Mark Phelan: Swollen wheel nuts create danger and inconvenience on the road

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Nov. 5, 2018

Jeff Majchrzak’s voice was equal parts frustration and amusement.

“I’ve got swollen lug nuts,” the retired Detroit firefighter said in his voicemail. “Seriously. I don’t know what to do.”

I shushed my inner 10-year-old and listened. When he didn’t ask if my refrigerator was running or I had Prince Albert in a can, I took a chance that this wasn’t a prank call. I’m a trained reporter. I’ve seen enough episodes of “South Park” to be cautious. I did some research.

“We see get four or five cars a day with swollen lug nuts,” said Chris Lynch, owner of Wetmore’s Tire and Auto in Ferndale, Mich. “It’s a real problem, particularly if you get a flat on the side of the road and can’t get your wheels off. That’s a safety issue.”

The tires on Majchrzak’s SUV needed rotating, but his dealer couldn’t remove them. The lug nuts that hold the wheels on were stuck. I’d say they were frozen, but the dealer wanted $8 apiece to replace them, and that’s no laughing matter.

Majchrzak was not happy.

This swelling is a new problem on some fancy wheels with decorative lug nuts. Many of the nuts have shiny chrome caps on top of simple steel nuts. The cap is welded or crimped to the nuts that secure the wheel to the vehicle, said Bob Gilley, General Motors wheel attachment engineer.

The power tools that service shops use to put wheels on and off can generate more force than the nuts are designed for. That can create gaps that let water and dirt in between the cap and nut. When the water freezes, the nut gets bent out of shape. Standard tools don’t fit the nut, leaving the wheel stuck on the car.

The problem has become common enough that Wetmore’s has special socket tools 0.5 millimeters bigger than standard nuts to remove the swollen ones.

Wetmore’s has shelves of replacement nuts, and a drawer of misshapen and corroded ones. Lynch says his workers use power tools to remove the wheel nuts, but hand-tighten them to match the manufacturer’s specification.

You can eliminate the possibility of swollen lug nuts by paying a little extra for chrome-plated or stainless steel nuts. Those shiny finishes replace the caps that are attached to most nuts, but they cost more.

Each automaker has its own specifications for cosmetic covers and the nuts below them.

Ford, which built Majchrzak’s Escape and replaced the troublesome nuts, said owners should contact their dealers if an issue arises.