How Tire Pressure Gauges Work

By: Marshall Brain  | 

A tire pressure gauge is a relatively simple device. See more car gadget pictures.

If you've got a car, you probably own one of those pen-sized tire-pressure gauge­s. It's got a funny little spherical thing on one end and a little sliding scale on the other end.

Have you ever wondered how it measures the pressure? And why doesn't the little scale just blow ­out the end?


In this article, we'll figure out exactly how these pressure gauges work!




Understanding Pressure


­Let's say you take a 1-inch by 1-inch piece of wood that's 3 feet long, and let's say this piece of wood weighs 1 pound. If you were to stand that piece of wood on-end on your foot, it would place 1 pound of force on your toe. Since its cross-section is 1 square inch, it exerts 1 pound per square inch of force (1 psi) on your toe. If you were to take a 30-foot-long piece of the same wood and balance it on your foot, it would apply 10 psi of pressure. If it were 300 feet long, it would apply 100 psi, and so on.


Water that is 1 foot deep exerts 0.43 psi, so if you are a mile underwater there's about 2,270 psi being exerted. That is, a 1-inch-square column of water a mile high weighs 2,270 pounds.

Air works the same way. The atmosphere is about 50 miles "deep," and at sea level it exerts 14.7 psi. That is, a 1-inch-square column of air 50 miles high weighs 14.7 pounds. Our bodies think 14.7 psi of air pressure is completely normal.


Exerting Pressure

­T­he way a gas like air exerts pressure inside a container like a tire or a balloon is through the action of the air atoms colliding with the sides of their container.

Imagine that you have a single atom of nitrogen in a sealed container. That atom is in constant motion ricocheting off the sides of the container. The speed of the atom's motion is controlled by the temperature -- at 0 degrees Kelvin (absolute zero) the atom has no motion, and at higher temperatures the speed increases. By its collisions with the sides of the container, the atom exerts an outward pressure. So there are two ways to increase the pressure inside the container:


  • Raise the temperature of the atoms inside the container - The hotter the atoms, the faster they move.
  • Put more atoms in the container - The more gas atoms you put in the container, the more collisions you get and the greater the pressure they exert on the sides of the container.

When you blow up a tire on a car or a bike, you use a pump to increase the pressure of the air inside the tire by increasing the number of atoms inside the tire. A car tire typically runs at 30 psi, and a bike tire might run at 60 to 100 psi. There is no magic here -- the pump simply stuffs more air into a constant volume, so the pressure rises.


Inside the Pressure Gauge


­The parts of a typical pressure gauge look like this:



There are three simple steps involved in measuring a tire's pressure with a pressure gauge:

  1. Get in a steady position to apply the pressure gauge to the valve stem.
  2. Apply the gauge, forming a good seal between the gauge and the stem and releasing air from the tire into the gauge. Note how the pin inside the gauge presses against the valve pin inside the valve stem to release air from the tire.
  3. Read the pressure from the gauge.

Inside the tube that makes up the body of the pressure gauge, there is a small, tight-sealing piston much like the piston inside a bicycle pump. The inside of the tube is polished smooth. The piston is made of soft rubber so it seals nicely against the tube, and the inside of the tube is lubricated with a light oil to improve the seal. In the picture below, you can see that the piston is at one end of the tube and the stop is at the other. A spring runs the length of the tube between the piston and the stop, and this compressed spring pushes the piston toward the left-hand side of the tube.

The funny spherical thing on the left end of the gauge is hollow. The opening in the sphere is designed to engage a tire's valve stem. If you look in the opening, you will be able to see a rubber seal and a small fixed pin. The rubber seal presses against the lip of the valve stem to prevent air from leaking during the measurement, and the pin depresses the valve pin in the valve stem to let air flow into the gauge. The air will flow around the pin, through the hollow passage inside the sphere and into the piston chamber.

When the pressure gauge is applied to the valve stem of a tire, the pressurized air from the tire rushes in and pushes the piston toward the right. The distance the piston travels is relative to the pressure in the tire. The pressurized air is pushing the piston to the right, and the spring is pushing back. The gauge is designed to have some maximum pressure, and for the sake of example let's say it is 60 psi. The spring has been calibrated so that 60-psi air will move the piston to the far-right of the tube, while 30 psi moves the piston half-way along the tube, and so on. When you release the gauge from the valve stem, the flow of pressurized air stops and the spring immediately pushes the piston back to the left.

To allow you to read the pressure, there is a calibrated rod inside the tube:

The spring is not shown in this figure, but the calibrated rod fits inside the spring. The calibrated rod rides on top of the piston, but the rod and the piston are not connected and there is a fairly tight fit between the rod and the stop. When the piston moves to the right, it pushes the calibrated rod. When the pressure is released, the piston moves back to the left but the rod stays in its maximum position to allow you to read the pressure.

For more information on tire pressure gauges and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Originally Published: Apr 1, 2000

Tire Pressure Gauge FAQ

Why is my tire pressure light on when my tires are fine?
Cold weather could impact your tire pressure. The light might turn off later on as the internal pressure of the tire is resolved once you hit the road. Still, check your tire pressure with a gauge to make sure it's safe to drive.
Why is my tire pressure light on?
It could mean your tire pressure is outside the recommended range.
Where are JACO tire gauges made?
All JACO products are manufactured and tested for quality control in the U.S.
Does Walmart sell tire pressure gauges?
Yes, you can shop for tire pressure gauges on Walmart's website.
What should my tire pressure gauge read?
Tire pressure monitoring systems are programmed with a range of acceptable circumstances. For direct tire pressure monitoring, this is often between 28 and 35 pounds per square inch (psi) of air in the tire.