You’re driving and you suddenly notice your car pulling in one direction. You’re thinking that the tires are under inflated so you proceed to inflate your tires to correct its pressure. But then again it’s still doing the same thing. All this time what you need might just be a wheel alignment. So what is a wheel alignment? Is it going to take much of your time? So how long does an alignment take?
A wheel alignment is a car maintenance procedure performed by a mechanic to adjust your vehicle’s suspension back into proper form. By realigning the vehicle’s tires and axles, the wheels are once again properly aligned with each other in a way that it can make solid contact with the road. It is also referred to as breaking or tracking, and is part of normal automotive maintenance that consists of changing wheel angles to car manufacturer specifications. The aim of a tire alignment is to square the wheels and axles of a vehicle with each other so that they can travel in the same direction. The method includes changing all the suspension angles that influence the rotation and positioning of the tire and ensuring the perfect centering of the steering wheel. A vehicle manufacturer shall designate standard angles for the alignment of its tires, which shall be defined in degrees.
How important is a wheel alignment?
One of the most significant maintenance work you have to do as a responsible car owner is have your wheels aligned. Your car will eventually experience a dramatic decrease in handling capacity if your wheels are misaligned. It will pull in one direction continuously and significantly hinder its ability to turn or travel in a straight line. So not only will it make driving more difficult and decrease ride comfort, but it can also jeopardize anyone travelling with the car.
Inability to regularly do this maintenance work can lead to uneven wear of the tire, meaning you're going to have to replace your tires more often. So the cost will just keep adding up. It is not uncommon to result in flat spots and tire blowouts as misaligned wheels can cause added tension to your tires. Misaligned wheels can also lead to damaged wheel rims and suspension, which can affect your vehicle's performance and longevity.
How do you know if your car needs an alignment?
Besides “the pulling in one direction” there are other warning signs that your car needs a wheel alignment. Here are the other reasons:
Off-center Steering Wheel
An odd angle to your steering wheel could mean having a front-end alignment and not a four-wheel alignment. Front end alignment meaning it is making adjustments to the front axle. It is the most basic type when it comes to alignment and isn’t always recommended when it comes to modern vehicles.
Other types of alignment includes thrust alignment and four-wheel alignment. The thrust alignment is a combination of a front-end alignment with thrust alignment to make sure that all four wheels are squared with each other. This type is commonly recommended for vehicles that have a solid rear axle. While the four-wheel alignment comprehensively combines elements of both the front-end and thrust-angle alignments and at the same time positions the rear axle angles. A four-wheel alignment is commonly used for four-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles, as well as front-wheel drive cars that have adjustable or independent rear suspensions.
When you drive, it's important to pay attention to your steering wheel. To compensate for wheel misalignment, you may be subconsciously driving with the steering wheel off-center. A technician can adjust your front tie rods to any degree necessary to remove any pull on the steering wheel during a front-end alignment. In doing so, it alters the position of the wheels relative to the steering column just to keep them pointed in the same direction as the rear tires. But while this can resolve the directional pull, it may create a “off-tracking” or “dog-tracking” problem. A car travelling at a slight sideways angle down the road can be a dangerous situation because it disrupts the performance and handling characteristics of your automobile. In addition, the additional drag and wind resistance will decrease your fuel economy.
Steering wheel vibrating
Sometimes the vibration can be triggered by your wheels having been knocked out of alignment once you hit a pothole or a curb. The vibration may be a precursor to a bigger, more serious issue, so before it gets worse, best to have it checked out. The vibration may also be caused by unbalanced tires. But in the case of misalignment, it occurs because the tires are pulling in opposite directions..
Steering wheel is lose
This can be another sign of a wheel alignment problem if your steering feels kind of loose or wanders around the road a bit. Your car should feel and respond directly to the direction you are steering it. You should get the alignment checked out once you notice you are turning the wheel frequently with very little tire movement.
Uneven tire wears
You may notice uneven tread wear when your wheels are out of alignment. You may or may not encounter other driving symptoms, but you may see signs that your tires are not properly aligned if you visually inspect your tires b y measuring the tread depth in a few areas of each tire. The depth should all be the same if the wheels are aligned properly. A discrepancy could mean you have a problem with wheel alignment.
There are several causes of a bad wheel alignment and that includes worn or loose suspension components affecting the alignment, and that includes poor shocks or struts. It could also be caused by sudden disturbance or impact from going too fast over a speed bump, hitting something like a pothole, bumping into a curb or an accident.
Can you drive with a bad wheel alignment?
You can drive a car with bad wheel alignment but the problem is what it does to a car. It causes uneven wear on the tires. So if the issue is not resolved fast enough, the tires of a vehicle may suffer premature wear and tear, rendering them ineffective for safe driving. To prevent unnecessary tire damage, an alignment problem should be corrected immediately.
Misalignment can place excessive stress on the suspension of a vehicle, posing a risk of damaging suspension components that could result in costly repairs to the vehicle. Wheel misalignment can lead to steering difficulties when driving at high speeds, raising the risk of an accident. Tires that are out of balance appear to drag to the left, requiring the driver to keep the vehicle under control with a firm grip on his or her steering. Misalignment may have an adverse effect on how a vehicle brakes and handles, thus undermining road safety.
Tire drag from misaligned wheels could also result in more fuel being consumed by the vehicle. A smart and responsible driver will look out for the signs of misalignment and immediately take action to fix the problem. People are more likely to prevent accidents causing misalignment issues by driving carefully, allowing them to benefit from greater protection on the road.
Also every time you rotate your tires, check for tread wear. If they wear uniformly, you do not need to have an alignment. ‘tAs long as the vehicle appears to be running fine, the steering wheel is not vibrating, or the car is not moving as you go down the lane an extra 500 miles won't make a difference.
How alignment is done
To see exactly what is going on with your vehicle, the mechanic will take your vehicle for a test drive. They will then lift the vehicle on a hoist and check the components of the tires and suspension and make sure all is in working order. Before the alignment process starts, any sections that are missing or demonstrate signs of extreme wear will be replaced.
The next step is testing all four tires for tire pressure and then any necessary modifications are made. The car will then be hooked up to the alignment system and, according to the manufacturer's specifications begin making changes to the suspension angles. There are four main areas that will be adjusted by your mechanic: toe, camber, caster and thrust.
The toe is the angle where tires turn in or out viewed from above and having a properly aligned toe is important for tires to wear evenly and for that the life of the tires are extended significantly. Camber on the other hand is the vertical angle (inward or outward) of the wheels upon looking at the car straight on. A lot of cars have a slight negative camber to help in stability.
The steering axis’ forward or backward angle on the other hand viewed from the side of the car is called caster, which aids your car to stay on a straight course and helps your steering wheel return to a straight position after a turn. Lastly, the thrust measurement is a reference of the rear axle direction and centerline of the car. It secures that the front and rear axles are parallel.
After all that is checked the mechanic will then ensure that the steering wheel is centered. Lastly, the car will be taken for a test drive to make sure that all issues have been addressed and everything is back in proper alignment.
How much does it cost for an alignment?
As long as the vehicle has no other odd problems, a car alignment is not costly in comparison to other repair and maintenance work. You must prepare between $75 for a single alignment and up to $200 at an average for an extended warranty, depending on the type of vehicle and where you live. But your warranty or extended warranty might cover an alignment, so make sure you review the conditions of any warranty coverage you have to see whether you qualify for a free alignment.
You might need additional services if you have problems with the suspension or tire equilibrium of your vehicle. In that case, the mechanic will need to fix it to correctly align your tires, and that will add up to the cost. And if you have a specialized car design repairs may even be more expensive.
Many businesses that do alignments give limited or even lifetime warranties on their jobs. This can be a smart idea if you sometimes drive along rough roads and plan on maintaining your vehicle for a long time.
How soon after getting new tires should I get an alignment?
Most car experts conclude that the only effect worn tires have on wheel alignment is a change to the car's ride height and given today's steering and suspension design, it should be insignificant. So it doesn’t really matter whether you get your wheel aligned before or after having some new tires put on.
How Long Does an Alignment Take
So how long does an alignment take? A wheel alignment for a two wheel or a four wheel drive vehicle can take an average of one hour under normal conditions. But if the suspension system, steering bushing, track rod, or other parts have too much wear and tear or damage, it may take a longer time as some components have to be replaced.
If you want to make sure your car is working as it should do an alignment check as you would perform any other maintenance work. Make sure to do this every 6,000 miles or so, or at least every other time you have your oil changed or as soon as you notice premature or an uneven tire wear. Regular alignment service will secure your vehicle’s safety and handling, as well as improve fuel economy, serve as preventive to important vehicle components, and also aids in extending the life of your tires.
At the end of the day it is much more practical and cost saving if you pay for an alignment than keep purchasing a new set of tires, plus risking getting into an accident.