Pump It Up, Until You Can Feel It

Pump it up, until you can feel it
Pump it up, when you don’t really need it*

Last summer I noticed that I was going to the gas station about once a month to use the air pump. The flat tire symbol (_!_) on my dashboard was lighting up, and so I dutifully went to put air in my tires. I know a couple of gas stations in Edmonton that have working air pumps, so it wasn’t a big deal to go to one of them. Since I didn’t know which tire had the leak, I put air in all of them.

low pressure tire
Very Low-Pressure Tire by Chad Davis via Flickr

When this began to happen repeatedly, I thought I should have a professional look at the problem. My family thought, quite rightly, that I already spent too much money at the dealership, and they convinced me to go instead to a local mechanic to have him take a look at it. I took the car in, explained the problem, and left it there all day. When I returned to pick up the car, he said I didn’t have a problem because there was no flat tire light showing on the dashboard. I knew that. I had explained to him that I had put air in, but I still had a tire with a slow leak.

Frustrated by that failure in communication, I waited about a month until the dashboard light came on again and I took the car to the dealership. Once again, I left it there all day. When I returned they told me they couldn’t find the problem. I protested that I did, in fact, have a problem and that their conclusion was frustrating because I was due to set out on my journey from Edmonton to San Jose the next week. They were very apologetic.

On route to California in November, I kept an eye on the dashboard lights, but the flat tire light did not appear. At least, it didn’t appear until after I had been in San Jose for a week or two. That’s when I began to realize how many gas stations do not have working air pumps.

Air and Water
Air and Water by arbyreed via Flickr

Side note: Really, you guys. This is not acceptable. I have found pumps with no hoses, pumps with no hose nozzles, pumps that claim to require cash but no place to put money, pressure gauges that don’t work, and pumps that are simply just too difficult to use single-handedly. After several failed attempts to put air in my tires, and sometimes letting out more air than I put in, I found a gas station with a functioning air pump and I was able to fill my tires effectively.

Then, when the light came on again about a month ago, I decided to take the car to a local mechanic’s shop that specializes in tires. I explained to the man at the desk the problem with the tire and the problems with the gas station air pumps, and I left the car there. When I came to pick it up again, he said they had found the problem. Yay! He told me that the seal around the valve was creased and causing the slow leak. All right! Problem solved.

Well, not so fast. Last week the dashboard flat tire light came on again. I assumed that the same tire was at fault and took my car to the local gas station with the working air pump. As it turned out, someone else was using it at the time so I waited. I waited for a long time. When I finally got to the pump I found that I couldn’t put money in, so I had to go to the convenience store to ask the person behind the desk to turn on the air pump. When I got back to my car, I was in the process of putting air into the tire that I thought was the problem when a man came up and offered to help me.

Car tire pressure gauge
Tire Pressure Gauge by SrA Hannah Landeros via Wikimedia Commons

This is one of those moments where you weigh the value of accepting help from a stranger or declining the help and pissing him off. I accepted the help. He then used the same hose I was using to put air in the same tire I had been putting air into. The pressure gauge wasn’t working, so we both guesstimated when we thought it was full enough. He was in a hurry because he wanted to use the pump himself, but before we parted ways he told me that he had a brother who sold tires if I needed a new one. He couldn’t remember the name of his brother’s business, though, so I declined to share my email address with him.

As I drove away, I saw that the flat tire symbol was still showing on my dashboard. We had filled the wrong tire.

For a few days since then, I have been driving around with that accusatory symbol staring at me from my dashboard, but I didn’t know where to go for air. I went online to find out why so many gas stations’ air pumps are so useless. I actually typed in “why are gas station air pumps so hard to use?” and was fascinated by the responses. It turns out, there are many of us who are frustrated by this. It also turns out that the recommended response is to buy your own air compressor and do it yourself! Who’d have thought it?

Auto tires from pxhere

Then I searched online for the most highly recommended portable tire air compressors and found one in my price range. I ordered it and it arrived yesterday. I was a bit nervous about using it because I thought it might be too technical for me. As such, I was still considering going to the tire shop, but since I now had the necessary tool it seemed silly not to at least try it out. I was afraid that I might just let out more air than I put in, but I reasoned that I could always call the automobile association if I ended up with a completely flat tire.

My car is parked in a dimly lit underground garage, and it was a bit tricky to read the instructions, but I managed to figure it out. I was also hampered by the fact that all the buttons on the gadget were black on a black background, but with a little trial and error, I found it surprisingly easy to use. It was actually easier and faster than the gas station air pump and far quicker than leaving my car with a mechanic for a day. I was able to check the psi of each tire very quickly and put air in the flat one in a matter of a few minutes.

I may still have a tire with a slow leak, but now I have in the trunk of my car the means to solve the problem. I also have a newfound confidence in my own technical capabilities. All that remains to be done is for all the gas stations in the world to be persuaded to update the functioning of their air pumps. I’ll put that on my To-Do list.


*by Elvis Costello Pump It Up lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group


  1. I am shaking my head. You have to pay to put air in tires?

    We don’t have self-service stations here – all are manned/womanned and one is always on hand to help out with filling the tires.
    I am also surprised at the lackadaisical attitude of your service depots.
    For what it’s worth;The old fashioned way my dad taught me how to check for a leaking valve is to coat the area with water down dish washing liquid, or simply use some saliva/spit.
    If there is a leak the escaping air will bubble and you’ve identified where the leak is.
    It’s also wise to occasionally check tires for nails that may have embedded themselves in the tread. Those thing are a bane for me. If you find one get someone at a service station to remove it!

    • The gas stations in California are all self-serve, as far as I can tell, and so are nearly all the ones I have been to on route from Canada.

      I expect the car service places have a system for finding leaks, but whatever it is, is not doing the job for me. I’ll ask them if they have tried dish washing liquid the next time I’m there!

  2. Good for you for taking matters into your own hands (literally) and getting yourself a portable air compressor! I will follow your excellent example.

  3. The portable air compressors are great for filling bicycle tires as well.
    I live in a town with a population of around 80,000. We have one full-service gas station. I think it is a rarity now. I recall as a child, going to our local gas station and interacting with the gregarious guy who filled our gas for us. It was the fun part of going to the gas station.

    • I’m sure my family in Edmonton will find lots of uses for the air compressor! Bike tires, air beds, soccer balls…

      I remember having my gas pumped for me, too, but it was a long time ago. I wonder if those people kept the air pumps in working order. It doesn’t seem as though anyone has that job now.

  4. Yes, finding an air pump, then a working one, is a search. And not a priority to the gas station to keep them in working order, I’m thinking.

  5. Buy yourself a analogue tyre pressure gauge from the likes of Amazon. They retail for around £5. A quick check once a week/month would identify which tyre has a problem.

    Also, having Holts Tyreweld (or similar) in the car is a lifesaver if you are in the middle of nowhere.

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