4WD MODIFICATIONS - TYRES & WHEELS
Outback Travel Australia has been evaluating different types of tyre pressure monitoring systems over the past 16 years and we wouldn’t go bush without one.
The classic ‘bush flat’ is a blown-out tyre, with a ring of tread rubber atop a smoking, shredded sidewall. This outcome tempts most people to believe that a sidewall puncture caused the problem, but it’s usually not so. When a tyre blows out spectacularly it’s often the result of an undetected, slow leak, caused almost always by a small tread puncture. This slow leak creates a pressure drop and that lets the tyre flex more, building up heat in the process. As the pressure continues to drop the flexing increases and so does heat build-up. Eventually the ‘cooked’ casing gives up.
A tyre pressure and temperature monitoring system can alert a driver to such a leak in its very early stages. This allows the driver to pull up and repair the tyre temporarily with a plug, or fit a spare, long before there’s permanent damage to the tyre.
Tyre pressure monitoring saves tyres and can also prevent an accident.
Tyre pressure monitoring history
The USA has had mandatory tyre pressure monitoring since 2007 and Europe mandated it in 2012. As with electronic stability control it’s only a matter of time before tyre pressure monitoring is mandated in Australia as well.
On the face of it tyre pressure monitoring systems are excellent safety devices and ideal for recreational drivers, who are more likely to suffer punctures than the metropolitan brigade, but there are different designs and some are definitely better than others.
The after-market devices being sold here use valve-integrated pressure senders, wirelessly connected to an in-vehicle display, but there is an alternative that some makers adopted for USA compliance.
Indirect pressure monitoring
Indirect pressure monitoring is cheaper and doesn’t need wheel-mounted senders. Instead, ABS software is rewritten. As a tyre deflates, its rolling radius decreases and its speed relative to the other three tyres increases. Indirect pressure monitoring detects this rotational speed change and the tyre warning system is activated.
Indirect pressure monitoring sounds like a cheaper, more reliable solution, but that’s not how it’s worked out in the USA. The problems centre on the fact that all the tyres’ rolling radii need to be calibrated, so that the computer knows when one gets out of whack.
Whenever tyre pressures are changed – for a high-speed, loaded-vehicle trip, as an example – the dash-mounted reset button must be pushed and a re-calibration procedure followed. Procedures vary, but most involve driving for some distance until the computer ‘learns’ the new setting. If this isn’t done the
monitoring system won’t operate. Worse, if the pressure gauge is inaccurate the tyres can be set to an incorrect pressure, which the system recognises as its new benchmark.
In an effort to overcome these deficiencies, second-generation units have inbuilt ‘vibration signature’ detection. The OE tyre’s vibration characteristics at different pressures are stored in the computer and when low-pressure characteristics are detected the system warns the driver. The big problem with this design is that a change of tyre make and size makes the system useless.
And yet another problem with indirect pressure monitoring is a time delay of some minutes in detecting a low-pressure tyre after start up. Since many punctures don’t show up as a flattish tyre until morning and not everyone does a visual tyre check before each day’s drive, that’s a major defect with the indirect pressure monitoring design.
Have a guess why vehicle makers continue to use indirect pressure monitoring? It’s dirt cheap.
Direct pressure monitoring
OK, so indirect pressure monitoring isn’t ideal: what’s the alternative? Direct pressure monitoring uses pressure and temperature sensors mounted either inside the tyre or on top of the valve stem. Both types have their advantages and disadvantages.
Internal sensors can be fitted only when the tyres are demounted from the wheels, so unless you love changing tyres by hand you’ll get this type of pressure monitor fitted by a tyre specialist. The obvious time is when you’re buying new rubber.
Internal direct pressure monitors come in two designs: a unit that’s attached inside the wheel well, or one that’s integrated with a metal valve stem and fits snugly inside the wheel, behind the valve hole. The wheel-well type attaches by way of a large ‘hose clamp’ that fits around the wheel interior before the tyre goes on.
External direct pressure monitors replace the existing valve cap, by simply screwing into place. They come with a locking system that’s intended to prevent theft or loosening through vibration.
All direct pressure monitors have integrated batteries that power the sensors’ mini-transmitters. In-wheel units have batteries with claimed lives of up to seven years, while valve-cap types typically have two-to-six-year battery lives.
Digitised pressure and temperature signals are received by an in-car display monitor that plugs into a cigarette lighter socket, or can be wired in. In most cases the display’s aerial is sufficient to receive signals from the road wheels and the spare tyre(s), but trailer tyres and spares may be out of range, in which case a second aerial can be installed under the rear of the towing vehicle. Some top-shelf pressure monitoring systems can handle 11-14 tyres and truck types can cope with many more.
Obviously, the protected nature of an in-wheel system prevents theft and in-service damage, but we’ve had transmitters damaged by tyre fitters when demounting punctured tyres. The valve-stem type is easy smashed by the tongue of a rotating tyre demounting machine, so the wheel-well type is better in this
Tyre valve cap units are of two types: sealed and unsealed. The sealed types have a captive battery and when that runs out of puff you have to buy a new sensor. The unsealed types can be fitted with replacement batteries, but this design makes them more vulnerable to damage from water, mud, dust, rocks and track-side branches.
On and off road with TPMS
TPMS was developed overseas to ensure drivers were altered to deflating or wrongly pressurised tyres. The design criteria didn’t involve a need for TPMS to be programmed for on and off road driving conditions, where pressures needed to vary.
The typical Australian 4WD needs to have its tyre pressures monitored across a wide range of pressures, ranging from as low as 16psi up to, maybe, 70 psi. Vehicle-manufacturer-fitted TPMS can’t do that without considerable reprogramming for each individual pressure setting. That means a reprogram every time you drive off bitumen onto gravel, onto rock trails and onto sand.
Most people don’t bother and simply ignore the TPMS light, or put a piece of sticky tape over it. We’ve also heard of people putting their TPMS sensors inside a pressurised container in the boot! That’s a great pity, because TPMS has saved us from ruining several tyres over the past few years, by providing early warning of deflation.
We suggest that owners of TPMS-equipped 4WDs retain the vehicle-maker-supplied system, but buy an additional valve-cap type, after-market system that is easily adjustable for widely differing pressures. That way, they will have accurate pressure readout and deflation warning when on and off road.
At Outback Travel Australia we have first hand experience with different direct tyre pressure monitoring systems and we wouldn’t go bush without one of these systems.
Here are our real-world, Outback test findings.
We used successive generations of SensaTyre for four years and it saved us at least four tyres.
Living with SensaTyre pressure monitoring proved to be slightly complicated. Once the transmitters were fitted inside the wheels the display module was clipped into the fresh air vent louvres on the dashboard and plugged in.
Calibration wasn’t the easiest operation, but having a computer-literate 11-year-old on hand sure helped!
Thereafter, tyre pressure maintenance could be virtually forgotten, because the display gave a constant readout of either pressure or temperature, at the push of a button. Any sudden deviation from the pre-set safe pressure range triggered an alarm and a flashing light.
Getting professional repair done on a plugged tyre proved a nemesis of the SensaTyre units, because every time we had to demount a tyre to replace a temporary plug with a mushroom patch the tyre fitter smashed the sensor! We warned the fitters every time, but they still broke the sensors.
Another issue was the need to fit a booster aerial at the rear of the towing vehicle so the display unit could receive signals from camper trailer tyres.
These experiences put us off the in-wheel types, so we next checked out some valve-cap-replacement types. Valve-cap replacement units are theoretically more vulnerable, although we haven’t lost or damaged one in thousands of kilometres of bush travel.
We’ve replaced standard rubber valve stems with metal ones and we’ve also run them with rubber stems. We chose not to use the locking collars, to check whether they’d unscrew through vibration, but we haven’t lost one yet.
The TPMS Australia valve-cap transmitters were 10-gram units that replaced the tyre valve caps, simply screwing into place. The kit included sticky-back 10g balance weights, to mount opposite the valve if required, but we didn’t bother. There were also Allen-key locking rings for the transmitters.
We mounted the monitor on the console using double sided tape, plugged in the socket power lead and installed the transmitters. In about 10 minutes we fired it up and found calibration was easy. Also, the screen showed pressure and temperature of each tyre in turn, in a rolling display that scrolled through one tyre at a time.
The TPMS system gave ample audible and visual warning of low pressure or high temperature and also picked up trailer tyre data without the need for a booster aerial.
Unfortunately, the distributors of this system seem to have gone out of business and we’ve been unable to find an alternative supplier for either this TPMS system or replacement sensors.
This valve-cap system was also easy to program and had a large dashboard monitor that’s clearly visible in strong sunlight and has large pull-out aerials to detect transmitter signals from the valve-cap units.
An advantage of the PressurePro for owner/users is that it doesn’t need to be recalibrated every time you change pressures. Once the transmitter caps have been off the valve stems for a minute they’ll happily monitor whatever pressure is currently in the tyre.It easily picked up trailer tyre data without an auxiliary aerial.
However, one day it just stopped working, so we sent it back to the distributors, who detected a power cord issue and gave us a new one FOC. That replacement unit also gave up the ghost, so we abandoned the test.
The monitor is designed to detect punctures and/or excess temperature, and to deliver a visual and an audible warning to alert the driver. The monitor also includes a 5V/1A USB output which can charge devices such as mobile phones and GPS units.
Monitoring pressure range is 10-75 psi (0.7 – 4.8 bar) and temperature range, -40°C to +70°C
The DIY external sensor kit comes with screw-on valve cap sensors that are factory paired and labelled to the corresponding tyre, allowing the system to operate in a matter of minutes. That’s the version we chose to test, rather than the version with internal sensors that must be fitted by a tyre-fitting professional.
We’ve been evaluating a DIY test unit since May 2016.
On two occasions we’ve noticed one of the units having an ‘off’ moment, but that lack of a readout didn’t last for more than a few minutes. Other than those down-time incidents the units have performed faultlessly and we’re still using the original batteries.
Removing each sensor to top up tyre pressures isn’t as simple as taking off a valve cap, because a small brass locking nut needs to be backed off first, but it’s not a very difficult job. We’ve been just finger-tightening the lock nuts and that seems to work quite well, rather than tightening them with the supplied spanner.
At around $550, the ARB TPMS DIY system is excellent value for money, we reckon; is easy to install and has proved very reliable.
In March 2019 we moved the 2016 test unit to another vehicle in the OTA Team test fleet and fitted the latest version of ARB’s TPMS. The new packaging is blue, instead of green and, unlike the original units, the valve cap replacements aren’t axle-position specific. However, the cigarette-lighter-fitment display unit is almost exactly the same.
Our new test kit is a trailer-compatible set, with additional sensors for the trailer tyres. We fitted it up without difficulty – although the instructions are a tad ambiguous – and we’ve been evaluating it since 2019 with great success.
We evaluated two sets of Tyre Dogs on two OTA Team vehicles over the past six years and they’ve been performing very well.
The sensors can be opened to replace the batteries – typically $3 to $5 each – that last around a year.
They fitted easily to the valve stems and came with locking rings that discourage theft.
We’ve broken the battery caps off two of them, but they were ‘repaired’ with amalgamating tape and have continued to function well.
Both our test sets are six-sensor models that come with a relay, to boost the signal from the trailer axle to the dashboard display module.
Pricing of the Tyre Dogs was around $650, including the relay.
This is the best unit we’ve tested so far, but it’s expensive. However, it’s easy to calibrate and picks up trailer tyre signals, without the need for a relay, even as we’re coupling up!
The Doran-made, US-manufactured valve cap units are larger than the TPMS, ARB, Tyre Dogs and Pressure-Pro units, but battery size is larger and life has been around four times that of some of the smaller-cap units.
We replaced the caps after four years, for $50 each, when two of them became erratic, suggesting dying batteries. We have 10 years’ testing and a collective 800,000km so far completed.
We thought the larger caps might be vulnerable in the bush, but so far we haven’t damaged a cap. On rubber stems the caps move around a lot, but a fat ‘washer’ of foam rubber at the base of each valve stem damps that action.
Cracked valve stems
We haven’t had any valve-stem breakage issues on our LandCruiser ute, but we’ve heard of stem-cracking problems on other vehicles and one of our OTA Test Team cracked a rubber valve stem in early 2022.
Rather than demount the tyre and fit a new valve stem in the bush – a not so easy job – our Team member pulled out his trusty tube of Loctite 406 instant glue.
He opened the crack in the rubber stem, squirted in some glue and then held the repair in place until the glue went off.
He managed to get home without drama and had the tyre demounted professionally next day and refitted, with a new valve stem in place.