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Article written by Jack Glenn at Freightwaves

Fleets haven’t caught a break since the beginning of the pandemic, as driver, warehouse and trailer capacity has diminished amid ongoing freight surges. A wave of shortages continue to keep the industry gasping for air — now it’s tires.

“Tires, fuel and labor are your three biggest costs, and with tire prices continuing to go up, fleets have to really figure out ways to maximize their tires and assets,” said Bob Bortner, mid-Atlantic territory manager for commercial tire and fleet solutions leader IMI.

Overinflated tire prices have exacerbated transportation costs this year. Bortner said rubber prices in May were up 70% year-over-year, noting that every tire manufacturer has dealt with several — or at the very least one — price hikes the past two years. It’s even gouging the wallets of daily commuters.

“I just had some tires put on my car, and I probably paid 25 to 30% more than I did a couple years ago,” Bortner said. “The end isn’t in sight; it’s going to get worse before it gets better. That’s for sure.”

Of all the shortages gripping the industry today, the tire dilemma is arguably the most frustrating. After all, tires’ key ingredient — rubber — grows on, or in, trees. Rubber is extracted in the same way that maple syrup is tapped from trees, Bortner explained. So why a shortage?

Like most supply chain disruption, COVID-19 is the boilerplate explanation. The pandemic shuttered rubber procurement in Malaysia and Thailand, two of the largest producers of natural rubber. The situation was only made worse by a leaf disease that harmed many trees in those regions.

But these were only the delays at the origin; tires produced and shipped are undergoing even more challenges in transit to the U.S., spurred by the container ship bottlenecks plaguing many American ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Bortner wishes luck to any fleet looking to stockpile tires at the moment. He recently spoke with a sales rep from one of the nation’s largest tire manufacturers who said the manufacturer has 4,000 tires back-ordered and doesn’t know when they’ll arrive, adding that 19.5s and wide-base drives are all the company can get its hands on.

“So the good fleets are really looking for ways to increase tire life and preserve the tire casings that they have,” Bortner said. “Retreading is a viable option, but even that is becoming more difficult to come by some of the rubber products involved with that.”

Plus, there’s only a finite number of times that you can retread a tire. Some in the industry are pushing it to the limit to save on rubber costs whereas others have set limits due to safety concerns. “To be frank, the retreaders that I deal with on a regular basis do a tremendous job,” Bortner said. “Retreading has come a long way from what it was years ago that I have the utmost confidence they’ll do a safe job.”

The tire life cycle can be extended even further with IMI’s EQUAL FLEXX. This internal wheel-end balancing solution reduces vibration from the wheel end, delivering fuel and tire cost savings.

Rather than use a spin balancer, which is time- and labor-intensive, fleets instead can just insert a bag of FLEXX into the tires and let technicians focus on more productive and safety-improving tasks.

“As the vehicle goes down the road, the bag breaks open and balances for the lifetime of the tire,” Bortner said. “It increases tire mileage; those assets now are extremely important. The more miles you can get out of your fleet’s tires is what you want to be doing.”