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Filling Your Tires: Nitrogen Vs. Atmospheric Air

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If you’re not an automotive fanatic, you might not have heard about the difference between filling your tires with nitrogen versus “typical” air. Perhaps you’ve come across the topic at some point in your life. You might have even wondered, what are all those car gurus talking about when they mention their tires are filled with nitrogen? And are there really benefits to nitrogen, or is this just another automotive gimmick?

Automotive enthusiasts and scientists alike will have varying opinions and explanations, but let’s make one thing perfectly clear. There are generally two types of drivers in this world: civilian and professional. Most people are civilian drivers, who commute to work and drive to the grocery store. Professional drivers are paid good money to make the latest models look good in commercials and/or race vehicles that cost more than most people make over a lifetime.

Unless you are a professional driver, don’t worry about nitrogen-filled tires. Stick to good-old air and call it a day.

If you’re curious, however, keep reading. See what all the hype is about, and arm yourself the next time you hear someone brag about their nitrogen-filled tires.

Visualizing Nitrogen

There’s a great way to visualize the difference between nitrogen and atmospheric air. Simply cup your hands in front of you as if you were going to receive a handful of pennies. 100 to be exact. Now what if we told you that, of those 100 pennies, 78 are nitrogen and the rest are a variety of other substances that make up atmospheric air?

That’s right. The air pumped into your tires is already 78% nitrogen. So why do racecar drivers insist on filling their tires with nitrogen? Let’s take a closer look.

Benefits of Nitrogen-Filled Tires

To understand the benefits of nitrogen, you need to know a little bit about tires. We think of them as made of solid, thick rubber, but really the tire is “a bit like strands of cooked spaghetti stuck together.” Those strands allow miniscule amounts of air to escape, which is a good thing when the temperature can fluctuate in a matter of hours. However, nitrogen-filled tires lose air at a slower rate than atmospheric air-filled tires do.

At the same time, experts at Jalopnik say nitrogen-filled tires provide “better handling, better MPGs, and keep much more consistent pressure over a range of temperatures.” These are a number of reasons why nitrogen-filled tires are popular with racing aficionados. In an event where the difference in certain factors can mean a step up or down on the winner’s podium, small things surely begin to add up.

Is Nitrogen Right for You?

Nitrogen-filled tires are not a gimmick, but they do have benefits all the same. Unless you’re a professional who needs—and can afford—the extra edge, don’t bother worrying about it. Most shops might even charge you upwards of $100 to upgrade your tires to nitrogen, so take what’s naturally available and air up your tires like everyone else on the road. You’ll still get great performance as long as you mind those air pressure numbers. Best of all, you won’t have to find special filling stations.

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