There’s never a good time to get a flat tire. It always seems to happen when you’re in a hurry or late already. Not to worry, you’re in the right place. I’ve been a mechanic for over twenty-five years. I must have changed thousands of wheels in that time. You’ll be pit crew material by the end of this post!
Changing a flat tire is not tricky. Follow these nine steps :
- Find a safe location
- Apply parking brake
- Gather the tools
- Unlock the wheel studs & lock nut
- Position jack and lift vehicle
- Remove the wheel studs & wheel
- Fit spare wheel & studs
- Lower the vehicle
- Tighten wheel studs
This beginner’s guide will illustrate the easiest and safest way to change a car wheel. I’ll share insider hacks for getting the job done quickly and safely.
1 Find a Safe Location
Many modern cars employ a tire pressure sensor that alerts the driver to a drop in tire pressure. The initial reaction can be some panic. Try not to get stressed. All will be fine. The most important thing to remember is to find a safe location to pull over. If you are on the highway, reduce your speed and move to the side as safely as you can.
Ideally, it’s best to leave the highway, especially if your flat is on the driver’s side. If this isn’t possible, then find a safe pull-in area. No wheel replacement is worth being injured.
Put your handbrake on, car in Park, and your hazards on. If you have decided to change the wheel, you must be parked on a level hard surface (not grass or gravel) for stability when jacked. If you have a breakdown triangle, place it approximately 30ft from the back of the car. Also, if you have a Hi-Vis jacket or shirt, put this on now. If it’s dark out, don’t attempt to change a flat without a light.
2 Apply Parking Brake
It’s essential to apply the parking brake and place the vehicle in “Park” for auto transmission cars and first gear for manual transmission vehicles. When a vehicle is jacked up, if the wheels aren’t locked, it is liable to roll forward or back, which will cause the vehicle to fall off the jack and possibly injure the driver.
Applying the parking brake is a critical step.
3 Gather Tools
Parked in a safe location, you’re ready to change that flat. We’ll need tools, and you’ll find them in the trunk, usually under the trunk floor mat alongside the spare wheel.
You’ll need the following:
- Spare wheel
- Lug wrench (aka tire iron or wheel brace)
- An extender pipe (if you have one)
- Lock nut key (if required)
Some vehicles use what’s known as a locking nut to prevent car wheel theft. Usually only fitted to alloy wheels. One lock nut is fitted to each wheel and requires a special tool known as the Locknut key to remove them. The lock nut key resembles a wheel stud and is usually stored with the spare wheels tools.
And preferred but not essential:
- Cleaning cloth
- A torch (if it’s dark)
Bring all your tools to the side of the car that has the flat. Don’t try to carry everything at once. You don’t want to drop anything on your foot. Some carmakers place a pair of neat work gloves with the tools. If you have some, now’s the time to use them.
Wheel Replacement Tools
4 Loosen Wheel Studs & Lock Nut
Your driver’s manual may refer to your car’s wheel fasteners as lug nuts, wheels studs or wheel nuts, wheel bolts. They are all mean the same.
If your vehicle sports alloy wheels, you’ll likely have clear access to the lug nuts. If, however, you have steel wheels, you’ll likely have plastic wheel trims (also known as caps or covers). The trim covers will need to be removed to gain access to the wheel studs.
To remove wheel caps, place your fingers between the wheel trim spokes and pull firmly. This usually removes the cap.
Next, we’ll check those wheel studs and see if you have lock nuts fitted. A lock nut is shaped slightly differently, with a design or pattern internally. If you have one of these, you are going to need the lock nut key.
This is a small wrench attachment that matches the design on the nut.
The difficulty is that sometimes the Lock Nut key goes missing. Usually, the last time the tires were in for replacement or repair. Have a look where your tools are located or in the glove box of the car. If you can’t find the lock nut key, unfortunately, you will have to call roadside assist or a tow. There is no other way to remove the wheel without one.
Loosen Lock Nut – Once located, place the lock nut key onto the lock nut. The lug nut wrench fits onto the lock nut key as though it was a regular wheel stud.
Attach the wrench in an upward right to left orientation.
Turn Counterclockwise – Use your foot and the weight of your body to loosen all the studs in this way. This may mean nearly standing on the wrench – if you have an extender pipe – this is when to use it.
Loosen each stud just one turn only at this stage.
The last time the studs were fitted, they were likely fitted with an impact gun, so they may be tight. By the way, an impact gun makes this job a ton easier, and battery-operated is now so powerful and convenient you can store it in your trunk. I’ve listed a recommended model here on the “Trunk essential” page.
5 Position Jack & Lift Vehicle
Now it’s time to lift the flat wheel clear of the ground so we can remove it. The scissors are the most common type of car jack. However, as trucks are a lot taller and heavier than cars, they tend to use high-lift or hydraulic bottle jacks. See the different types of jacks here in this post, “Jacks and their uses.”
When using any jack, there are a few important procedures to follow. Safety is our number one concern.
To use a jack safely, follow these simple rules:
- Place the vehicle in Park with parking brake “On”
- Don’t place your arms or legs under the vehicle
- Don’t climb under the vehicle
- Jack a vehicle on level ground (not on a hill)
- Jack a vehicle on sealed ground (not clay, gravel, mud etc.)
- Don’t lean on vehicle while jacked
- Don’t sit in vehicle while jacked (remove passengers)
A jack can fall over at any time. While they’re designed to lift your vehicle, they are by no means trustworthy, and you should treat them as such.
A car jack can’t be placed under the vehicle just anywhere. It must be positioned in a precise location, know as a jacking point.
Every vehicle has jacking points. They are reinforced areas of the chassis, engineered to carry the weight of the vehicle without giving in. Larger vehicles may have four, usually positioned on the chassis sill at each wheel. Smaller vehicles may, however, only have two, one in the middle of each side of the sill of the car.
Check Drivers Manual – You’ll find your jacking points by looking under the vehicle or check your driver’s manual.
Jacking Point Locations.
Position Jack – Place the jack on the jacking point.
Turn Clockwise – Turn clockwise to lift.
Lift Vehicle – With the jack head located at the jacking point, wind the jack until the foot hits the ground, check again it’s in its jacking point before continuing to wind the jack until the flat wheel is just clear of the ground.
Note: We don’t want to jack vehicles higher than we need to. Jack, so the wheel is about 3-4 inches clear of the ground.
6 Remove Wheel Studs & Wheel
With the vehicle jacked up, it’s important to avoid leaning on the vehicle and avoid placing legs or arms under the vehicle.
Now we’re set to spin off all the studs and the lock nut. You’ll likely still need to use the lug wrench and the wrench and loosen the other four studs. Place all five studs on the ground together. Avoid placing them in front of the wheel. If the wheel falls forward, they may be scattered and lost.
Remove Wheel – Get down on one knee in front of the wheel, place an arm on the raised knee for support, now put your hands left and right into the spokes of the wheel, and wiggle the wheel loose.
Hopefully, the last time the wheel was repaired, your mechanic placed some copper grease on the hub to prevent corrosion, if not your wheel may be stuck firmly.
Wheel Won’t Come Off
Kick – If the tire doesn’t want to come loose, don’t panic, it just needs a little help. Place the top stud back on the tire – to prevent it from falling off.
Stand up and give the top of the tire a good kick with your foot. This should loosen the wheel.
If it’s still fighting you, check out this post “Wheel won’t come off”.
Remove Wheel – Remove the top stud and lift off the wheel.
Place it on its side just under the car, close to the jack. This is a safety measure in case your jack fails.
AT NO STAGE DURING THE PROCESS ATTEMPT TO PUT ANY PART OF YOUR BODY UNDER THE CAR.
7 Fit Spare Wheel & Studs
Now for your replacement wheel. You should know, most spare wheels are not full driving wheels. They are emergency wheels and allow you to travel to the tire shop but have some limitations. This content is owned by moc.sotuaytsur. Speed can be no more than 55mph and distance can be no more than 200 miles. So even though you’ve changed the wheel, you’ll still need to visit a tire shop asap.
Now for the fitting, line up your spare with the hub of the car. This can be a little tricky as you have to hold the spare while you insert the first stud. I use a hand on top and a foot at a bottom method to control the while, it’s all covered below.
Mount – Sight the hub stud hole and mount the wheel, lining your wheel stud hole up with the hub stud hole behind. Now use both hands to seat the wheel squarely on the hub.
While holding the wheel top and bottom (otherwise wheel falls off the hub), using your free hand, thread home all the studs (clockwise).
Seat Studs – Fit the rest of your studs and tighten until they seat, we’ll finish tightening them a little later.
8 Lower Vehicle
Remove the flat tire from beneath the car. Wind the jack anticlockwise to lower the vehicle.
Release the jack from the jacking point.
9 Tighten Wheel Studs
We’ll need to tighten the wheels studs before the vehicle is safe to drive. Ideally, a wheel is torqued to specification (about 140Nm), of course, we can’t do that by the highway. So instead we’ll ensure the wheel is tight enough to drive and have the wheel torque adjusted at the tire shop.
Clockwise – To tighten we’ll set the lug wrench up in the opposite orientation to removal, about 30°.
We’ll let our foot and body weight do the work.
Star Sequence – Tighten all studs but do so in star sequence.
Torque Wrench – A torque wrench is used to tighten the wheel studs to a specified torque setting—usually about 140 Nm.
Now you’re good to drive. Try and get your tire repaired as soon as you can. Replacement tires are not designed to travel any length of distance and have the wheel studs torqued to specification. Consider buying a torque wrench for the trunk. See the wrench I recommend here on the “Mechanics tools page”.
This is important, don’t forget to put all your tools back in the trunk and, of course, the flat wheel. Most importantly, keep that lock nut somewhere safe. And lastly, don’t drive away without your safety triangle.
Wheel Changing Alternatives
In recent years some car manufacturers have replaced the need for a spare tire. They have come up with two alternatives, the run-flat tire and the sealant compressor kit. There are advantages to both and of course disadvantages.
Run Flat Tire
Run Flat Tires (RFT). These include BMW, Mercedes, Mini, and some Cadillac models. According to Edmunds.com about 14% of new cars have RFT.
What’s so great about the run flat tire?
The main difference is you never have to change a flat on the side of the highway again. The tire pressure sensor warning displays on the dashboard in the event of a flat and you drive on to the nearest repair shop, but no more struggling on the side of the highway. Nice!
How do run flat tires work?
The sidewalls on RFT are ¾” thick (compared to ⅛” for standard tires). This means when the pressure drops. The walls are strong enough to hold the weight of the car. With limitations, of course, speed needs to be reduced to 50mph, and you can only travel for approximately 50 miles. There are both pros and cons to RFT.
The safety aspect is the biggest positive. Not having to change a tire on the side of the highway, and also more control when the pressure does drop dramatically.
The bonus of having to just drive to the repair shop and also the extra space in the trunk. The negatives are, they are more expensive, don’t last as long as standard tires, and they’re not as comfortable to drive on.
Another great alternative to changing a wheel roadside is a Sealant Compressor. Many new cars supply this product instead of a spare. It works by reinflation the tire and also spraying the interior with a sealant. This will allow you to travel to a tire repair shop without having to actually replace the tire with a spare.
Flat tires are a part of driving. We can, of course, limit the risk of getting a flat. Here are a few tips to help prevent flats:
- Pre seal all vehicle tires – prevents punctures
- Replace tires long before they’re worn out (3mm)
- Avoid parking or driving on unsealed surfaces
- Avoid curbing
Being stranded on the highway isn’t fun, and worse, it’s dangerous. Best to be prepared for all such eventualities. Ensure your spare is roadworthy. Your tools are where they are supposed to be. It’s a good idea to have a sealant compressor as a backup and, worst-case scenario, the ability to call roadside assist. A flat tire is the most requested call out for the AA each year.
Check out “Trunk essentials page”, you’ll find tools here that will make changing a flat a ton easier, or check out the Amazon link below.Amazon Tire Inflator Kit
You may find the following helpful also:
1/2 or 3/8 Torque wrench for lug nuts?
Can electric Impact wrench remove lug nuts?
- About the Author
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John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. He’s been a mechanic for over twenty-five years and has worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Jaguar dealerships.
John uses his know-how and experience to write fluff-free articles that help fellow gearheads with all aspects of vehicle ownership, including maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting.