Do I Really Need an Alignment?
Alignment assures your tires meet the road at the proper angle, your wheels are pointing straight and your tires are centered in the wheel wells. It adjusts the angles of your vehicle’s wheels to original specs for best gas mileage, proper road contact, a smooth ride and longest tire life.
The most common signs of misalignment are pulling to one side while you’re driving, unusual tire wear and a steering wheel that's off-center even though your vehicle is pointed straight. But these symptoms can have other causes, sometimes simpler and sometimes not.
Steering pull can be caused by road conditions. If the asphalt has grooves that are slightly farther apart than your car’s axles, you may feel a pull as the tires on one side ride slightly higher. If the road is noticeably higher in the center, the vehicle may veer as the tires try to find a level surface.
Torque steer is a pull that happens during acceleration, from a difference in power being delivered to the wheels. A pull only during braking is probably from a caliper on one side sticking and not fully disengaging from the brake disc. A failing tire and improper tire rotation are two more causes of steering wheel pull.
Poor alignment may not be the issue if your steering wheel sometimes tugs in one direction and then the other. A bent or worn suspension part—ball joints, strut bearings or tie rods—could be to blame.
Atypical tire wear may be the result of worn shocks or struts, bushings or springs, or from carrying heavy loads (all of which can also put your vehicle out of alignment). Uneven wear can also be caused by driving on over-, underinflated or imbalanced tires.
An off-center steering wheel can be caused by worn steering or suspension parts. Just getting an alignment won’t fix the root cause.
One last common point of confusion: Vibration while underway is often a symptom of out-of-balance tires, not bad alignment.
When We Recommend an Alignment
An alignment is important to do when:
- You get new tires.
- You lower or lift your vehicle.
- Suspension parts that affect the tire angles are replaced or adjusted.
- You’ve had a fender-bender or a hard impact with a curb or road debris.
- It’s been a year since your last one.
Tire stores strongly recommend an alignment after installation of new tires because they want you to get what you pay for: full tread life. They also want to be sure that any defect that becomes apparent during the warranty period is from a manufacturing issue, not from wear that could have been avoided with basic vehicle maintenance.
Lifting or lowering a vehicle will affect your toe, camber or caster angles. So will repair or replacement of suspension and steering parts—struts, shocks, ball joints, tie rods, bushings or control arms. If one of these components is damaged, it’s a pretty good bet your vehicle’s alignment is out of spec. If you don’t fix them before your vehicle is aligned, you’ll soon have the problem recur.
Alignment checks are always advised after any significant impact with a bumper, a curb, a big pothole, an animal or anything else. It may have knocked your vehicle off spec.
Also, get a check annually, or twice yearly if you typically travel on rough roads. Regular checks are important because off alignment isn’t always obvious. The wrong toe angle can go unnoticed and so can atypical tire wear. Cars usually go out of alignment gradually, so you may not realize how much it was impacting drivability, gas mileage or tire wear until it’s corrected.
Tips Before Getting Service
Because the measurements are very fine, misalignment is not something you can see by just eyeballing whether the wheels and tire angles look right. But an experienced tire technician will usually know if you’re overdue for an alignment just by looking at your tire wear.
Here’s what to know if the service is recommended:
- If you have a damaged suspension part, replace it first. Worn or bad parts will put your vehicle right back out of spec.
- The technician may recommend a thrust alignment or a four-wheel alignment. Here’s a primer to understand what they’re talking about.
- Before service, let the tech know you’d like a printout showing what your alignment measurements were prior to the work being done and the final settings for your records. You can verify the job was truly necessary. Here’s an example of what you’ll see.
Measurements before alignment:
Measurements after alignment:
Looking at existing tire wear is one way to identify misalignment but the ideal is to correct your wheel’s positions before you have early and unnecessary tire wear. Regular alignments are part of basic maintenance that helps you get full mileage out of your tires.
How Do I Know if My Tires Need to be Balanced?
Tire balancing is a tune-up for your wheel-tire set. It makes sure that weight is evenly distributed around the entire circumference of the unit. The common symptoms of out-of-balance tires are uneven and faster tread wear, poor fuel economy, and vibration in the steering wheel, the floorboard or the seat that gets worse at faster speeds.
When all areas of the wheel-tire unit are as equal in weight as possible, the tire will roll smoothly. This helps it wear evenly, for longest life. Balancing also contributes to ride comfort: Imbalanced tires will wobble or hop up and down, which causes vibration. If a front tire isn’t properly balanced you’ll likely feel vibration in the steering wheel. If the problem is in the rear the tremor will be noticeable in the seat or floor.
Imbalanced tires are easily corrected, but the work is precise. It’s done by attaching small weights, just fractions of ounces, to the wheel.
How Do Wheels Get Out of Balance?
Everyday wear on tires will contribute to imbalance. Normal manufacturing imperfections are also a cause: Tires and wheels don't have precisely equal weight distribution. They’ll be slightly heavier in some spots.
Just half an ounce in weight difference is enough to cause a vibration when you’re driving.
How Tires Are Rebalanced
Rebalancing is done in a tire shop by putting the wheel-tire unit on a tire balancing machine that takes measurements to pinpoint lighter or heavier areas and making adjustments to account for these weight differences. The best time to get it done is when tires are being rotated, both for convenience and because you might have a tire out of balance on the rear of the vehicle and won’t feel it until it is moved to the front.
Here’s how it’s done:
- A tire mounted on a wheel is attached to a tire balancing machine.
- The wheel is spun while vibration measurements are taken. This tells the tech if the weight is spread evenly, how much weight to add and where on the wheel to attach it.
- If an imbalance is found, the technician may be able to rebalance and adjust the weights (adding more). But sometimes it requires the tech to also move the tire on the wheel and then rebalance. This is because a heavy spot on the wheel and on the tire can sometimes line up together, causing a greater imbalance that needs to be corrected.
Balancing Versus Alignment
Though both should be part of regular auto maintenance, balancing isn’t the same as getting an alignment. Alignment is about correcting the angles of the tires so they’re properly positioned in relationship to each other and to the road. It gets the wheels all traveling in the same direction and makes sure the tires make contact with the ground as they should.
When to Get Tire Balancing Done:
- You feel vibration in the steering wheel, the floorboard or your seat.
- You get them rotated, generally every 5,000 miles.
- At the very least every two years, once yearly if you drive rough roads.
- You get a flat and repair a tire.
- You buy any new tire(s).
- A weight that used to be on the rim falls off.
- You notice uneven tire wear.
Vibration when underway could be caused by an imbalanced tire and wheel assembly or something else—a bent wheel, a damaged tire (which won’t be fixed by balancing), worn suspension parts or other aging components. If you feel a vibration, don’t wait to get it diagnosed. You’ll head off other problems—and enjoy a smoother ride—when your tires are well balanced.
How To: Make Your Tires Last Longer
Do you like plunking down your hard-earned money on a new set of tires? Unless you’re a true enthusiast, probably not. If you want to extend the life of your tires, improve your car’s ride, and have a safer drive, follow these four quick tips.
1. Check Your Tire Air Pressure Monthly
Take the easiest step to extend tire life: Maintain the correct air pressure. The wrong air pressure can cause sluggish handling, increase stopping distance, increase wear and tear and heighten the risk of a blowout. Tire pressure changes:
- Every month. Tires can lose about a pound per square inch (PSI) of pressure monthly.
- In winter, when colder temperatures can lower air pressure.
- In summer, when warm weather increases tire air pressure.
This isn’t just about money, either. Proper tire pressure is important for safety. A National Highway Transportation Safety Administration Crash Causation Survey found tire issues in one out of 11 crashes. (Source: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811617.pdf [PDF]) Correct air pressure improves fuel efficiency. Underinflated tires mean you’re getting fewer miles to the gallon and paying more for gas than you need to. You can improve your gas mileage by up to 3.3 percent by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure. (See more gas mileage tips at http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/drive.shtml.) The right tire pressure is an easy “win.” Go check!
2. Get Your Tires Rotated Every 5,000 Miles
In most cars, only one or two wheels “drive” the car at a time. That can cause uneven tire wear. For example, on front-wheel drive vehicles, front tires wear faster. On rear-wheel drive vehicles, it’s the back tires. Even all-wheel drive vehicles can see uneven wear, as most shift the drive from one wheel to another. A technician rotates your tires by moving them to different wheel positions on the vehicle.That gives tires on drive wheels a rest and evens out wear. Rotation makes tires last longer. Do it every 5,000 miles.
3. Have Wheels Balanced
Tire rotation is a great time to get your wheels balanced, as well. Every tire and wheel has a heavy spot in it. None is perfect, even when brand new. The difference is tiny, measured in one-quarter to one-half ounces. But that small difference can cause vibration and uneven tire wear. Your mechanic can balance each wheel using a specialized machine and small weights. As the tire wears, he may need to move or change that weight. It’s a fast, easy process that costs a lot less than a new tire! Make sure you get your tires’ balance checked and adjusted during rotation.
4. Check Your Alignment Twice a Year
Misalignment may make your tires toed-in (“pigeon-toed”) or toed-out (“duck-footed”).
If your car actively pulls or drifts right or left, or the steering wheel vibrates or shakes, your car may have an alignment problem. But your car or truck could be driving fine and still be out of alignment. When you bump up against a parking lot barrier, hit a pothole, or hit the curb, something has to give, and it’s often your alignment. The smallest misalignment can reduce fuel efficiency, and increase tread wear. Your mechanic can adjust your car’s alignment. Take your car in for a check every six months. Or whenever you think something is wrong. A little maintenance can help save a lot of money. Follow these easy, inexpensive tire maintenance tips and you can increase tire life. You’ll also improve gas mileage, extend the life of your car, and make your drive a safer one. You can start right now: Check your tire pressure. See? That wasn’t hard, and you just saved yourself some money.
Benefits of Proper Alignment, Suspension Maintenance
Why Alignment Matters
In its simplest form, alignment is keeping all of the tires on your vehicle moving in the same direction and at the same angle to maximize control and driving efficiency.
A vehicle with proper alignment handles correctly, achieves optimal fuel efficiency and maximizes tire life.
On the other hand, a vehicle with poor alignment pulls or drifts on the road, wastes fuel, and causes premature and uneven tire wear. Poor alignment puts your safety at risk.
Here’s another way to think about alignment. In a poorly aligned vehicle, each wheel may be pointing in a slightly different direction, which means each tire will be skidding just a little whenever you drive. If your tires are perpetually skidding, they not only wear out prematurely but also make it harder for your vehicle to move. This puts extra stress on your vehicle, consumes more fuel and costs you money.
How does your car get out of alignment and what’s needed to get back into alignment? A car comes aligned by the factory when it’s purchased new. Its alignment can change over the course of normal driving. Poor alignment might happen faster from driving on rough roads or hitting potholes, curbs and other obstacles.
There are a number of different procedures and techniques to align a vehicle. In general, they all work toward getting your car’s wheels and tires to do two basic things:
- Get them all traveling in the same direction.
- Get the tires to strike the road at the proper angle.
There are several different types of alignments available today. Your Les Schwab alignment professional will review with you all the types of alignment appropriate for your vehicle.
Not sure if your vehicle needs an alignment? Just ask. If we inspect your vehicle and find your wheels are within the factory specified range, we won’t charge you a penny. If you do need it aligned, however, our work is backed by our Les Schwab warranty.
Why Suspension Matters
Now let’s talk about suspension. Your car is suspended by a unique combination of springs, shocks or struts. Shock absorbers aid in ride control by keeping the tires on the road and preventing excess bounce after hitting a bump.
Keeping your tires on the road is the only way you keep control of your car. Worn or damaged shocks don’t keep your tires on the road like they’re supposed to, which means you have less control over your vehicle. This is especially dangerous on rough and winding roads.
Because worn or damaged shocks aren’t doing their job, additional problems can happen, including accelerated wear on other parts of your suspension system and tires, costing you even more money in the future.
Is My Suspension Bad?
Because shocks and struts wear slowly over time, it’s sometimes difficult to know if they’re working properly or not. Not sure if your suspension needs work? Here are a few symptoms to look for:
- Does your vehicle feel like it rolls or sways on turns?
- Does the front end of your car dive when braking, then bounce when stopped?
- Does your car bounce or feel like it’s sliding on winding or rough roads?
- Does your car bottom out on bumps?
- Can you feel your car shimmying back and forth through the steering wheel when you drive?
If so, you’ll want to have one of our trained suspension experts take a look at your vehicle.
Following industry inspection procedures, we’ll check to see if any of your suspension parts need to be replaced. If so, we’ll provide you with a complete cost estimate free of charge, so you can make an informed decision. Les Schwab Tires uses only professional grade parts. And, they’re backed with Les Schwab’s Parts and Labor Warranty.
Alignment, suspension, shocks and struts are all important parts of enjoying a safe, comfortable ride in your vehicle. Properly maintained, they will not only help to keep you safe but will also save you money in increased fuel efficiency and lower repair and replacement costs.
If you have questions about your suspension or your alignment ask one of our helpful trained professionals at a store near you.
Wheel Alignment FAQ
What’s a Wheel Alignment?
Though it’s sometimes so subtle you won’t notice, the alignment of your wheels can get out of whack from the jolts and mishaps of everyday driving. This reduces your vehicle’s drivability, lowers gas mileage and causes early tire wear. An alignment is the process of adjusting the angles of your vehicle’s wheels back to original specifications
Are Alignments Necessary?
An alignment improves driving safety by keeping the right amount of the tire in contact with the road and preventing your vehicle from pulling to the left or right. A properly aligned vehicle has a smoother ride and optimal gas mileage. Keeping the wheels aligned also extends tire life.
What Affects Wheel Alignment?
Over time, normal settling of the suspension – plus fatigue of springs and bushings (rubber cushions that dampen the amount of movement and noise) – will gradually change alignment. Impacts like hitting a pothole, going over big bumps, rubbing up against a curb or rolling over debris can push the wheels out of alignment. Aggressive driving, carrying heavy loads, bent or worn suspension parts (tie rods, ball joints, strut mounts and bearing plates) or a slight fender-bender can trigger misalignment.
How Can I Tell If My Wheels Are Misaligned?
Diagnosing misalignment isn’t always clear-cut. Because the measurements can be very fine, you may not see it with a quick look at the tires and wheels. You may notice the steering wheel is off-center, feel a pull or drift or notice your handling isn’t up to par. The only way to know for sure is to have a trained technician run a check on an alignment machine.
Will it Affect My Tires?
Yes. If they show moderate-to-severe edge wear or feathered wear, it likely means they’re being dragged along rather than rolling smoothly. This is often an indicator that the toe or the camber angle is off.
How Are Alignments Done?
They’re done using an alignment machine to measure the wheel angles. These are calculated and compared against your vehicle’s original specs. Then the technician makes adjustments as needed. A real-time computer readout shows when the target angles are met. A report will show the incoming and corrected alignment measurements.
What Are the Types of Alignment?
Your technician will advise what kind of alignment is best for your vehicle type:
Known as a front-end alignment, the front wheels are adjusted so they are parallel to the centerline of your vehicle. This is the simplest and most basic alignment BUT it’s not recommended for any current model vehicle. It’s less accurate. You may not get a centered steering wheel, because front-end alignment doesn’t account for rear wheel angles.
A thrust alignment is the most accurate alignment for vehicles without adjustable rear suspension. Only the front wheels are adjusted. Here’s how: There’s no guarantee both rear wheels are pointed straight ahead as they should be. One may be pointed exactly forward and the other slightly off. Or both their angles could be off. Since this can’t be adjusted, the front wheels are aligned as closely as possible to the thrust line, which is the average of where the two rear wheels point. This compensates enough to get a centered steering wheel.
This is done on vehicles with adjustable rear suspension, to bring all four corners of your vehicle back in spec. All four wheels are aligned to the center of the vehicle. First, the rear axle angles are measured and adjusted, then the front. This is the best, most accurate, manufacturer-recommended alignment for vehicles with adjustable rear suspension.
Should I Get an Alignment When I Get New Tires?
Yes. Getting an alignment when you replace tires is one of the best ways to get the most mileage out of them. Be sure to ask for an alignment, since it’s not generally part of the purchase price.
What Other Times Should Alignment Be Checked?
- After you hit a curb, collide with an animal, or run over a pothole, bump or debris.
- When tires are wearing unevenly.
- You lower or lift your vehicle.
- Steering or suspension parts that affect the tire angles are replaced.
- You notice your vehicle drifts or pulls to one side.
- The steering wheel is off-center when you're pointing straight.
- Following a fender-bender.
- At least once a year.
- Twice annually, if you regularly drive rough roads.
(Les Schwab does free visual alignment inspections. If we recommend an alignment but find during the course of the work that your alignment is good and can’t be improved, there’s no charge.)
How Often Is It Needed?
Regular alignments are part of basic auto maintenance. Catching misalignment early means you can correct your wheel’s positions before you have premature tire wear. Cars usually go out of alignment gradually, so it’s important to check it at least annually, or twice a year if you travel roads that are washboard, rutted or have lots of potholes.
Is Four-Wheel Alignment Only for 4-Wheel-Drive Vehicles?
Regardless of whether they’re 4WD, front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive, most cars and many SUVs today are four-wheel alignable. These vehicles should get a four-wheel alignment because the rear is just as likely to be out of alignment and cause uneven tire wear as the front.
Does Misalignment Affect Gas Mileage?
Yes. When your wheels are properly aligned, there’s less rolling resistance. Tires roll with less friction so your vehicle is more fuel efficient. When wheels are misaligned, tires will drag slightly, causing a loss in fuel efficiency. If the situation continues, the tires will wear unevenly and lead to worse gas mileage.
Can Misalignment Cause Steering Wheel Vibration?
Vibration in the steering wheel, the floorboard or the seat that gets worse at faster speeds is often a sign of out-of-balance tires, not bad alignment.
Is Alignment the Same as Balancing?
They are two different repairs. Rebalancing tires is a process of attaching small weights, just fractions of ounces, to the wheel so that weight is even around the entire unit. Although they’re round, tires have manufacturing imperfections and wear that create lighter and heavier areas. The weights compensate for this.
Rebalancing is done in a tire shop by putting the wheel-tire unit on a tire-balancing machine that takes weight measurements and shows where to make adjustments for any differences. It’s most often done during tire rotations and isn’t part of an alignment.
What’s Included With an Alignment?
Here’s what’s included with an alignment at Les Schwab Tires: tire inspection, test drive before, steering and suspension inspection, tire pressure check and adjustment, alignment angles measured and adjusted, test drive after, and a printed report showing before and after measurements. (Alignments done at Les Schwab Tires are covered by a 30-day guarantee, which includes labor cost.)
Can Misalignment Cause Noise?
Generally, any noise from misalignment is caused by abnormal tire wear. If tires are the source of road noise, an alignment correction may be needed but won’t solve the noise problem.
Will an Alignment Fix a Crooked Steering Wheel? Loose Steering?
An off-center steering wheel is one sign of misalignment. Alignment will restore the steering wheel to a centered position if there aren’t other undiagnosed problems.
When alignment angles are out of spec, steering can feel slightly loose. This condition can be corrected by an alignment. But if you’re noticing you need a lot more steering wheel movement than normal, there may be worn steering or suspension parts that are allowing way too much play. In this case, the loose parts should be identified in the pre-alignment inspection and repairs should be recommended before aligning. Some parts to suspect are ball joints, tie rods, idler arm, Pitman arm, rack, and pinion or steering box.
Is It Covered Under Warranty?
Check your vehicle’s owner manual for the original warranty.
How Much Does a Wheel Alignment Cost?
It varies according to vehicle type, shop, region and type of alignment. A quality shop will advise in advance what type is best and what it will cost before performing the work. A great shop only charges for work that is actually needed once the job is underway.
Who Does Alignments?
Tire stores and any good mechanic. Les Schwab Tires offers full wheel alignment services—including adjustments and free inspections—usually without an appointment.