Snow Chains: Choose Correct Size, Use With Care

February 21, 2019 by Rick Stella, @RickStella

Vehicle owners in regions with frigid winters face an annual dilemma: Do they purchase snow tires or opt for chains during bad weather? For those with trucks, SUVs or vans, snow tires may cost more than $500, making chains an attractive option.

But some automakers warn owners against the use of chains and recommend alternative methods for increased traction, depending on the vehicle.

Ford states that none of its Super Duty trucks with 20-inch wheels and tires should use snow chains. In states where chains are required, it advises using steel wheels and cables instead.

Potential issues

Other vehicle makers provide very specific instructions. Deviating could cause issues regarding what’s covered by a vehicle’s warranty.

The owner’s manual of the Nissan Titan says, “tire chains must be installed only on the rear wheels and not on the front wheels.” Additionally, it says to only operate the Titan in two-wheel-drive range and drive at a reduced speed. Failure to follow these instructions may adversely affect the truck’s handling and performance and damage the vehicle.

NIssan Titan Morocco

The Nissan Titan’s owner’s manual says to install snow chains only on the rear wheels. (Photo: Nissan)

Some areas of the U.S. legally require chains’ use in heavy snow and ice. States such as California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Wyoming and Utah require that vehicles carry chains as soon as signs are posted in the winter.

Other states including New York and Maryland call for their use when a snow emergency is declared. The only state where it’s illegal to use chains is Hawaii.

The Snow Chain Debate

Still, chains aren’t just a cheap alternative to snow tires. They offer users an effective way to navigate wintry roads by providing more traction than a tire could on its own.

While they have benefits, snow chains can create a slippery slope in terms of a vehicle’s warranty and what might be covered.

Whether incorrect use or incorrect size, the potential damage a set of snow chains can inflict is large. Loose-fitting chains can wear on a vehicle’s suspension, struts, brakes and fender wells. Serious damage may require repairs costing upward of several thousand dollars.

Don’t expect automakers to automatically foot the bill. As is standard with most vehicle warranties, damage done to a vehicle that’s outside of a manufacturer’s control falls on the owner. The same concept applies to the use – or misuse – of chains.

Honda, Nissan and Ford all told Trucks.com that in the event of an incident, any potential damage would first need to be examined by a dealer. Outside of the rare chance in which damaged is deemed to be the fault of manufacturing, the onus for repairs would more than likely be on the driver who installed the chains.

“If you make a modification or damage a vehicle outside of its original design, then that repair may not be covered by the warranty,” Honda spokesman Chris Martin told Trucks.com. “Certainly, if someone uses too big of a chain and it damages part of the vehicle, it shouldn’t be on the dealer.”

Even when using the chain size recommended in an owner’s manual, costs associated with repairs from a mishap may not be covered. This includes damage from incorrect installation on the wrong tires, driving in the wrong gear or driving too fast.

2019 Honda CR-V

The Honda CR-V’s owner’s manual warns that improper snow chain use can damage brake lines and potentially cause a crash. (Photo: Honda)

Follow Recommendations

Though each automaker’s wording differs slightly, the bottom line is consistent: Strictly follow the chain manufacturer’s instructions on installation and operation. This puts responsibility squarely on the owner.

Those guidelines are important. They safeguard automakers, as well as a vehicle’s warranty. Driving on ice with bare tires is dangerous, but misusing chains can be just as dangerous.

According to the Honda CR-V owner’s manual, “using the wrong chains, or not properly installing chains, can damage the brake lines and cause a crash in which you can be seriously injured or killed.” Negligence, in this scenario, doesn’t just lead to a damaged vehicle, but also to something far worse.

The disclaimer also warns against improperly using what’s recommended. This means that while an owner’s manual may list a vehicle’s ideal chain, issues may still occur, via human error or some other cause.

Vehicle Warranties Won’t Always Cover Chain Damage

“It’s tough to say you’re covered against all damage if you use the correct chain,” Martin said. “The challenge is, as you’re driving along, especially in deep snow or ice, there can be debris and so many other causes for damage.”

If an accident occurs and a fix needs to be made, the first step is to assess the cause. Any damage done as a result of the driver’s actions is their responsibility to repair. The vehicle’s warranty won’t void, but it also won’t cover the cost of a fix. If there are three years left on a five-years warranty, those three years remain.

Damage caused by a manufacturers’ defect would be covered by the vehicle’s warranty. Repairs and any costs associated would be handled like typical warranty claims.

Snow Chains or Snow Tires?

The decision to choose tires or chains shouldn’t be based on cost but rather on the situation. Since some automakers advise against the use of chains on certain vehicles, it’s worth the investment to pick out a reliable set of winter tires.

But snow chains are a dependable option when appropriate. It’s just vital to understand how to use them. Reading a vehicle’s owner’s manual provides information on the size and type of chain to use, as well as any liability covered by warranty.

If a vehicle is compatible with both, using either snow tires or chains comes down to personal preference and comfort. Each option can make winter driving safer, as long as it’s utilized correctly.

Read Next: How to Choose Proper Tires for Winter Driving

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