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Cars and Trucks

Alignment and Balance for Dummies … or, How to Be Smarter Than the Average Bear (alignment franchise)


Alignment and wheel balance – misunderstood subjects that can cost you unnecessarily. 

 

 

 

  Alignment and Balancing are not do-it-yourself jobs.  Even if you’re comfortable doing your own brake jobs, these items require a professional.  To be done on anything more than a trial and error basis, correcting alignment and balance problems require expensive, frequently calibrated equipment.  But a little knowledge about the basics of alignment and balance will help you converse with qualified technicians about any issues your vehicle may have.  Since neither alignment or balance are considered normal maintenance items, remember, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!  A vehicle that is properly aligned does not need a re-alignment when having a new set of tires the same size installed. That said, here’s the minimum everyone needs to know.

Alignment is basically the angle of the wheels in relation to the pavement and the vehicle as well as how parallel they are to each other.  The three measures of wheel alignment are:

  • “Toe” (as in pigeon toe)
  • “Camber” (the centerline slant of the wheel and tire in relation to the road)
  •  “Caster” (the centerline slant of axle to wheel mounting points in relation to the road).

   

A vehicle whose wheels are not properly aligned may wander or pull to one side of the road or the other.  Its tires will wear unevenly and need premature replacement. The particular uneven wear pattern is a big clue for the alignment technician as to exactly what is out of adjustment and which direction to change it.  If severe enough, misalignment can also stress suspension parts and cut fuel economy slightly.  Usually, misalignment happens when parts are knocked out of place or bent by hard contact with a curb, deep pothole, or if the vehicle is in an accident.  Other causes include:

– tires not precisely the same circumference due to under or over-inflation

– different size tires on the same axle … a big no-no

– tire manufacturing variations (rare)

– aging of suspension parts …especially rubber bushings

– replacement of suspension parts

– substitution of non-stock parts. 

 

During its normal lifetime, a vehicle that never experiences any of these circumstances should not need to be re-aligned.  It’s not something you do just because it’s been a particular length of time or number of miles since it was last done, if ever. 

 

Whenever custom suspension modifications are made, re-alignment is a must.  Rear wheel drive vehicles with solid axles … including Sierra and Savana … only need to have front wheels aligned.  Any vehicle with four wheel independent suspension will generally need all four wheels adjusted if out of alignment.  Note that a steering wheel that doesn’t perfectly center when the vehicle is pointed straight ahead can and should be corrected in the front end alignment process.  Brand new vehicles and (especially) vehicles that have just had suspension modifications may change their alignment as the new parts “settle”.  Take notice of any apparent changes in alignment on such vehicles after 1-2,000 miles.  Most reputable suspension modification shops will offer a free adjustment on their original work after a couple thousand miles, if needed. 

 

Expect to pay $60 to 100 for a quality alignment.  Some vehicles may cost more, like Ford trucks with twin I-beam front ends.  Make sure whoever does your alignment has their equipment calibrated frequently. 

 

  

Balance is the even distribution of weight at the circumference of the tire/wheel assembly.  An out of balance tire and wheel will tend to bounce and prematurely wear out the tire, shock absorber and other suspension parts for that corner of the vehicle.  You’ll feel it primarily through the steering wheel if it’s one of the front tires.  If you just had your tires rotated and suddenly feel a vibration in the steering wheel, you can be sure it’s one of the tire/wheel assemblies that’s just been moved from the back to the front that needs re-balancing.  On the tire, visual signs of wheel imbalance are cupping or bald spots on the tread at various places around the circumference.  You may have noticed a beater driving next to you on the freeway with a grossly out of balance wheel bouncing up and down as much as a couple of inches.  It’s rare for even the best, most expensive tires and wheels to be perfectly balanced without a little adjustment.

 

 

Every new tire needs to be balanced when installed.  This involves clamping small weights to the inner, outer or both edges of the wheel rim.  On so-called rimless wheels, adhesive weights are attached midway between rim edges.  A tire can become out of balance if it’s removed from the wheel to, for example, patch a flat and is not re-installed in exactly the same position on the wheel, if mud or ice becomes stuck to one spot on the inside of the wheel, if a heavy unbalanced wheel cover is attached after the uncovered wheel and tire are balanced or even from a balancing weight or tire that has shifted a little on its rim.  I once found a dead mouse under a wheel cover which caused a slight imbalance vibration in that wheel until I removed the carcass.  A tire that refuses to maintain proper balance may have a separated belt due to manufacturing defect or puncture that has damaged the tire and caused a belt separation.  Look for odd bulges or depressions in the sidewall as additional evidence of structural failure.  Sadly, if you’ve had a belt failure due to manufacturing defects, you’re more likely to have additional failures with that set of tires.  A set of stock-size tires from a well-known European manufacturer I once put on a Honda Civic had three out of the four fail due to belt separations during the life of the tread … one almost immediately, one a year or so later and a third with about 20% of the tread left.  Obviously, a bad batch.

 

Expect to pay $10 to 15 per wheel for balancing.  Note that some tire stores include the cost of balancing in the price of their new tires.  And again … although the need for re-balancing is a little more likely than the need for re-alignment … if your car drives straight and true with no wheel vibrations and your tires aren’t wearing unevenly, there’s nothing to fix.  Save your money. 

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Discussion

12 thoughts on “Alignment and Balance for Dummies … or, How to Be Smarter Than the Average Bear (alignment franchise)

  1. Thanks for the valuable information!! . I have been looking for this since I heard of these terms.

    Posted by Kamal | October 19, 2008, 1:18 pm
  2. I have a 2006 Pontiac Grand Prix and I cannot keep the wheels balanced. I purchased new Perelli tires 2 weeks ago and drove from TN to MI and back and now my tires are vibrating again. It happened with my old tires too. I re-balanced my tires every 3 months or so…I am getting frustrated!!!

    Posted by Kelly Connor | June 24, 2009, 2:55 am
    • First, are you sure it’s balancing? If you had the same problem before you got these tires, it might not be. If it just started, first, inspect the tires. Does the steering wheel jiggle? If so, the problem is in front. Does the whole car jiggle? Then it’s the rear. Are there any bulges or indentations in the tire sidewalls? Small ones may be normal. If you can see it from several feet away, it’s probably not normal and you might have a defective tire. If everything looks OK, before you make a trip to the tire shop, have you driven through anything that might stick to the wheels, like mud? I’m sure you have alloy wheels on your 06 Grand Prix. Get out the garden hose or pressure washer and spray them hard on all sides and through and around the spokes to knock off anything that might be stuck to them and cause an imbalance. If that doesn’t help, since you just got your tires two weeks ago, whoever did the balancing ought to check it for free. Take it back. While they’re on the balance machine, have the technician check that the wheels and tires are true … not bent, out of round or otherwise “wobbly”. Next, does the steering wheel vibration go away if you swap the wheels front to rear? It’s unlikely that all of your tires are unbalanced, so if you move them and the vibration goes away, focus on finding an imbalance or other problem with the tire and wheel that you just moved to the rear. If the problem feels exactly the same, start looking for something else like worn, broken or bent suspension parts. A little patience and common sense logic goes a long way in tracking down gremlins like this. And if your tire shop doesn’t seem to have much of either, by all means, find another tire shop. Or better yet, an alignment and balance specialist that doesn’t sell tires.

      Posted by foxcars | June 24, 2009, 9:26 am
  3. I recently had some extensive repair work done at an insurance co. selected shop. When I picked my Dakota up they had replaced one front tire but not the other. There is about 0.2 inches difference in the tread depth between the two tires. Is this going to be a problem with alignment or the 4WD function?

    Posted by Cal | January 1, 2010, 12:51 am
    • It could create a slight pull to the side with the more worn tire. That will depend on how sensitive your vehicle is to such irregularities. Some are fussier than others. Vehicles with MacPherson strut style suspensions tend to be very sensitive to anything that isn’t perfect.

      It shouldn’t be enough to cause a problem with the operation of the vehicle in 4×4 mode.

      If insurance won’t cover two matched tires on the same axle – which is the only correct way to replace tires – and your vehicle is pulling to one side due to the difference, try putting the mismatched pair on the rear axle. Any two matched tires on the front, new or used, will solve a pull-to-one-side problem caused by unequal circumference tires. If the pull persists with matched tires on the front axle, the alignment problem lies elsewhere.

      Posted by foxcars | January 8, 2010, 10:48 am
  4. This is very informative. I have a nissan sentra 92′. Just had the wheel and camber aligned but still experiencing it banking a little to the left. I am unsure if this is relevant but the mechanic told me that it’s being caused by the wheels itself due to the uneven wear.

    I hope you could enlighten me regarding this.

    Posted by Tatum | January 5, 2010, 4:09 am
    • That doesn’t completely make sense. Wearing of the wheel? In what way? Naturally everything wears, to a degree, with use. Tires are the only thing I can think the mechanic means when he says “uneven wear”. Yes, unevenly worn tires can cause a drift one way or the other. The only way to be sure that is the culprit is to put two new matched tires on the front and see if the pull goes away. If it doesn’t, then there are still alignment issues. (There’s a tire shaving technique that should even up the tread and produce the same results without purchasing new tires. But I haven’t seen any shops that do that in years.)

      Posted by foxcars | January 8, 2010, 10:30 am
  5. Great write-up!

    I now feel more much more informed about the concepts of alignment and balancing … thanks!

    What about rotation? How often do we need to get tires rotated under normal conditions?

    Thanks!

    Posted by Aero | June 5, 2010, 10:17 am
    • Many manufacturers recommend rotations at 5,000 miles. I think 10,000 is good enough for most long life tires. That’s about every other oil change on most cars. High performance tires with short life expectancies should be rotated more often. I prefer crossing to the rear when rotating. Why? It just seems to work better.

      Posted by foxcars | June 6, 2010, 2:30 am
  6. There is noticeably a bunch to identify about this. I believe you made some good points in features also.

    Posted by Maryetta Parr | June 11, 2012, 5:56 pm
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