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Someone pointed out that it may be risky, and it might not have the right kind of nozzle, but I don't have a bike pump at the moment. Does anyone else ever do this?

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5 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

The answer, in short is: Can you? In some cases, yes. Should you? In most cases, no.

The long answer: The reason you can sometimes use an automotive air-pump on a bicycle tire/tube is because they share an identical valve. (See: Schrader valve/Schrader tube in the Terminology Index). If you have this type, you will definitely be able to get air into your tubes in a pinch. However, air hoses from gas stations are usually unregulated, high-pressure & high-volume, and lack a pressure gauge. Therefore, it is much easier to over-inflate and even blow out your bicycle tire, if you were to use one.

An investment in a bicycle pump is one of the best you can make as a cyclist. Not only will it get you out of situations like this, but it will make it easier to keep your tires at the recommended pressure rating, which in turn will make it easier for you to be a more efficient (read: faster) bicyclist.

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Several bicycle pumps - ideally you need a track pump or similar to keep where you store your bike, check the pressures regularly (when I was commuting by bike I did it once a week when I got home) and a pump you carry with on the bike because, if one is not racing, then its just sensible to carry a pump and a few other bits with you at all times –  Murph Aug 30 '10 at 16:16
    
Note also: if you have a Presta valve (thinner valve with a captive locknut, common on road bikes), you'll need an adapter to use a gas station pump. The adapter is a cheap little $1 brass part that screws onto the presta valve –  freiheit Aug 30 '10 at 16:54
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Yeah... be careful. I blew out a tire doing this. Was loud, and not fun. –  gabe. Aug 30 '10 at 19:56
    
It's also worth noting that many gas station pumps will not go over about 80psi. That means that even if you have Schrader valves or an adapter, you won't be able to get optimum pressure in road tires. It may be enough to get you home, but you'll have to be extra careful about bumps. –  jimirings Jan 5 at 18:59
    
For completeness, the answer seems to depend on the country and the corresponding pump technology of its gas stations. Reading the answers here took my by suprise. Since I can think, I only buy tires with a Schrader valve in order to save me from the laborious act of using a bicycle pump. I am from Germany and most of the time, you'll find such devices at gas stations. –  StefG Feb 19 at 13:37
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You can do this in a pinch if you're careful, but I don't recommend it. Your tires need to have Schraeder valves (similar to car tires) or you'll need an adapter for a Presta valve. Fill the tire in very short bursts, checking the pressure in between. Err on the side of underfilling your tires -- put too much air in and you may blow the tire off the rim, which is worse than having a flat in the first place!

I used to do this 20 years ago before I realized that there were small pumps you can take with you. In addition to the risks, the problem with gas station pumps is that they're never there when you need them. The one repair kit you should have with you at all times is a pump + patch kit (or spare tube). Trust me, it can be a long, long walk home without them!

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It is possible, but there are a few factors to consider:

  • Valve Type, obviously it is easiest with a schraeder valve, as these are the type that cars use. You can get adapters for presta valves that screw on and allow you to use the service station pumps.

  • Tyre Volume, as noted in some other answers, the air supply at service stations is often unregulated. The smaller your tyre, the faster the pressure increases - so you run more risk of over-inflation for narrow road tyres than for large mountain bike tyres.

  • Pressure, road bike tyres are generally inflated to 110 - 130 PSI, which is much higher than the 30-40 PSI used for car tyres, or the 30-60 PSI used for mountain bike tyres. The service station pump may not be able to achieve this pressure, particularly if it is one of those automatic inflation types.

So, in short, if you've got a mountain bike, there is probably not much of an issue using the service station pump. If you've got a road bike, do yourself a favour and buy a decent track pump. That way you'll be able to top up the tyres quickly each time you go out, and enjoy the benefits of nicely inflated tyres.

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I would say it depends - here in the UK the air pumps at petrol stations all have pressure gauges of some sort, but many aren't suitable. The digital ones where you select the pressure to which you want your tyre inflated often max out at 60psi* but that's not the problem - the problem is that they inflate for a bit then let a bit out to test and correct. And they assume a car tyre. So to get a car tyre from say 30psi to 34, they might hit 46 and then let some out. To get a bike tyre from say 55psi to 60 they will put enough air in to make a car tyre inflate by a few psi - meaning your bike tyre will get rather too hard. I don't fancy measuring the peak pressure they'll do. That's why they say not to use them for bikes.

The older sort with a proper pressure gauge also generally have a trigger that you can press lightly, and should be OK.

I'm assuming you're sorted for valve compatibility here.

*not even high enough for my van, resulting in some hard work with my track pump to finish the job.

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You're also assuming they're reasonably accurate (at least in the US, they're not. You need to use a handheld gauge to check it). –  Batman Jan 13 at 19:19
    
@Batman, that as well, I only know that when the air line in the garage near here maxes out at 60psi my track pump reads about 60psi. But this is a problem with pressure gauges in general - my old foot pump wasn't the cheapest but before it failed the gauge would tend to under read by a variable amount compared to my cheap little gauge. –  Chris H Jan 14 at 8:12
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Yes you can. It may be a little bit too much pressure compared to a real bike pump but if you really know how to do it you will get it right and nothing will happen to your tire.

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Seems like you're using some non-printable characters on my system, and this answer doesn't really add anything more than the other answers (example: "how do you do it right?"). FWIW, I would not recommend this given the much larger volume of car tires making any level of control of a bicycle tire pressure difficult. –  Batman Jan 5 at 14:14
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