To keep your car safe and roadworthy, it sometimes needs to have a wheel alignment. How often a wheel alignment is done depends on your vehicle and its condition, and whether or not you’ve been in an accident. The procedure is pretty routine for professionals, but it’s not something I recommend trying at home. When your car’s fundamental safety features are at stake, it’s one of those things best left to a properly equipped repair shop and an experienced technician.
On today’s blog, we’ve created a complete guide to the wheel alignment processanswering some of the most common questions:
What is a wheel alignment procedure and why is it necessary?
Wheel alignment on a vehicle is a procedure whereby a mechanic ensures that its tires and wheels meet the road surface at the correct angle – camber angle, toe angle and caster angle – and that they are pointing in a straight line with the tires firmly centered in wheel wells. There are a number of circumstances where your vehicle would need an alignment, which we’ll detail in other sections below.
There are three main types of alignments that are performed depending on the vehicle. There is one front alignment, which only makes adjustments to the front axle. This is an older practice that is done less and less nowadays.
Second is a impulse alignment where a front alignment and thrust alignment on the rear axle are done to ensure that all 4 wheels are in the correct position. This type of alignment is usually recommended by mechanics to all drivers whose car has a solid rear axle. Finally, there is a complete four wheel alignment, in which the two alignments above are made, plus the angles of the rear axle. This alignment is used for AWD, 4WD and FWD vehicles and is also suitable for any car with adjustable or independent rear suspension.
It is a necessary and important procedure in the first place for safety. Driving a car with incorrect wheel alignment means operating a car that is more difficult to control safely on the road. Improper alignment can result in weakened wheels, causing the car to naturally bend to the left or right. As a driver, you would always have to compensate for this attraction, and this is highly dangerous, especially when driving at high speeds.
In addition to the safety issue, improper alignment also negatively affects the performance and comfort of the car. Those are just two more reasons to ensure wheel alignment is done in a timely manner.
How do you know if you need a wheel alignment?
There are a number of signs you can spot that indicate when your alignment may be off. Before we get to that, however, we must first address the circumstances where an alignment check is always essential, regardless of the presence of any of the typical signs. You will need an alignment service:
- …whenever you buy new tires
- …after lowering or raising the vehicle
- …you get aftermarket suspension parts that affect tire angles
- …if your last alignment service was more than a year ago
- …you have recently been in a collision with another vehicle or a curb
In these situations, your vehicle’s wheel alignment should be checked to ensure there are no problems. As we mentioned earlier, however, there are other signs you might look out for that will tell you it’s time to get your wheels aligned.
You have uneven tire wear
A properly aligned and balanced car will have evenly worn tires. Take a look at your tires and check for differences in signs of wear. Wheel imbalance will cause one tire to wear more than the other, so take uneven wear as a serious warning sign that you need an alignment service.
There is a marked pull to the left or right
If you feel your vehicle pulling to the left or right while driving, it could be due to misaligned wheels/tyres. On the other hand, it can also be caused by improperly inflated tires. If you check your tire pressure and it’s correct, consider the possibility that your alignment is wrong.
Steering wheel vibrations
Like the problem of the car pulling to the left or right, steering wheel vibrations can also be the result of other issues. Incorrectly aligned tires won’t be pulling in exactly the same direction, which is what causes the somewhat disturbing vibrations to happen in your steering wheel.
steering wheel off center
Another steering wheel related problem is when you are driving and the steering wheel seems to be off center. If your wheel isn’t centered when you’re driving straight, your alignment could be off.
What happens during a typical wheel alignment?
As we mentioned above, for a trained mechanic with the right tools and know-how, the procedure for aligning a wheel is quite simple. There are 6 main steps involved:
Step 1: The vehicle is lifted and preliminary checks are made
Before hooking up the wheel alignment machines, the mechanic will likely jack your car up and visually inspect the wheels and axles. They might even do a little test drive. They will examine tire wear and current air pressure, as well as any signs of deformation, cracks in suspension parts, and other damage. These inspections provide the all-important first impression a mechanic needs to assess the current condition of the wheels and their alignment.
Step 2: Connect the Wheel Alignment Machine
Most modern mechanics will have a computerized wheel alignment machine, often worth tens of thousands of dollars when new. The steering wheel is locked in the center and the brake is engaged and held in place with a special tool. They will also use special clamps on their wheels that are connected to the alignment machine.
Step 3: Check the Toe, Camber and Caster Angles
The mechanic will use the wheel alignment machine to make adjustments based on his initial readings for three angles: toe-in, camber and caster. The toe-in angle is the angle at which the tires turn inwards or outwards when viewed from an overhead perspective. The angle of curvature is the vertical angle, inwards or outwards, when you look at them from the front. Caster is the fore/aft angle of the steering axis when viewed from the side of the car.
Step 4: Check the Momentum
After confirming and adjusting the angles to the correct position, the mechanic will also look at the “thrust”, which is when you compare the steering of the rear axle and the centerline of the car. When checking thrust, the mechanic will also check that the two shafts are parallel to each other.
Step 5: Make sure the steering wheel is centered
When all 4 angles have been checked and adjusted, the next step is to ensure the steering wheel is centered. If steps 3 and 4 were done correctly, the steering wheel should now be centered.
Step 6: final test
To verify that the job was successful, the mechanic should test drive the car and check that there are no signs of misalignment. When everything is confirmed too, the car is returned to its owner.
How long does a wheel alignment take?
A wheel alignment should take a trained mechanic around 60 minutes, assuming everything goes smoothly and nothing out of the ordinary is wrong with the car.🇧🇷 This process can be delayed by the need to replace broken or damaged suspension or steering parts. Such damage will be flagged during the initial visual inspection of the vehicle.
How much does a wheel alignment cost?
If you do a single axle alignment it will probably cost you $50-$100. If you do a full alignment which is better for many especially if it is a result of an accident it would cost more probably $200. These are just average estimates. The exact cost will also be affected by your car’s make, model and year, as well as your geographic location.
Can you do a wheel alignment yourself?
If you have the tools and know-how, there’s no reason not to try the task yourself. Given that the average driver will not have access to a $60,000 computerized wheel alignment machine, it should be noted that the results may not be as accurate. A DIY job essentially includes 4 main steps:
- Lift your car in monkey stay🇧🇷
- Go to the front and look at the front wheels, can you see any signs of warping? If the wheels are bending towards the center of the car, the outer stem of the tire needs to be tightened. If going in the opposite direction of the turn, the tire stem needs to be loosened.
- Rotate the tire stem counterclockwise to turn the tire inwards. Turn it clockwise to rotate the tire outward.
- Repeat the process for the other wheels.
Conclusion: never skip a wheel alignment
Hopefully now you understand more fully what happens during a wheel alignment. Being aware of the procedures, time spent, and typical cost can help you avoid being scammed by cowboy operators. Most importantly, it helps you understand that a wheel alignment is more than just routine maintenance, but an essential part of keeping your car safe and in good working order. Be sure to book your car for an alignment when it’s due.