What Happens During a Wheel Alignment

Posted by: Dan on 23/09/2015

Category: Maintenance


What Happens During a Wheel Alignment?


Vehicle owners probably already know all about wheel alignments, how crucial they are to safe driving and why mechanics recommend them. However, a lot of people don’t actually get their wheels aligned because they don't make the time for an appointment, don't want to spend the money on the service, or just don't think it really matters for the health of their car. Unfortunately, they’re wrong.


But before you plan your next family road trip, your car needs a thorough check-up to avoid costly break-downs or mishaps on the road. Anyone with kids knows surviving a road trip is difficult enough without worrying about the safety of your car.


Getting your car's wheels aligned helps save you money in the long run and can actually extend the life of your tyres. In addition, your newly aligned wheels create a safer driving experience for you and everyone else on the road. Tyre problems can cause serious car accidents and also create wear and tear on your vehicle.


To better understand the importance of wheel alignments, get an overview of what happens during the process.


Wheel Alignment 101


When you take your vehicle into the mechanic or tyre shop, they usually start by test driving the car on a few city streets so the mechanic can verify the actual problem at hand. It’s not unusual for the owner of the vehicle to assume they know what’s wrong with the car and ask for an alignment upfront. But in reality, there could be a host of reasons why the tyres don’t seem right or the car is not steering well in the first place. During the test drive, the mechanic looks for telltale symptoms like the vehicle pulling in one direction, tyres squealing on low speed turns or a steering wheel that is off-center.


Once the issue has been identified, the mechanic will get the car ready to work on the wheel alignment. Most auto repair shops keep detailed information about every vehicle they work on and will enter the vehicle make, model and year, and design of the car into their database. Simply scanning the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) can also access all of the current data. The car’s detailed information can help your auto repair shop determine the OEM’s specification for alignment.


With the data in hand, the mechanic drives the vehicle onto the alignment rack and puts it into position. Next, the car is elevated to a comfortable level for working and locked down on the rack as an added safety precaution. The mechanic should also thoroughly inspect the tyres for irregular or uneven wear, and will take the opportunity to check the front-end and rear axle for any issues.


Common Wheel Alignment Problems


Some common problems may include a destroyed ball joint, broken coil spring, loose wheel bearing or an issue with the steering or suspension. Mechanics will usually fix or replace these issues first before starting the alignment procedure, and will also check and adjust the tyre pressure to the OEM specifications before removing the hubcaps.


Next, the mechanic mounts targets to the wheel ends to match the requirements of the rack manufacturer.  The majority of alignment racks necessitate that the alignment head must be attached to all of the wheels, even if the mechanic is only making adjustments to the front wheels. With plenty of Front Wheel Drive (FWD) models, adjustments can be made first to the rear wheels before any FWD adjustments are made.


Wheel Alignment Adjustments


Depending on the available systems and equipment at the auto repair shop, there are some unique procedures that can measure the caster and toe angles, as well as the current chamber. Shops with up-to-date systems and computers will print out a symptom report to show to the customer to discuss their options. During a front-end alignment, the mechanic will need to fix the caster and camber adjustments first before moving onto the toe angles.


Once the adjustments and toe angles are addressed, the mechanic restarts the car and removes the steering wheel lock before turning the steering wheel back and forth a few times. This is a good indicator of whether the alignment worked and how to proceed. Once complete, the steering wheel is re-centred and locked.


Next, it’s time to remove the alignment heads before the auto shop carefully lowers the vehicle back onto the garage floor for a test drive. The employee should take it for a test drive to make sure any old symptoms or issues they noted don’t come back. Any other noticeable issues should be addressed and re-checked to see if it is still connected to the alignment.


There really isn’t anything that complicated about wheel alignments; however, it is easy to take them for granted and decide you can delay it for a few more months. Don’t risk the health of your car and your own safety by skimping on service. Instead, properly aligned wheels can save you time, money and help protect yourself and others on the road.


Do you make it a point to get regular wheel alignments for your car? If it’s been a while, call your local tyre shop today to get one scheduled.

Image: Wikimedia Commons