When you drive with a wheel problem, you’ll feel it immediately in the way your car moves. What’s causing it may be a bit more challenging to figure out.
Is it a problem with wheel alignment? Do your tires need balancing? Or is it something else?
What is wheel alignment
Wheel alignment is sometimes referred to as tire alignment or front-end alignment. It’s a service that adjusts the angle of your vehicle’s wheels to put them in proper position based on manufacturer’s recommendations. It’s an adjustment of the car’s suspension system, not the tires or wheels themselves.
Wheel alignment keeps your car from veering to the right or left as you drive. It can improve the handling of your vehicle, and makes your car safer to drive.
As a part of a wheel alignment service, a technician checks several things to ensure drivability. They check the toe, camber, and caster, all of which impact proper alignment. They’ll also look at tire tread to ensure the tires are connecting properly with the road.
Typically, manufacturers recommend having a wheel alignment every 10,000 miles. Check your owner’s manual for specific guidelines. You should also have a wheel alignment performed if you notice your:
- Vehicle pulls to either the left or right while driving
- Wheels don’t point straight ahead when stationary
- Tires have noticeable tread wear
- Car has been damaged in an accident or collision
What is tire balancing
Think of what your tires go through as you drive around each day. They take corners. The skid to a stop. They hit potholes and bumps. They swerve to miss what’s lying on the road. They navigate puddles, driving rain, slush, and snow. Eventually, all of that impacts your tires.
Yes, the tread on your tires will eventually wear away, requiring you to purchase new tires. But long before that, your tires may settle, no longer connecting properly with the road.
Tire balancing is also referred to frequently as wheel balancing. As tire tread wears down, it can cause the weight around the tire to change. This leads to an imbalance that can increase tread wear, lead to vibration, cause damage to the suspension system, or a number of other problems.
As a part of tire balancing, your tires and wheels are mounted onto a tire balancing machine. This calibrated balancer tests both moving and non-moving tire balance, and adjusts the tires to proper balance. It adds tire weights to achieve a properly balanced tire and wheel assembly.
Typically, tire balancing is performed along with tire rotations. Most manufacturers suggest both services take place every 5-6,000 miles, or 6 months, whichever comes first. You should also have your tires balanced if you notice:
- Excessive vibration in the steering wheel as you drive
- Floorboard vibration
- Uneven tire wear
- A flat tire
People think the only way for tires to move out of balance is to hit something in the road. It doesn’t take a sharp object or a large bump to alter how your vehicle drives. If you leave your vehicle sitting for long periods of time without moving it, the tires can develop flat spots that can cause an imbalance.
How do you know if you need an alignment or a balance?
Tire balancing and wheel alignment often occur at the same time, but the two shouldn’t be confused for the same thing. They are two separate services, each with its own benefits to keep your car running smoothly. And reducing your risk while driving down the road.
One of the biggest benefits of tire balancing is that it prevents premature tire tread wear. If you want to get the most mileage possible from your tires, scheduling routine tire balancing should be a part of your regular maintenance. Keeping your tires balance will help their performance as well as optimize your gas mileage.
Wheel alignment improves vehicle handling, fuel efficiency, and extends your tires’ life. Left untreated, you’ll have steering and suspension problems, potentially damaging components enough for repair work or even replacement. You can also shorten a tire’s life by thousands of miles.
If you notice a vibration in the steering wheel or on the floorboard, it’s a tire balance issue.
If your vehicle pulls to one side, your steering wheel sits crooked, or you have trouble driving straight without a tight grip on the steering wheel, it’s an alignment issue.
If you notice any problem with either balancing or alignment issues, don’t delay. Schedule an inspection as soon as possible to bring your vehicle back into good working condition.
Tire balancing doesn’t take very long; one to two hours and you’ll be back on the road. It depends on the issues your car has experienced. Hitting a pothole may cause more imbalance than working with installing new tires.
Wheel alignment is also a fairly quick service that generally takes one to two hours. The more wear and tear or damage to the suspension system will require more time for correction. That’s just one of the reasons it’s better to bring your vehicle in quickly; labor costs are kept to a minimum if the task is easier to fix.
Four tires … One vehicle
If you notice damage to one of your tires, why can’t you fix just the one? The easiest answer is: all four tires are attached to one vehicle. It takes four tires to control your vehicle on the open road, and carry you from point A to point B. If one tire is out of balance, there’s a good chance it’s impacting the others too.
To ensure your tires have a full life, and your car drives safely no matter where you go, it’s a good idea to have all four rotated and balanced regularly. It’s the easiest way to ensure your safety on the road.