Thousands of heavy loads hauled over rough gravel roads in the Bakken outback have boosted demand for retreaded tires in Billings.
Traditional country songs talk about 18-wheelers. But king-size trucks pulling four-axle pups roll along on 36 tires.
Tires are replaced as they wear out, not all at once. But a set of 36 new tires costing up to $600 apiece could theoretically cost nearly $22,000, said Al Rees, manager of Hi-Mile Tire in Billings.
The crucial steering axle always gets new tires, he said. So, a pair of new front tires and 34 retreads would cost about $8,000, saving the truck owner about $14,000 over buying new.
The Bakken boom has helped Hi-Mile’s retread business.
“All things considered, the years 2010, 2011 and 2012, those three years have been the busiest for us,” said Rees, who has been servicing and selling tires for 30 years in Eastern Montana.
Led by Billy Jack Stone, Hi-Mile workers find and mark nail holes and tread separations, grind off the damaged tread, replace it and bake the tire under pressure for more than four hours to cure the rubber. The shop is filled with high whines, pneumatic hisses and the ever-present smell of tires.
The largest retread operator in Billings is Tire Rama’s Interstate Manufacturing on Fourth Avenue North, which can retread as many as 150 tires a day.
Recycling tires is the original green industry, said Interstate manager Dave King.
“You’re reusing that tire, rather than sending it to the landfill,” he said.
The Bakken is bumping business up a bit, King said. But his team mostly retreads Bandag tires for local trucking fleets like UPS and Sysco Foods.
On a smaller scale, L.P. Anderson Tire Factory’s shop retreads about 40 tires a week and a quarter of the recaps go to the Bakken.
“We do a lot for the owner/operators, the independent operators,” said general manager Jared McDermott.
Trucks hauling water or oil can retread tires about three times. Trucks hauling lighter loads or driving better roads can do five retreads.
With the huge savings, the business is highly competitive and the industry is consolidating.
“Over the last 10 years, there’s probably been a reduction of 25 percent of U.S. retread stores,” said Dave Daniels, who owns Rimrock Tire in Cody, Wyo., and a retail tire store in Powell, Wyo.
Daniels is bucking that trend.
Last December, he purchased the Goodyear store on Southgate Drive in Billings and renamed it Rimrock Tire. He retreads about 24 tires per day in Cody and is aiming for twice as many in Billings.
After the last oil boom ended in the early 1980s, Hi-Mile was shipping 50 retreads every other week to western North Dakota and Eastern Montana.
Now with the Bakken boom, the company ships as many as 250 tires each week to these oil fields during the peak summer and fall months.
Whalen Tire in Billings also sells retreads to Bakken operators, but the retreading is done in Butte and the company doesn’t deliver tires.
Hi-Mile manager Rees said retreads make up as much as 40 percent of his company’s business.
The Bakken sales bump is nice, he said, but no one knows how long it will continue. The last oil bust came three decades ago when Rees was servicing tires in his hometown of Sidney.
“It’s really hard to put out of your mind,” he said. “Trailer houses, pickups, motorcycles — all the toys — everything went back to the bank and you couldn’t give stuff away, much less sell it.”