Wheel balancing/alignment (sometimes known as tire balancing/alignment) is a service that’s sometimes put off until it’s totally forgotten. Some consider it an extra chore, while others don’t see the need at all because there aren’t any visible effects without it in the short term. It may not even be palpable right away if all you do is drive in the city.
But trust us when we say that’s a bad idea. Delaying these services can damage your suspension, tires, and can even put your life and those of your passengers at risk. Here’s why.
All wheels, even the nice and pricey ones, need to be balanced. They may look perfectly symmetrical but unless it was made using an ultrasonic densimeter, chances are some areas are just a bit denser than others causing a slight imbalance.
Don’t worry though. We aren’t talking about pounds of difference here. It may just even be ounces. But even a small ounce of lop-sided pressure multiplied by about 500 tire rotations per kilometer will cause uneven tread wear and excess heat that will surely shorten the lifespan of your tires.
The wheels-and-tires set needs to be balanced to make sure that its weight is evenly distributed throughout the entire circumference as it rolls.
What does having unbalanced wheels feel like? Some vibration will creep up through the steering wheel, seat, and even the floorboard. This is caused by the wheel and tire wiggling as you go faster. Other times it may also become difficult to steer.
Okay, so when do you need to have it done? As a rule of thumb, when you get new wheels or if there’s some vibration off of it, or when it’s removed for repairs, have the balance checked as well to make sure nothing is off.
Wheel alignment is the adjustment of the camber, toe, and caster angles so that the tire makes proper contact with the road and prevents uneven wear.
Sounds simple enough, right? But just because it looks upright and straight, doesn’t mean the wheels aren’t microscopically askew. Unless you have a caster gauge and a toe plate at home, it's always better to go to a shop with a computerized wheel alignment machine to get the most precise results.
Misaligned wheels/tires cause all sorts of problems that can lead to very costly repairs. First, the tires wear unevenly. Second, it puts undue stress on the steering system, suspension components, and other ancillary parts. Finally, it raises fuel consumption by as much as 10% because of the additional resistance from misalignment.
Compared to unbalanced wheels, how does misalignment feel? To put it simply, you'll feel the vehicle pull either to the left/right. Sometimes, the steering wheel can be off-center even though you're driving a straight and flat road. Lastly, you might feel vibrations through the steering wheel or hear the tires squealing as you're driving along.
As before, when should you have a proper alignment done? If you feel none of the above but see even a hint of uneven tread wear, have your alignment checked right away. When you get new tires or hit a pothole definitely get it done, too. For peace of mind, have it looked at once a year (twice if you do a lot of long drives over rough roads) or after every 10,000 kilometers (whichever comes first).
It's easy to forget that our vehicles also need TLC as much as we do. We just have to remember that proper maintenance - and that includes balancing and alignment of our wheels and tires - are part of a greater scheme that not only protects our wallets from having to spend for untoward repairs but our own and our family's safety as well. So, when was the last time you had your wheel and tire checks done?