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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


More on TPMS

I wrote about Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems two weeks ago, but I’ve received some new information since then.

I previously stated that TPMS has appeared in vehicles since late 2007, as part of a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration mandate.  True.  I wrote that some shops in our region will, and some will not, install wheels lacking sensors on vehicles with TPMS.  True.  I also mentioned that wheels without sensors CAN be legally installed on vehicles with TPMS.  True AND false.

It is true that owners can install, for example, winter wheel/tire combinations without sensors legally.  But while some shops do it, it is NOT legal for them to do so.

The federal law, 49 U.S.C. 30122(b), states, “A manufacturer, distributor, dealer or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard.”  The ambiguity lies in the “knowingly make inoperative any part” segment of the law.

Over the first 3-4 years of the TPMS requirement, interpretations of the NHTSA law varied.  In fact, it was common thinking that simply installing “sensorless” wheels was did not qualify as a violation of the “make inoperative” phrase in the law.

But on November 23, 2011, the NHTSA penned a ruling to the Tire Industry Association clarifying this apparent ambiguity.  Reader J.S., who works at a major local tire service center, brought this to my attention when he wrote, “Their ruling states, in part, ‘a service provider would violate the “make inoperative” prohibition of 49 UCS 30122(b) by installing new tires and wheels that do not have a functioning TPMS system.’ ”

He challenged (with good cause) my assertion that the operation can be performed legally, especially since he has properly informed his customers otherwise.  In other words, even though a private individual can legally install wheels lacking sensors without any penalty other than a perpetual TPMS warning light, a public service facility faces up to a $10,000 fine when doing it.  So, PLEASE NOTE:  Dealers willing to make the sensorless swap are bucking the system and skirting the law, and those who won’t are simply complying with the law.

Another truth is that original equipment sensors cost around $100 each.  There are aftermarket options, but those sometimes cause compatibility issues; most shops I’ve questioned prefer to install OEM (original equipment manufacturer) sensor valves to avoid leaks, incompatibility and nuisance triggering of warning lights.

There’s a consumer backlash to all of this, as evidenced by reader R.T.’s experience relayed in my previous TPMS column, when he bristled at the news of an extra $400-$500 expense to install his snow tires/wheels.  Although he found a shop to do it (they even told him it WAS legal), if the NHTSA ruling is enforced and holds up, more people may opt to perform winter wheel changeover themselves.  This is the first full winter since the TIA received the clarification of the “make inoperative” provision of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and it follows that this winter is the first time that vehicle owners have found substantive resistance to install their winter wheels.

Industry experts are befuddled too.  “We are admittedly surprised by NHTSA’s response that aftermarket tire and wheels must include TPMS sensors,” said Roy Littlefield, TIA executive vice president. “Based on the language in the April 2005 Final Rule, we believed that the presence of the malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) would notify the driver that the TPMS was not operable as a result of their decision to decline new sensors or pay for the additional labor to install the original sensors in the aftermarket tire and wheel assemblies. While we have some genuine concerns regarding consumer backlash, it is clear that the Federal government is requiring retailers to make sure the TPMS continues to function following the purchase of aftermarket tires and wheels.”

TPMS has both fans and detractors, but I think the fan count may dwindle in wintry states as drivers are informed that installation of their winter wheel/tire combinations may cost them an unexpected $500 this year.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at