Wheel Alignment Basics
A proper alignment ensures that all four wheels are in the recommended position for your type of vehicle. This is fundamental to preserving both your vehicle’s safety and the tread life on your tires. The way each wheel is positioned on your vehicle is determined by three primary measurements: camber, caster, and toe. These measurements have standards that a technician uses as targets of adjustment (depending on the type of vehicle) during a wheel alignment test. In its simplest form, a wheel alignment is the adjustment of the steering and suspension angles so the wheels are parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground. Misalignment of wheels can cause excessive tire wear along with steering or tracking problems.
Over time, as you drive – it’s normal that your tires may become misbalanced and eventually come out of alignment (the measurement of the camber caster or toe has changed). For example, hitting a large pothole can jar a wheel with enough force to alter the vehicle’s alignment. Road curbs, parking stops, speed bumps and a vehicle accident can all contribute to issues with your alignment. As with most car maintenance topics – many of the factors depend on individual driving habits, commuting distance, urban location, condition of the roads, etc.
A proper wheel alignment will not only improve your vehicle’s performance and safety, it will extend the life of your tires. So how do you know when it’s time to bring your vehicle in for a four-wheel alignment or front-end alignment? An easy way to remember when to get your alignment checked is to do it every other tire rotation. Otherwise “listen” to your vehicle – there are several common warning signs that it’s time for service.
The Warning Signs
Drifting or pulling
Perhaps the most obvious signal that you need an alignment is if your vehicle is pulling to one side of the road. If you are driving on a straight and flat surface and briefly let go of the steering wheel, does your vehicle want to drift to the left or right? Do you have to constantly steer in the opposite direction to keep the vehicle driving straight? These are classic symptoms that the wheels are out of alignment. If the drifting is only slight and towards the shoulder, it may simply be that the roads are sloped, which is common, and there may be nothing wrong with your alignment.
Uneven tire wear
If your wheels are out of alignment, you may notice uneven tread wear. You may or may not experience other driving symptoms, but if you visually inspect your tires – you may see signs that your tires are not properly aligned. A good way to check is by measuring the tread depth in a few areas of each tire. If the wheels are aligned properly the tread depth across the tire will all be the same, but if there is a discrepancy in the measurements, you may have a wheel alignment issue. Another visible sign is called feathering. Feathering is a condition when the edge of each tread rib develops a slightly rounded edge on one side and a sharp edge on the other. By running your hand over the tire, you can usually feel the sharper edges before you’ll be able to see them.
Tire alignment is not a situation that you want to take lightly. While it may seem like a minor inconvenience, if you find yourself in an emergency situation or have to make a sharp turn at high speeds, your alignment and the response of your vehicle can play a critical role in avoiding a collision. If you are unsure about your car’s alignment or the safety of your vehicle, please feel free to contact us and have it checked out.
Steering wheel is off-center
Have you ever been confused as to why your steering wheel is at an odd angle? It almost seems as if you are slowly turning in one direction. Ironically this can result from just having a front-end alignment and not a four-wheel alignment. During a front-end alignment, a technician will adjust your front tie rods to whatever degree necessary to remove any pull on the steering wheel. In the course of doing so, this may change the position of the wheels relative to the steering column just to keep them pointed in the same direction as the rear tires. While this may resolve a directional pull, it could be creating an issue of “off-tracking” or “dog-tracking”. Imagine your car traveling down the road at a slight sideways angle. This is another dangerous situation as it alters your vehicle’s performance and handling characteristics. Furthermore, it will reduce your fuel economy with the additional drag and wind resistance.
The simplest way to correct this issue is to have a four-wheel alignment done. Since this is often a problem with the rear wheel angle, that needs to be adjusted first. Once the rear wheels are pointed perfectly straight, they’ll adjust the front tie rods to get the wheels straight in line with the rear tires. This should reset the steering wheel back to its normal and centered position.
Vibrating steering wheel
If your steering wheel vibrates when you are driving, this can be another indication that your wheels are out of alignment. The vibration can sometimes be caused by your wheels having been knocked out of alignment, for example it could be the result of hitting a pothole or a curb. The vibration may be a precursor to a bigger, more serious problem, so get it checked out before it gets worse.
If your steering feels kind of loose or wanders a little around the road, this can be another sign of a wheel alignment issue. Your car should have a relatively direct feel and response to the direction that you steer it. If you feel you are turning the wheel often with very little tire movement, you should have the alignment checked out.
Why Have a Wheel Alignment?
A proper alignment ensures that all four wheels are in the recommended position for your type of vehicle. This is fundamental to preserving both your vehicle’s safety and extending the tread life of your tires.
When Should I Have My Wheels Aligned?
You should have your alignment checked immediately if you notice any of the warning signs mentioned above. We recommend vehicle alignment checks every 6-12 months or every other tire rotation. More often if driving in extreme conditions, potholes, or if your vehicle is not handling properly. A bad jolt, such as hitting a pothole, can throw your vehicle out of alignment even if you recently had it checked or aligned. Such an impact can also bend the rim, causing a loss of air pressure, and create damage to your tires with little or no visible external indication.
What are the Benefits of a Wheel Alignment?
- Longer tire life
- Better gas mileage.
- Assures warranty compliance (with rotations)
- Bad alignment can negate benefits of tire rotation
- Improves vehicle handling and safety
What causes Wheel Alignment Problems? What are some of the signs?
- Over time, as you drive – it’s normal that your tires may lose their balance and eventually come out of alignment. For example, hitting a large pothole can jar a wheel with enough force to alter the vehicle’s alignment. Road curbs, parking stops and speed bumps can all contribute to issues with your alignment. As with a lot of car maintenance topics – many of the factors depend on individual driving habits, commuting distance, urban location, condition of the roads, etc.
Here are some common warning signs you may need an alignment check:
- Drifting or pulling
- Steering wheel is off-center
- Vibrating steering wheel
- Loose steering
- Uneven tire wear
How Long does an Alignment take?
Generally alignment checks and minor adjustments can be completed in an hour or less. Depending on the complexity of the issue and any other related work, times can vary. A note to make about service completion time is many new vehicles come equipped with steering stability sensors. These sensors measure the steering wheel position angle and rate of a vehicle turn. The steering stability sensors need to be reset every time an alignment is performed. We’ll do our best to provide you with an accurate time estimate once we’ve had a chance to take a closer look at your vehicle.