Tires my not be the most glamorous equipment in a warehouse, but they literally keep our industry rolling. Priced at hundreds of dollars each, tires and their maintenance make up the producer's highest variable delivery cost after fuel and wages.

Last year at this time, producers were more concerned about availability than price. Impending new EPA regulations inspired a truck-buying spree before the end of 2006, which made tires scarce. The Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) expects a resulting decrease in commercial truck sales this year.

Shipments of original equipment tires will be 1.4 million units, or 21%, lower than in 2006, RMA projects. Replacement tire, or retread, shipments should remain essentially the same.

The same is not true for tire prices. Depending on size and tread, producers can pay anywhere from $250 to $600 per tire. And this will soon increase. Citing rising raw materials costs, the top three tire manufacturers—Bridgestone, Michelin, and Goodyear—all recently announced 4-5% price increases. Along with the increasing price of natural rubber, tires are affected by the same material price increases already affecting concrete producers: oil and steel.

Tire makers have tried using alternative ingredients, like synthetic rubber in place of natural rubber, in an attempt to offset rising costs. But this has drawbacks because synthetic rubber is petroleum-based and susceptible to rising oil costs. It also applies mostly to consumer tires because large commercial trucks require natural rubber content for durability and to resist temperature fluctuations.

Treading along

Most concrete producers already avoid the high cost of new tires by using retreads. “Having a good retread program is the key to saving money and avoiding back-order situations for specialty tires,” says Kevin Rohlwing, senior vice president of training for the Tire Industry Association (TIA).

Rohlwing speaks from experience, having grown up in his family's tire business near Chicago. After monitoring tire usage in construction, farming, and other industries, he considers ready-mix trucks perfectly suited for retreads. Since the trucks make small, short runs and return to the plant regularly for cleaning and inspection, a driver can discover damage quickly and remove tires in time to salvage them.

Tire industry executives emphasize fundamentals for keeping costs in line. “There's no substitute for a good maintenance program,” says David Laubie, vice president of sales engineering for Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire. Laubie is also vice chairman of the Tire and Wheel Study Group for the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association (ATA).

“The rate of wear on mixer truck tires can be very high, so following a regular maintenance schedule is the best thing you can do,” says Laubie. He prescribes simple measures, like making sure the right tires are applied to the correct wheel position, maintaining the correct air pressure needed to carry your load, checking tread depth to verify pull points, and watching for cuts, bruises, or exposed steel that could cause the tire to be permanently removed and lost for retreading.

For more information about tire maintenance programs, visit the ATA atwww.trucking.orgor the TIA