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Free Air Is A Relic Of The Past At Most DC Area Filling Stations, AAA Survey Says

WASHINGTON, D. C. (Thursday, September 5, 2013) – Free air to fill the tire on your vehicle, or your bicycle, for that matter, has gone the way of the Dodo bird, the 7-inch 45 rpm record, and the payphone. That’s true at filling stations and convenience stores across the Greater Washington area. Talk about sticker shock, service stations throughout the metro region are now charging $1.00 on average to use the air pump or air compressor, a recent survey of area service stations by AAA Mid-Atlantic shows.

That’s up from the average of 75 cents a few years ago at coin-operated air pumps, or a 25 percent increase since 2006, the auto club notes. In places like California, gas stations are charging their customers up to $1.50 to inflate their tires, according to published news reports. Free air is also disappearing in, of all places great and small, New Jersey, one of only two states that still has full-service gas stations by law. In Connecticut, it is against the law to charge motorists for air during business hours, but gas stations are.

“What gas stations in Fairfax do they offer free air for your automobile tires?” a hapless driver wondered on the Fairfax Underground forum as recently as August 20. “Does anyone know of a gas station near downtown DC that provides free air for car tires? I used to go the BP on Connecticut Ave NW, near Van Ness, when I lived up there but now I live in Mt. Vernon Triangle, and I can’t find any,” a local driver asked Yelp, the advice website. The coin box has replaced the grease monkey who checked your tires when he filled your gas tank. Now motorists are left to their own devices and that means only 17% of vehicles on the road at any given moment have four properly inflated tires, warns AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“Using four little quarters to use a coin-operated machines is a big turn-off for many drivers. It can make all the difference in the world as to how often drivers check their vehicle’s tire pressure, and keep their tires properly and safely inflated,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “It is a new twist to the old expression ‘penny wise and pound foolish.’ In this case, we have in mind ‘Pounds per Square Inch’ (p.s.i). That’s the optimum inflation pressure for your tire. Yet, most motorists, 64 percent, in fact, don’t even know how to tell if they have a bald tire.”

AAA Mid-Atlantic surveyed gas stations and convenience stores in Annapolis, Arlington, Bowie, Falls Church, Kettering, Largo, and Washington, D.C. proper. The standard charge: $1.00 and a number of stations didn’t have an air pump for customers. Back in 2006, most area filling stations were charging between 50 and 75 cents for air, a AAA Mid-Atlantic survey showed. Although nothing in life is free, Wawa, Valero, and Hess are the exception to the rule, if you need an air pressure check-up, the latest auto club survey finds. Drivers can fill their tires at no charge the big box stores or warehouse retailers, such as Sam’s Club, BJ’s, and Costco, or at chain tire stores or mass market retailers where they purchased the tire.
To assist motorists, one website,, provides a map detailing the locations in the United States and Canada that have free air for tires. It offers users the chance to add a location in their neighborhoods that provides air for free. Charging for air increases the bottom line for service stations, one distributor of digital air vending machines tells potential clients in the service station and convenience store industries. “A 30% increase in air sales” can lead to “an overall boost” in profits, the vendor boasts.

Some call it a sign of the times. More troubling, one in every three cars has a significantly under-inflated tire. Motorists driving around on tires underinflated by more than 25 percent are “three times more likely to be involved in a crash related to tire problems than vehicles with proper inflation,” warns the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Driving on under-inflated tires not only affects the handling and braking of a vehicle, it also can cause tires to overheat and increase the likelihood of a blowout and tread separation. This problem becomes even more of a concern when road temperatures fluctuate or are extremely high. Worn tires are much more likely to suffer punctures and other problems.

Nearly 28 million vehicles, about 11 percent of the nation’s fleet, will have at least one bald tire at this moment, the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) says. Compounding matters, 55 percent of vehicles have at least one underinflated tire. This year AAA, the nation’s largest motor club, estimated that it would come to the rescue of roughly one million stranded motorists with a flat tire or a tire-related issues during the summer driving season, which just ended on the Labor Day holiday weekend. Checking air pressure, tire tread and sidewalls is important for vehicle efficiency and safety. To this end, AAA Repair and Maintenance recommends that motorists routinely check their tires for adequate air pressure and tread, especially before road trips. The RMA and AAA offer the follow tips:

• Purchase an emergency tire inflator or compressor with a built-in pressure gauge. To quickly inflate your tire, just plug it into the cigarette lighter power port. Store it in the trunk or under the seat.
• Inspect tires with a pressure check when the tires are cold and the car hasn’t been driven recently.
• Use a quality gauge to make sure all five tires are inflated to the pressure recommended by the vehicle manufacturer—this can be found in the owner’s manual or on a sticker usually attached to the driver’s door jamb, or sometimes inside the gas cap door.
• To inflate your tires, remove the cap from the valve on one tire at a time.
• Firmly press a tire gauge onto the valve.
• Add air to achieve recommended air pressure.
• If you overfill the tire, release air by pushing on the metal stem in the center of the valve with a fingernail or the tip of a pen.
• Then recheck the pressure with your tire gauge and replace the valve cap.
• Repeat with each tire, including the spare (NOTE: some spare tires require higher inflation pressure).
• Properly inflated tires increase safety and fuel economy, which will reduce fuel costs during a trip.
• Drivers also should inspect the tire treads for adequate depth and any signs of uneven wear that might indicate a suspension or alignment problem. Rotate tires if needed.

As an extra precaution, also keep a flat tire inflator/sealer can or kit in the trunk. To demonstrate proper tire care, AAA offers a number of short videos that can be viewed on the AAA YouTube channel. Fortunately, for motorists the cost of tires did not change from 2012 to 2013, remaining at one cent per mile on average for sedan owners, notes AAA Mid-Atlantic. The stable price is attributed to a leveling off past increased costs for raw materials, energy and transportation from factories to distributors across the USA.

Need air? Tires are one of the easiest components of a vehicle to maintain, but they are frequently overlooked until something goes wrong, the auto club forewarns. Believe it or not, tire pressure changes with the weather. Cold weather, just like hot weather, reduces tire inflation pressure by one of two pounds a month, so check tire pressures at least once a month when the tires are cold, recommends AAA.

AAA Mid-Atlantic advocates on behalf of its nearly four million members in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. It provides a wide range of personal insurance, travel, financial and automotive services through its 50-plus retail branches, regional operations centers, and the Internet. For more information, please visit our web site at ###

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