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I recently started biking again after taking about 2.5 years off. My bike has been sitting in my garage since then. I did a 30 mile ride as my first one back and I didn't replace my tubes beforehand. Everything went surprisingly fine, but the whole time I was worried about getting a flat. I did have a spare with me, but it's as old as my other tubes.

That got me thinking, how long do tubes usually last while they are in storage, both on and off the bike? Do I have to worry about dry rotting/cracking?

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    I have a 15+ year old folding bike that is still on its first set of tubes and tires. I do have to inflate them after a few months in storage but they do hold enough for a month or two. – Willeke May 22 '18 at 14:09
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    An inner tube, inside a bike tire and not exposed to high levels of ozone or petroleum fumes (or UV light), can easily last 10-20 years. – Daniel R Hicks May 22 '18 at 21:17
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    I just went for a ride today on a bike with tubes at least 8 years old. – whatsisname May 23 '18 at 3:26
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    I'd be more concerned about the tires themselves since they are exposed to the environment and they are the thing that holds the pressure in, tubes just expand against the tire and keep air from exfiltrating through the tire, the tire does the brunt of the work of holding back the pressure. So if they tires are good, the tubes should be fine. – Johnny May 23 '18 at 21:17
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    I wouldn't worry so much about the tire; the rubber may degrade, but the carcass is probably still okay (which is important). Generally, replace tires once you see the carcass or get flats. – Batman May 23 '18 at 23:34
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Generally speaking,

Inner tubes will last forever, until you get a flat

Unless the tubes are very old - I'm talking 15+ years - you don't have to worry about them dry rotting, cracking, or loosing structural integrity. I have a collection of patched and new inner tubes from since I started riding around 9 years ago, and all of them look brand new.

And in my experience, the most common cause of flats is due to me doing a shoddy job of installing the tube (ie, the tube is pinched, stress on stem, etc). Back when I started working on bikes, I would regularly get flats a couple days after installing new tubes.

In short, if the tubes have lasted this long, and still hold air, don't touch them. I even remember reading (on Sheldon Brown's website?) that he has witnessed very old tubes bond to the tire.

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I have a number if tubes that are over 5 years old and seem to be fine. If the bike was stored away from heat and light that will help. (Well, obviously the tubes are inside the tires and not affected directly by light.)

For peace of mind you could at least buy a couple of new spare tubes. If/when you get a flat change the old one out to a new one and carry on.

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It will depend very much on the quality of the tubes. But, look, tubes aren't exactly expensive. Why not just replace them and your spares, for peace of mind and to reduce (by whatever margin) the probability of having to mess about at the side of the road when you wanted to be riding your bike?

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  • Can you explain what processes degrade the tubes over time? – ojs May 22 '18 at 17:50
  • @ojs No. But rubber does tend to become less elastic over time, by whatever mechanism. – David Richerby May 22 '18 at 20:17
  • A tube that has been sitting flat for a number of years will have developed weakness at the fold (ie at the bottom of the wheel where it rests on the ground) Of course temperature, humidity, sunlight, ozone, and fumes can all accelerate this, any of which might be in a garage where a bike is stored. – Criggie Jun 6 '20 at 8:55
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As noted by others, Tube quality is the main factor in how long they last. I've had varying degrees of success on storing tubes for long periods of time.

In general, tubes lasted longer if not exposed to dust, humidity or solvent vapours, oils, and not exposed to sunlight, either well packed away or properly mounted on a tire and taken care of albeit not being in use.

I'll share a few anecdotes to back up what I've found.

I have stored tubes for at least 7 years where they have been in cardboard boxes (not original packaging), inside the house. (Ambient temperature ranging 20-30 Centigrade) and they where just fine when finally used.

On the other hand, tubes I left outside exposed to humid, tropical air developed some defects that rendered them useless. I note that there was some paint solvents and engine oil stored nearby, but not in direct contact nor in the same shelf. They weren't exposed to direct sunlight either.

The defects where of two kinds: Some tubes turned black and somewhat tacky. (Remember tubes are not "black", but a very dark, dull gray). Upon inflating these tubes would split open like banana peels. I have had this problem with tubes stored inside the house inside airtight plastic bags also.

Other tubes seemed fine at first but when inflating them outside tire, they wouldn't expand uniformly, some parts remained at their normal diameter but other swelled disproportionately. Those parts looked lighter gray and shown a crackled surface. As I continued inflating they did burst at one of those places. The burst left a star shaped hole.

As for tubes mounted in tires on bikes I have left unused for long periods of time (5 years), they have been fine as long as I keep them with some air (not enough pressure to ride but not completely flat). If I let the tube lost all air and the tire casing disengage the rim, the tubes resulted damaged (lost their flexibility and developed cracks when I tried to inflate them inside the tire.).

I also had tubes that developed tiny, inexplicable "punctures". At first it seemed like a defective valve, but I tested them by submerging in water. That's how I discovered minuscule holes on all parts of the tube. Some of them not big enough to leak. I assume this was a manufacture defect. These tubes where darker than normal and a little tacky out of the box.

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