Have you ever let go of the steering wheel and had your vehicle veer to the right or left? While a little pull might not impact safety immediately, the more off-balance your vehicle, the more risk you’ll be on the road.
Your wheels have to point in the same direction, roll straight forward when driving on a flat surface, and be evenly balanced all the way around for your car to run smoothly. If a problem arises with any one of these points, it impacts your driving, and can influence safety during the drive.
Yet if you’ve done a search online, heard a mechanic talk about the steering system, and felt like you’re not quite sure what your car needs, we want to explain a few of the terms of the industry, and help you understand the mechanics of your vehicle.
When talking about your steering system, there are several things that can impact your drive.
What is wheel balance?
Think about your tires for a moment. Tires are made up of a variety of materials, including natural rubber, synthetic rubber, plastic polymer, metal, and other compounds. They may be tough to the touch, but as they connect to the road, they move and change shape as they move along.
Even with today’s technology and all the manufacturing upgrades we’ve made over the years, it’s still impossible to find a perfectly formed tire that will continue to be balanced all the way around as it ages. There will always be a part of the tire that ways a bit more, is a little thicker than other areas, or has imperfections that cause it to fall out of balance.
When one side of a wheel is out of balance with the other, it vibrates. Wheel balance fixes this issue.
What is wheel alignment?
Wheel alignment has little to do with the actual wheels. Instead, wheel alignment is all about working with your car’s suspension system to control what direction and angle your wheels are moving in.
There are three different ways your wheels are aligned in relation to your car’s steering system:
The first is toe – it’s the angle of all four tires to one another. This is one of the most common repair issues, when your four wheels are no longer working in conjunction with one another. If you’ve ever noticed your car veers to the right or left, and refuses to drive in a straight line without extra effort, it’s most likely a toe misalignment.
The second is camber – this refers to the angle of a wheel if you were to look at it from the front of the vehicle. If you notice a wheel leaning to one side or the other, it’s most likely a misaligned camber.
The third is caster – this is the angle of the steering pivot as you view it from one of the vehicle’s sides. This is the most difficult to see. Take a look at the way each wheel sits inside the wheel well. If one is more forward or backward, and doesn’t sit in the middle, it might be a problem with the caster. This could lead to rubbing the wheel along the well, especially if you hit a large bump. It can damage the tire over time.
What is front end alignment?
While you might see some mechanics or auto websites talking about wheel alignment, you’ll also find many articles referring to front end alignment. Is there a difference? Do you have to work with both to keep your car running smoothly?
Wheel alignment often refers to the alignment of all four wheels. This is especially important if you drive a four-wheel drive vehicle. A front end alignment relates only to the front two wheels.
Yet no matter how you refer to it, the ending result is the same. A wheel alignment – or a front end alignment – all work towards the common goal of ensuring your wheels are working optimally in providing you a safe, smooth ride.
How do I know if the wheels are out of balance?
Your wheels go through a lot as you drive around the city. They hit bumps, dive through dips, take corners quickly, keep you safe on slick or snowy roads, and protect you from debris covering the roads.
Even brand new tires are susceptible to problems and errors. Coming out of the factory doesn’t necessarily guarantee perfection.
Yet with the use of technology, your tires are installed on your vehicle and regulated to fit your car’s requirements. The moment you drive away, things begin to happen. Cold, heat, water, ice, debris in the road, age – all of it begins to wear on each tire, causing slight variations in their performance. It can impact one tire at a time, or all four equally. One can be slightly overfilled while another is underfilled.
Just a half an ounce difference in the amount of pressure in a tire can cause a vibration in handling. And that begins to wear on your vehicle.
Rebalancing puts the wheels back into adjustment.
Tires are attached to a tire balancing machine. The wheel is spun while taking various vibrational measurements. If an imbalance is found, the mechanic will add weights or move the tire on the wheel to bring it back into balance.
Wheel balancing should be done anytime you notice a vibration in the steering wheel. It’s automatically performed every time you get your tires rotated, or you buy and install new tires. If you notice the weights have fallen off, or you notice uneven wear on a tire, it’s also wise to bring it in for wheel balancing.
How do I know if a front end alignment is necessary?
The more you know your vehicle, the more you’ll notice when changes occur, problems that might be causing wear and tear on various systems within your car. While wheel balancing and wheel alignment require different repairs, they are connected and sometimes start showing in a similar manner.
Have you noticed a vibration in your steering wheel? It’s time to bring your car in for an inspection. This is a prime symptom of a problem with your steering system.
Wheel alignment also shows up in performance and handling as you drive. Take a look at your steering wheel. Does it sit crooked as you drive in a straight line down the road? That is a symptom of an alignment problem.
You might also notice your car pulling to the right or left as you drive, needing even more of your attention to keep the vehicle in a straight line. That’s a sign you’re in need of a wheel alignment.
Front end alignments can also show up in the form of a strange noise. Do you hear abnormal sounds every time you move your steering wheel? Do the tires squeal? Don’t ignore unusual sounds. It could be a sign of a bigger problem.