The next time you roll up to Costco’s tire center, you may notice bright green hoses instead of the typical black. This is because Costco opts to fill your tires with nitrogen rather than regular compressed air.
Costco and other proponents claim nitrogen offers certain advantages. But what exactly are these benefits? Are there drawbacks? And how much does it cost?
Keep reading to learn the reasons WHY Costco uses nitrogen to fill tires.
Nitrogen is an inert, nonflammable and odorless gas that comprises nearly 80% of the air we breathe. The gas is used in a variety of manufacturing and industrial applications, including food storage and packaging. Since nitrogen is stable and nonreactive, it helps maintain proper pressure levels better than regular compressed air.
Nitrogen has been used to inflate aircraft tires and race car tires for years to reduce pressure fluctuations from temperature swings. The racing industry also utilizes nitrogen because it contains less moisture than atmospheric air. Water vapor can corrode wheel components over time and cause pressure changes as it condenses at low temperatures.
In recent years, nitrogen inflation has expanded into the consumer automotive space. Costco is one major retailer providing this service, claiming benefits for common passenger vehicles.
It certainly sounds enticing, but just how advantageous for your average car or truck? First let’s examine why Costco advocates using nitrogen in tires.
Why Costco Uses Nitrogen in Tires (Benefits)
Costco maintains that inflating tires with pure nitrogen instead of regular compressed air offers some key advantages:
#1 – Keeps Proper Inflation Pressure Longer
Nitrogen molecules are larger than oxygen molecules, so nitrogen is less likely to seep through porous rubber tires over time. This helps maintain the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended tire pressures longer between refills. This stability in tire pressure can improve your car’s handling, making your drives more comfortable (and more fun).
#2 – Reduces Tire Degradation
Air contains moisture, which can accelerate the aging of wheels and tires from the inside through a process called oxidation. Steel belts and other components corrode faster when exposed to water and oxygen. Nitrogen is dry and inert, which slows down internal tire degradation.
#3 – Possible Fuel Savings
Underinflated tires create more rolling resistance with the road, reducing gas mileage. By holding pressure better between fill-ups, nitrogen may improve fuel efficiency compared to air-filled tires. However, estimates on potential fuel savings vary widely.
#4 – Improves Safety
Properly inflated tires are safer to drive on. Nitrogen keeps pressures at optimum levels better than air, providing more consistent traction, braking and handling. Worn out unevenly inflated tires are more prone to blowouts and skidding in wet conditions.
#5 – Less Frequent Top-Ups
Thanks to nitrogen’s propensity to maintain pressure, you’ll find yourself checking and adjusting your tire pressure less often, easing your maintenance routine.
But even with the rationale explained, questions linger over just how substantial the benefits really are for most drivers. Let’s analyze further.
Evaluating the Benefits of Nitrogen-Filled Tires
Independent studies evaluating the extent of nitrogen benefits present a mixed picture. While nitrogen inflation shows promise, actual savings in fuel efficiency, tread life, and safety remain challenging to quantify conclusively.
Potential Fuel Savings – A U.S. Department of Energy study found a statistically significant fuel economy benefit from keeping tires inflated with nitrogen versus air—but only approximately 1-2% savings. For an average vehicle getting 25 mpg, that equates to less than 1 extra mile per gallon. Other independent tests have shown essentially no difference in fuel efficiency.
Tire Lifespan – Maintaining ideal tire pressure does reduce abnormal tread wear issues. However, estimates on enhanced longevity from nitrogen versus properly inflated air-filled tires vary widely from 0% to 10-15%. Much depends on individual driving habits and road conditions.
Safety – Proper inflation is universally agreed to improve control and braking responsiveness. However, there is little hard evidence confirming nitrogen alone provides substantial additional safety advantages for everyday drivers in passenger vehicles. Race car drivers may have a different perspective.
For best results, nitrogen tires also require disciplined maintenance habits from drivers: no ignored slow leaks, keeping recommended pressure levels, and periodic refilling. Without that commitment, benefits quickly diminish.
Drawbacks of Nitrogen Tire Fills at Costco
While the potential benefits from nitrogen tire inflation remain somewhat uncertain, there are also a few drawbacks to consider:
#1 – Availability Limits
Nitrogen refilling stations are not nearly as ubiquitous as air pumps. Costco aims to alleviate this with tire shops at many locations, but it requires planning ahead and sometimes lengthy waits. For customers not near a retail outlet with nitrogen, it becomes impractical.
#2 – No Warning on Leaks
Nitrogen itself is not easier to detect leak-wise than compressed air. If you get a screw in your tire, there’s no hissing sound to warn of pressure loss. A tire pressure gauge is still required to prevent unnoticed underinflation.
#3 – Time
Getting nitrogen-filled tires at Costco can also come with a “time” disadvantage. Costco is known for its busy tire centers, and you might have to wait for service, especially during peak hours or days. This wait time can be a significant inconvenience if you have a tight schedule. Even your local Costco offers a self-serve tire inflation station, there’s good chance you won’t be the only one needing it.
Also, unless you’re already planning on making a Costco run for household goods, drive time to the location can add to the overall time disadvantage. This is especially true if there are closer alternatives for tire service that do not offer nitrogen filling, making the extra drive to Costco seem inefficient.
#4 – Higher Upfront Costs
Installing nitrogen inflation equipment carries greater expense for retailers compared to basic air compressor stations. Some of that infrastructure investment can translate into higher service charges passed on to consumers. Costco absorbs the outlay as part of membership perks (which you do end up paying for through your annual membership cost).
Weighing the Pros and Cons
On one hand, nitrogen tire inflation offers scientifically-grounded benefits on paper (ie: better pressure retention, reduced internal corrosion, and optimized fuel economy when tires maintain ideal inflation). Makes sense in theory.
However, actual experiential data remains limited and inconsistent. The harsh reality is most everyday drivers may observe minor to zero savings over properly filled air-inflated tires.
Yet for Costco members the service is free, making it a reasonable no-risk proposition to give nitrogen a try. Just be aware the primary advantages lie in maintaining diligent tire pressure habits more than any magical properties from the nitrogen itself.
So if opting for nitrogen, be prepared to stick with consistent monitoring and inflation scheduling. Otherwise any potential gains disappear along with the seeping nitrogen gas.
How Much Does It Cost to Fill Tires With Nitrogen at Costco?
Costco offers free nitrogen tire inflation service to all current members. It doesn’t matter if you use one of their self-service tire inflation stations or have a Costco tire center technicians fill your tires. This nitrogen tire filling comes at no extra charge since it is one of many complimentary perks included with a Costco membership.
Is It Safe to Mix Air and Nitrogen In Tires?
Mixing regular air with nitrogen in your tires isn’t harmful, but doing so dilutes the purity of nitrogen inside, reducing its potential benefits. For optimal performance, it’s recommended to maintain a high concentration of nitrogen.
How Often Do You Need to Top Off Tires With Nitrogen?
There are no definitive guidelines on how often you need to top off nitrogen-filled tires. But here are some best practices based on typical nitrogen inflation recommendations:
- Check tire pressure at least once per month to maintain optimum inflation levels, just as you should with air-filled tires. Low pressure reduces expected benefits.
- Schedule periodic nitrogen refilling roughly every 6 months or 6,000 – 8,000 miles. This helps replenish any nitrogen inevitably lost through permeation over time.
- Refill nitrogen sooner if you experience an obvious or suspected drop in tire pressure. Don’t let significant under-inflation linger unaddressed.
- Always refill with additional nitrogen rather than compressed air. Adding air defeats the purpose and dilutes benefits from nitrogen’s reduced permeability.
- If unable to locate a nitrogen fill station for several months, it can be acceptable to top off with air temporarily. Just make plans for proper nitrogen reinflation when convenient.
- Before long road trips or driving in more extreme climates/temperatures, consider proactively filling tires with extra nitrogen to account for potential pressure fluctuations.
Are There Specific Hours to Access Nitrogen Fill Stations at Costco?
Yes, the availability of nitrogen fill stations correlates with the hours of the Costco Tire Center. Your local Costco can provide timing specifics, but they generally mirror store opening times.
Does Nitrogen Provide Any Warranty Protection?
No, nitrogen inflation does not extend or alter any original tire or vehicle manufacturer warranties. Tire lifespan and coverage remains the same whether using nitrogen or compressed air, assuming proper inflation is maintained in both cases.
Is Nitrogen Safe for Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS)?
Yes, nitrogen is fully compatible with factory installed tire pressure monitoring systems. It will not harm sensors or result in false readings. The only difference is reduced pressure loss over time. TPMS alerts may activate less frequently.
Can Nitrogen Explode Like Compressed Air if Overfilled?
No, nitrogen poses no explosion risk even if drastically over-inflated, unlike compressed air. However, overinflation can still damage tires and wheels by stretching and deforming components. Always inflate carefully to recommended levels.
Can You Fill Nitrogen Tires at Home?
Yes, it’s possible to use nitrogen to fill tires at home, but it requires obtaining specific nitrogen supply equipment and taking proper safety precautions:
- Nitrogen can be purchased by consumers from industrial gas suppliers in high-pressure cylinders or tanks, or as smaller nitrogen concentrators for home use.
- Inflating tires directly from nitrogen cylinders can be dangerous, so a properly calibrated adjustable nitrogen regulator is required to control flow rate and pressure.
- For non-mechanics, the easiest home method is using nitrogen tire inflator kits. They supply nitrogen via portable refills from small tanks or filter atmospheric air to boost existing nitrogen concentration.
- Home nitrogen supplies can be costly relative to free service from retailers like Costco with nitrogen equipment on-site. Pure gas cylinders must also be transported and exchanged periodically.
While home filling is possible, it requires more investment and diligence to handle properly. The convenience and safety of professional nitrogen inflation at retailers argues in favor of this alternative for most mainstream consumers. But for auto enthusiasts, the home DIY method does provide greater self-reliance.
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