If you just noticed a nail in your tire and you’re starting to panic, take a deep breath. I’ve been in a similar situation a number of times, and I can assure you that everything will be fine. In this guide, I’ll offer you the advice you need.
There are a few factors that determine how long you can drive with a nail in your tire before it goes flat. If the nail is small, in the center of your tread, and the weather isn’t very hot, then you might be able to go a few days before you need to fill your tire. If the hole is large, near the sidewall, and it’s hot outside, you might just have a few hours or a day before your tire goes flat.
I’ll be talking about flat tires due to nails. More specifically, how long it takes a tire with a nail to go flat if it’s safe to keep driving, and what you should do. Let’s start with a quick definition.
How Tires Work
Before answering the question, I should explain how your tire works. The tire is a piece of rubber that has some other materials and webbing inside to keep it strong and leak-proof. The rubber tire gets affixed to a metal wheel, and together they make a sealed tube for air to fill.
When you put air in your tires, you increase the pressure of the air inside of the tire. This is only possible if the assembly is sealed and leak-proof.
Once you hit a certain pressure, the tread of your tire is perfectly flat, and you’re ready to start driving. For reference, your manufacturer’s suggested air pressure is posted on a sticker in the door jamb of your driver’s door.
Just to reiterate, this process only works when everything is sealed.
What’s Wrong with a Nail in a Tire?
Once a nail punctures a tire, the assembly is not sealed anymore. Suddenly, there’s a gap for air to escape through.
This is where some people get confused. If a nail is stuck in a tire, doesn’t that mean that the hole is technically filled with the nail? Not at all. In fact, air will rush around the nail through tiny channels and cracks while the nail is still stuck.
Once removed, the leaking air becomes more obvious. However, if you lean close to your tire while your car is on the ground, you might even hear the air hissing from the puncture spot. For a better indicator, fill up a spray bottle with water and dish soap and spray the nail.
The area around the nail is going to bubble like crazy, which is proof that air is escaping from the hole.
Over enough time, you’ll notice that your tire is too flat to drive on. If you get a flat at home, follow this guide to quickly fix your situation.
Even with enough pressure, it’s not advisable to keep a nail in your tire while you drive around. It has to do with a few key downsides of having a nail in your tire:
You’re Leaking Air
Above everything else, you’re continuously leaking air when a nail is in your tire. Even though it might be a slow leak, you’ll have to keep refilling your tires every so often.
Not only is this inconvenient, but it’s a waste of time. It might make you late to work a few mornings, especially when it’s very hot in the morning.
The Hole Just Gets Worse
Imagine this from the nail’s perspective. Since it’s sitting on your car’s tread, it keeps getting jostled and pushed every rotation of the tire. As the rubber comes in contact with the road, the nail is experiencing more force.
Every rotation makes the hole even worse. I’ve had cars in the past where the nail dislodged itself over time and left a nasty, nonsymmetric hole in the tire from all the extra force of driving.
If you want to quickly plug the hole and have the best chance of saving your tire, you need to remove the nail as soon as possible.
With a bigger and worse puncture hole, your tire will lose air even faster and you have a higher chance of a blowout.
It Can Lead to a Blowout
In my opinion, a tire blowout is one of the scariest things that can happen while you’re driving. It’s when your tire suddenly explodes and rips away from your car.
If you’ve noticed strips of rubber on the side of the highway, that’s the residue that’s left over from a blowout.
Blowouts happen when the walls of your tire are compromised. You’ll typically get some warning signs before like cracks, bulges, and discoloration in your tire.
When you have a puncture, the geometry of your tire shifts and it becomes compromised. As the air pressure is held steady, extra force is pushing against already compromised areas of rubber.
Add speed to the equation, and things get much worse. At the end of the day, keeping a nail in your tire puts you at a bigger risk of experiencing a tire blowout.
How Long Does It Take a Tire with a Nail to Go Flat?
If you want a general answer, it typically takes a few days for the tire to go flat. As the location of the puncture becomes less ideal, the size gets bigger, and the outside temperature is higher, that answer can shrink down to just a few hours or a day.
I recommend not waiting to remove a nail from a car tire try to remove it as soon as possible. As I just mentioned, it can cause a blowout or completely ruin your tire.
If your question is just coming from a place of curiosity and you wonder how long you have before your tire will be flat, then the answer is a bit broader.
Speaking from experience, the timeframe can vary depending on the location and size of the nail. I had a car with a small 16 gauge finishing nail in the center of the tread that I didn’t notice for weeks. Another time, a large roofing nail punctured my tire near the sidewall, and it was flat within a day.
In both cases, I knew exactly when I ran over the nail, and they were both due to home construction near my house.
Is it Safe to Drive with a Nail in a Tire?
It’s not safe at all to drive with a nail in your tire. It can lead to blowouts and can strand you with a flat tire as you run errands. Instead, you should replace your tire or plug the hole as soon as you notice the nail.
If you’re away from your house, I would suggest changing your flat tire and putting your spare on until you get home or driving to the closest tire shop.
The Best Way to Find a Nail in Your Tire
Let’s suppose your tire is flat again after refilling it a few days ago. This section will help you find a puncture or nail so you can remove it and fix the hole.
Keep the Tire on the Car
Some people’s first instinct is to remove the tire so they can find the hole. While this works for finding a nail, it won’t help you locate small holes in the rubber that are leaking air.
Instead, keep the tire installed on the car. By doing this, you’re forcing the weight of your car on each of the tires. This increases the force and pressure that your tire sees. As a result, the air will leak faster, and you’ll have a better shot of spotting it.
Take a Listen
Kneel down close to your tire and put your ear near the rubber. Take a second and really listen. In my experience, air escaping from a tire has a distinct hissing noise that you might only hear when you’re close enough.
If you hear air rushing, then you know that there’s a puncture somewhere in your tire.
Spray Water or Look for the Shine
Now you can finally locate the hole. Grab a spray bottle and fill it with warm water and a little bit of dish soap. Shake up the bottle to ensure it’s mixed well.
Take the spray bottle to your car and give it a generous spray around your tire. Wait a few seconds and then take a look with a flashlight to look for any bubbling.
If air is escaping, it will make a lot of bubbles in the dish soap solution due to the low surface tension. If you see bubbles, then you just found the puncture.
Alternatively, you can just look for a shiny piece of metal in your tire. Personally, I like to shine a flashlight on the wheel well and look for the head of the metal nail.
At this point, some people might prefer to take off the tire so they can easily rotate it around and spot the tire. That’s a perfectly reasonable way to find the nail, and it also sets you up nicely to patch the hole once you find it.
As you just learned, it might take a few hours or a few days for a tire with a nail in it to go flat. I should also reiterate that it’s an unsafe driving condition and you should repair your tire as soon as you notice the nail.
If you have more car questions, explore my blog. I have how-tos, instructions, and guides that should help you through owning, troubleshooting, and maintaining your car. Also, check out my helpful list of recommended products.