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Nitrogen: no, niche or now?: Some big names seem to be backing the latest in tire fill

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Nitrogen: no, niche or now?: Some big names seem to be backing the latest in tire fill

Some pretty heavy hitters in the retail tire industry are considering filling tires with nitrogen instead of compressed air. Both the Zurcher Group and Dunn Tire LLC have purchased machinery and are testing the waters. Conrad´s Total Car Care and Tire Centers, the 38th largest independent tire dealership in the United States, is promoting it over the airwaves. "I can see it blossoming inside the organization," says Len Lewin, president of American Car Care Centers. ACCC member Tire Discounters Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio, is on board.

Kevin Snyder, director of performance products for American Tire Distributors (ATD), recently gave a seminar on the topic to dealers in the Miami, Fla. (ATD is a distributor of Rema Tip-Top/North America´s nitrogen inflation equipment).

Time will tell if it´s a fad, but there are a lot of plusses in nitrogen´s favor -- and few minuses.

Chemical engineering

Using nitrogen instead of compressed air has distinct advantages, which lead to immediate benefits for the vehicle owner.

1. Nitrogen molecules are larger than oxygen molecules, so they migrate through the tire three to four times slower. The result: Tires hold their psi longer.

2. It runs about 20% cooler. Less heat results in less tire degradation.

3. It drastically reduces oxidation on the rim and inner-liner (nitrogen systems almost totally eliminate oxygen -- the cause of oxidation -- from the mix).

4. It is environmentally safe.

Nitrogen is an odorless and colorless gas that makes up more than three-quarters of the air we breathe, which explains why it is environmentally safe. It is relatively non-combustible, non-flammable and non-corrosive, as opposed to oxygen, which in its natural form can be all three of the above. Oxygen makes up close to 21% of the atmosphere.

Nitrogen inflation equipment can run anywhere from $3,000 to $14,000, depending on the size and use of the system. Companies like Branick Industries Inc., Ingersoll-Rand Co. and Parker Hannifin Corp. (Parker Tire-Saver Nitrogen Generator) have units featuring membrane technology in the domestic retail marketplace.

Ingersoll-Rand has three different Nitrogen Tire Filling Systems designed to supply adequate amounts of nitrogen for vehicle service shops, high volume tire retailers and truck/fleet operations.

"Fleet operators will quickly realize the cost savings which can be attained by running nitrogen in their tires," says Product Manager Michael Keim. "The number of tires that they will have to retread each year will be far fewer. Studies have shown that tire life can be increased by up to 26% -- which has huge cost saving potential."

Branick´s engineers developed its system in partnership with Air Products and Chemicals Inc. (Air Products, you may remember, introduced its now defunct Ultrafill Tire Inflation System to retailers at the National Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association in Atlanta in 1996.)

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In the field

Dunn Tire recently began offering nitrogen tire inflation service for passenger and light truck tires in four of its Buffalo, N.Y., area dealerships. "After we give it a trial period, we´ll run it out to Rochester and Syracuse," says Mike O´Neill, director of operations.

"I don´t know how the public will buy into it, but there are certainly benefits, and the time´s right. When you look at the fuel prices today, there is a savings."O´Neill says Dunn will charge $5 a tire for the service, although it takes roughly 15 minutes in labor time per tire. "We feel that´s a market-driven price. The car enthusiasts today will look at this as a real savings."

Branick recently announced it has begun supplying its Nitrogen Tire Inflation System to Costco Wholesale´s 383 outlets in the U.S. and Canada. Branick anticipates installation of the tailor-made systems will be completed by August, according to owner Duane Brasch.

The bottom line

"I can´t make that investment to give it away for free," says Henry Ginsberg, owner of City Tire of Kendall Falls in Miami, Fla. He was one of the attendees at the American Tire Distributors´ seminar.

That´s just what Costco is planning to do, at least for its members.Larry Harer has been offering nitrogen service in his Heath (Ohio) Goodyear store since last October. He runs five dealerships, including Heath Goodyear, under the Larry Harer Inc. umbrella.

Harer says he charges $3 to fill a tire with nitrogen, but only if the customer buys the tire from him. Otherwise, he charges $5 a tire.

"I haven´t really put a push on it yet, but I haven´t had anybody turn me down that I´ve encouraged to do it," he says. "Once you explain it to people, they are very receptive."

He targets vehicle owners who have chrome or aluminum wheels for the sales pitch. "I think it´s the only way to go, particularly with chrome wheels."

Harer sells some 5,500 tires annually from his Heath location. Although he hasn´t had his nitrogen inflation service for a complete year, he estimates he is filling almost half of the tires he sells with nitrogen.

"It´s an investment for the customer, and it´s an investment for me."

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