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 the longest tire life.
Common Signs of Wheel Misalignment
An alignment service 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.
- You notice uneven tire wear, steering pull, or an off-center steering wheel.
We recommend an alignment after the installation of new tires. This helps you get the most life from your new tires. Wheel alignment checks are always advised after a significant impact or uneven tire wear is detected.
Also, get a check annually, or twice yearly if you typically travel on rough roads. Regular checks are important because alignment issues aren’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.
The most common signs of misalignment are pulling to one side while you’re driving, unusual tire wear and/or 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.
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.
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:
While looking at existing tire wear is one way to identify misalignment, It’s ideal to have your vehicle aligned annually to help catch and correct any misalignment issues before you experience early and unnecessary tire wear. Regular alignments are part of basic maintenance that help you get full mileage out of your tires.
Starting Problems? How to Tell If It’s the Battery or Alternator
If your vehicle won’t start, it’s usually caused by a dying or dead battery, loose or corroded connection cables, a bad alternator or an issue with the starter. It can be hard to determine if you’re dealing with a battery or an alternator problem. Here’s how to know which one is the culprit.
Bad Battery Symptoms
If the cranking of the engine is sluggish, like your vehicle is harder to start on cold mornings, it starts inconsistently, or there’s no sound and interior lights when you try to start, suspect a failing battery, a loose or corroded connection or electrical draw. A low battery that has visible corrosion on the terminals is probably damaged.
If jumpstarting works, then you know you’ve got a battery problem. But you also need to figure out whether it’s simply at the end of its life or there are underlying issues. A dead or low battery can be caused by a failing alternator. It can also result from additional draw from auxiliary lights, fuses, sound systems, alarms and such.
Signs of a Bad Alternator
Some of the things to look for are no-starting and trouble starting, dimming lights and problems with stereo system output. If your car starts but stalls when you’re underway, your battery is probably not being recharged due to a faulty alternator. A squealing sound coming from the engine that gets louder when drains like the heater or sound system are on may be your alternator bearings.
Another telltale is turning the AM radio to a low number on the dial without music, then revving the engine. If you hear a whine or the sound goes fuzzy when you hit the gas, your alternator is probably failing.
If the vehicle won’t crank or start but the headlights are still working, look to problems with the starter or other parts of the engine.
If you have a check-engine or battery indicator light illuminated on your vehicle, it could indicate a problem with an automobile charging system, or if your vehicle gets a jump-start and immediately stops running, it could be an indication that the alternator is malfunctioning. It’s important to bring this into a professional for a proper diagnosis.
What the Battery & Alternator Do
An auto battery supplies a big electric charge that travels through the starting system and turns some gears to start the car. Once the car is running, the alternator sends current back to recharge the battery as you drive. It supplies power for your car’s electronics when you’re underway and makes sure the right amount of charge goes back to the battery.
If Your Car Won’t Start
The common signs above should help pinpoint what exactly is going wrong.
If you’re not wanting to do your own diagnostics, get a jumpstart (and keep your vehicle running) and take it in for a technician to check your electrical system. Both the starting and charging systems should be inspected.
Battery checks on standard wet-cell batteries should include inspection of fluid level, the posts (the terminals marked + and -) for corrosion, and cables for snug connection and no corrosion.
An electronic battery test should be done, which gives more information than a standard load test. It measures the voltage and cold cranking amps (CCA). (Battery inspections and charges are free at Les Schwab Tires.)
The shop should also check the alternator’s voltage and current output and look for signs of bad diodes, the components that convert electrical current from AC (alternating current) to DC (direct current). If it’s time to replace it and your vehicle has been customized with power-hungry aftermarket accessories like a sound system, ask if you need a higher-capacity alternator.
If the alternator is working fine, the search for the problem will move to other parts of the starting and charging system.
Got a Bad Alternator?
It may have damaged your battery. Since the alternator regulates how much electric current gets fed back to the battery during recharging, the battery may have overheated due to overcharging. This shortens its expected life and can make it unreliable. Ask whether you need a replacement if you’re having alternator repairs done.
If it’s your battery that’s bad, it won’t damage the alternator.
Seasonal Car Battery Care: Why and How
An average car battery will last 4 to 5 years, maybe even up to 7. But where and how you drive and what the weather’s like in your area affect its life. Many short trips are harder on batteries than fewer, longer ones. In hot climates, you may only get 2 to 3 years out of a new battery.
Unless you’re having obvious trouble, you may just ignore it. But it’s a good idea to get your auto battery checked every fall. As cold weather arrives, the everyday work of starting up and powering your vehicle gets harder, and summer heat may have taken an invisible toll. Those battery problems you run into in the winter likely started in the summer.
What Does Summer Heat Do to a Car Battery?
Hot weather is the harshest environment for car batteries.
When it’s 90 or 95 degrees outside, it’s 140 to 150 degrees under your hood. These high temperatures can cause the water in your vehicle’s battery to evaporate. High heat can also force some of the fluid out of the battery vents in the form of gases. That will cause a chemical reaction with the lead and other metals on the battery connector. If you see corrosion that looks like white or blue crystals on the nodes with + and – signs (your battery terminals), that’s why.
The inside of a typical lead-acid car battery is like a layer cake made up of plates of lead and other components, with the “frosting” being a solution of about one-third sulfuric acid and two-thirds water. When some of that water evaporates or some sulfuric acid is forced out because it’s hot, there's not enough fluid to surround the plates. At that point, they start corroding.
About half of premature battery failures are caused by the loss of fluid in the battery. You may not see this damage, but it will reduce your battery’s efficiency.
Then there are the ways you use your vehicle in the summer. A battery can be pushed to its limit with demands from the engine cooling fan, air conditioning, stereo, and GPS or other gadgets you charge on your road trip. Deep discharges also speed up the battery’s aging. This can happen whenever you use the car’s electrical system while it’s turned off.
How to Take Care of Your Battery in Summer
Avoid deep discharges. It’s fun to park by a lake and listen to music through your car’s stereo and handy to charge your phone from the 12V socket while you’re camping, but draining the battery significantly can damage its internal parts.
Use the car regularly during heat waves. It’s not just cold weather that can damage a battery left unused — heat is harmful to sitting batteries, too. Park in the shade whenever possible. Keeping the temperature under the hood even a bit lower than it would otherwise be will slow fluid evaporation.
Speaking of battery fluid, faster evaporation in the warm months will increase corrosion. Clean any corrosion off the top of your battery once a year and make sure the cables are tightly connected. Corrosion is caustic, so make sure you wear gloves and proper eye protection to do this. Dissolve some baking soda in a bit of water and use a toothbrush to gently scrub the battery terminals and cable clamps.
Why Won’t the Car Start When It’s Cold Outside?
If it’s worked hard over summer, or the weather was really hot, your car’s battery may not be as efficient come fall, for the reasons above. If it’s not operating right it will have trouble holding a charge and delivering cranking power to the engine.
A telltale sign that your battery needs attention is if you notice your car is slow to turn over on chilly mornings but easier in the afternoon. This happens because all the fluids in your vehicle are thicker when temperatures are lower, like syrup that's straight out of the fridge versus warm. So it takes more power to move the motor oil required to crank the engine. Also, the chemical reactions that happen in the battery are slower in the cold.
With newer cars, you might not even have a slow start — your car simply won’t start.
Simply put, your vehicle’s systems need additional output from the battery to operate in colder conditions. If your battery is old, needs recharging, or isn't able to hold a charge, it will struggle to perform in the cold weather.
How to Take Care of Your Battery in Winter
First, get your battery tested in the fall, between summer heat and winter cold. A test will tell you if the battery is fully charged, how many cold cranking amps it can provide, and generally how healthy it is.
Keep a battery charger on hand and use it if you’re driving your vehicle less often in the cold months, you make frequent very short drives, or if you’re having trouble starting in the morning. If you live in a very cold climate where temps can get down to 5 degrees F, consider using a block heater or battery blanket.
A block heater will warm your engine so it's easier to start the car. A battery blanket will, as the name suggests, keep your battery warmer so the fluid keeps moving and it’s easier for the battery to crank the necessary amps when it’s cold out. Depending on where you live, you may want to use both these items — talk to a mechanic to figure out what you need.
Keep jumper cables in your car, as you’re more likely to need them in the winter.
Heading into the cold months, take a few minutes to clean corrosion off the top of your battery and make sure the cables are tightly connected.
We’ve said it twice, but it’s important enough to say one more time: Autumn is the time to get your battery checked to avoid irritating problems in the winter. If your vehicle’s battery is over 4 years old, it’s especially important to get it checked annually.
Winter Driving Tips: Winterize Your Vehicle
Like unpacking your heavy winter clothes that got boxed up in the spring, winterizing your car is a quick and easy process that can make any trip or commute a lot less stressful. Here’s what you need to know.
- Check your battery. A good battery is one of the unsung heroes of your daily commute. When it fails, everything comes to a screeching halt. Check your battery condition and ensure it’s still holding a charge before you need it this winter.
- Winterize your ride. This guide from Consumer Reports shares all the tools you’ll need to get your vehicle ready for the cold months ahead.
- Be ready for any weather. Winter driving conditions are rarely ideal, so it makes sense to give yourself extra time whether you’re driving across town or across the state. Also, be sure to keep the tank full, or nearly full, just in case you get stuck in a winter storm that takes hours to maneuver.
Get More Winter Driving Tips