For most motorcycle riders, the only option for filling their tires is the air pump at the local gas station or dealership. A new movement that’s rapidly taking hold in the auto industry, however, might change that way of thinking.
Using pure nitrogen in tires is slowing making its way into the consumer side of the powersports industry, and has riders and dealers wondering as to its benefits and drawbacks. Its introduction to the market has led to debate among riders on Internet forums, and has many questioning if nitrogen is a fad that will fade away in a few years.
In truth, nitrogen has a history as an alternative to compressed air in tires. It’s been mandated in airline tires and U.S. military vehicles for nearly two decades, it’s a staple in auto and motorcycle racing tires and is rapidly making its way into local automobile service shops across North America because of a new regulation mandating tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMs) for all new passenger cars.
“It’s gaining quite a buzz with Gold Wing riders, and with sport touring guys, and it’s becoming more and more in use because it allows those riders to maintain consistent pressure in tires that are difficult to check,” said Jeff Johnson, technical sales support/warranty manager, Pirelli Tire. “I really see it being a big part of the touring and cruiser segments in the near future.”
The TPMs, mandated by the National Highway Transportation Safety Association by the end of 2007, are designed to warn a driver if their tires are between 25-30 percent below a manufacturer’s recommended cold tire inflation pressure. Once the TPM system is set off, a warning light goes on that can only be reset by having it serviced by a dealership or licensed mechanic. Although meant to be potentially life-saving devices, the systems can be sensitive, causing headaches for both the driver and the dealer. “On the auto side, one of the reasons all the major tire manufacturers have come out in support of nitrogen is the sensitivity of TPMs,” said Dave Marsh, chief marketing officer of D Marsh Co., “You drive on the tires the day before, they heat up, then you park it on the cold driveway at night and the pressure goes down, the computer senses the difference and it trips the monitor. What helps alleviate that is nitrogen because it doesn’t expand and contract the way air does. As more cars become equipped with these devices, the more dealerships and service centers are carrying nitrogen. And eventually they’re going to be introduced to motorcycles, which means powersports dealers will need to invest in nitrogen equipment as well.”
Convenience, Safety Don’t Mix
Along with maintaining consistent air pressure, nitrogen carries additional benefits for a car tire that compressed air doesn’t. Because it can retain tire pressure nearly eight times longer than air, it reduces stress on the tire, leading to 25-30 percent longer tire life, better handling and the prevention of corrosion build-up on a tire’s rims. Companies such as Goodyear, BF Goodrich and Michelin have all released statements in support of using nitrogen, and Ford Motor Co. recently completed a study that verified nitrogen’s benefits when used in automobile tires. An area where nitrogen will benefit any motorcycle, tire experts agree, is in its ability to maintain consistent tire pressure. “Because of the trends occurring on the automotive side, there’s a lot of talk about nitrogen in the motorcycle industry, and we as a manufacturer obviously monitor Web sites and stuff like that to see what riders are talking about,” Johnson said. The biggest concern Johnson and others have with riders using nitrogen is that it could make them lazy when it comes to checking their tires for road hazards and tire depth.
“Although I’m in complete support of nitrogen, if it makes people think less about their tires I’m not happy,” Johnson said. “Even with nitrogen, the condition of your tires still must be checked on a regular basis. Our company frequently attends motorcycle rallies with our dealers, and typically we’ll check air pressure in the tires of 100 bikes, and on average 85 percent of them are under-inflated by 10 or 15 percent. “And it’s not just air pressure, it’s the whole gambit of inspecting your tires for road hazard damage, for nails, for that kind of stuff and for tread depth. Nitrogen is great, I agree with it, but I still want customers to hug their tires.”
TPMs in Motorcycles?
As with many trends that start in the auto industry, motorcycle industry experts agree it’s only a matter of time before TPMs become standard in touring and cruiser bikes. Because of this, it’s widely acknowledged that nitrogen is here to stay.
“I believe these TPMs are definitely going to be part of the future in motorcycles,” Stacy said. “It’s a spinoff off the auto industry. That technology can easily carry over to the motorcycle world, and I think it fits really well into the touring and cruising side of things, and I think that makes total sense. I don’t think it eliminates the need to go check your tire pressure, however. My fear is that they’ll just push their TPM button and say, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ Maybe I’m old school, but I would still get down there with a gauge every now and then just to make sure.” Johnson agrees that TPMs will dictate that motorcycle riders fill their tires with nitrogen. “It’s something we’ve been testing on our touring tires already, and we have a relationship with a company that builds those TPM systems and we’ve tested them in the United States to get some feedback,” he said. “I do expect that after it becomes mandatory in the auto industry, the motorcycle industry will be soon to follow. And I would expect the touring bikes would start doing it first.”
Marsh points out that with the proper education by dealers to their customers about the importance of proper tire inflation, that a nitrogen system will benefit both dealers and consumers. “There’s no doubt that nitrogen is going to be a money maker for the dealers, said Marsh. “It’s a good add-on sale for dealers, and it’s a really good service to provide for their customers. We’re calling dealers who have a nitrogen system, and the feedback has been great. I think that given the sensitivity of motorcyclists to the importance of their tires, I would think that more of them would be even more interested in putting nitrogen in their tires than car owners.”