place? With lower air pressure the amount of bending increases and with an increase in bending we see more heat being generated. Increased heat generation means increased temperature of the rubber internal to the tire structure. Since rubber is a good insulator, heat transfer can be slower than heat dissipation to the outside air, so the temperature can continue to rise ever faster.

The strength of the rubber decreases with an increase in temperature, which allows more bending. With slower heat transfer from the internal structure to the outer surface and increased heat generation as more air leaks out, I think you can see how it is possible to get to a point where there is something like a chain reaction or "runaway" temperature increase.

The above heat generation can also result in the polyester experiencing a rise in temperature with the associated loss of strength. You have seen the effect of high heat by holding a match near the end of a piece of Nylon or Polyester and see the textile melting. In the steel body ply tire the increased bending can result in a fatigue failure of a steel cord. You can test the fatigue with a steel paperclip. Simply bend the paper-clip a few times and it will break. In the case of a tire, the number of bends to failure can easily be in the thousands.

I will cover the "explosion" in an upcoming post.



  1. What is your opinion of tire sealants? I have used them in my car tires with very good success. After hurricane Charley here in Florida many roads were littered with all kinds of hazards. I had several nails and screws in my tires but none went down. I was a mail carrier so I had to be on the road. I would think sealants would work in my TT tires too. I inspect my tires each day when traveling so I should spot a nail or screw so I could get it repaired but I should avoid a flat which could do other damage. What say you?

  2. Sealant may work. It also may void the tire warranty and it may make an otherwise repairable tire non-repairable as the sealant prevents the patch from sticking to the tire properly. Your situation was special.


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