What are wheel alignments? Is it really a necessary service? The term defines the service: It makes sure the wheels and tires are in a straight line, or “aligned” with each other. When all four wheels are properly aligned, the tires work together more effectively. This results in better handling, better steering wheel return, better fuel economy (because the tires are not being dragged sideways as they are when misaligned), and, most importantly--what we all love to see—the tires will wear more evenly and last longer.
Tire Edge Wear
There are three main angles measured and corrected during wheel alignments: caster, camber and toe. While these terms describe to technicians how the tires are positioned on the vehicle, the short version is that if these are not within factory specifications, the inside or outside edge of the tread wears away. The tire edge wear may be so severe that the steel belts that are under the tread may be visible. Although the rest of the tread may look good, if it has worn down that far the tire is unsafe and has to be replaced prematurely.
Reversing the Tire Edge Wear
Some car owners hope that, in this case, a mechanic can switch the tires, so that the worn edge is on the other side, or just align the wheels to get more use from the tires. Unfortunately, once a wear pattern starts, it will continue to wear regardless of your intervention. Correcting the problem usually means replacing two tires (four in some cases with all-wheel-drive or 4x4 vehicles), correcting the wheel alignment, and then following a more frequent schedule of tire rotation and wheel alignment checks.
What Role Does Tire Rotation Play?
Even if the wheel alignment of your vehicle is perfect, if the tires are not rotated they will wear unevenly over time. This is because the four corners of the vehicle undergo different stresses, including different loads, the forces of braking and steering, and the “torque” or twisting forces when a vehicle accelerates. With a tire rotation, you are doing your part to even out and slow down the unique wear that comes from each wheel and tire position.
Tire Rotation Recommendations
Most tire manufacturers recommend rotating your tires every 5000 to 7,000 miles. For convenience, most drivers combine this service with oil changes. If you change oil every 3,000 miles, simply have your tires rotated every other oil change. If your vehicle can go longer between oil changes, such as 5000 or 6,000 mile intervals, then rotate tires with every oil change. During a tire rotation, expect the service technician to check and correct the air pressures, inspect tires for unusual wear or damage, and do a quick visual inspection of your brake pads and shoes.
Free Wheel Alignment Checks
Any time you have your vehicle in for service (oil change, tire rotation, etc.) becomes the perfect time to have the wheel alignment inspected. Most service locations will do this check for free with any other service. Some may even give you a written printout of the wheel alignment check results. Checking it means a technician is also performing a free inspection of the vehicle steering and suspension systems for any issues that may lead to tire wear due to loose or worn parts. It also means peace of mind for you if it is within specs, or the opportunity to have the wheel alignment corrected before it begins to wear your expensive tires.
How Often Should My Vehicle Have Wheel Alignments?
Vehicle wheel alignment should be inspected at least annually, and corrected without delay when the free check shows the alignment is out of manufacturers’ specs. Other times to check the alignment are before a long highway trip, or right after hitting a pot hole or curb or other such incident, whenever the vehicle “pulls” or drifts to one side, or if the steering wheel is off-center. And while a vehicle may go a long time before it needs wheel alignment corrections, factors like road conditions, driving habits, and the wear and condition of steering and suspension components all impact how fast the wheel alignment can change.