If you’re wondering, “What is wheel alignment?” or, “What does tire balancing mean?” it’s time to dive deeper into your car care practice. Learn the difference between the two today.
Both contribute to a smoother ride, but tire balancing and alignment are different services. A tire balance corrects the weight imbalance on your tire and wheel assemblies, while an alignment corrects the angles of the tires so that they come into contact with the road in just the right way.
What Is Tire Balancing?
A tire balance corrects the weight imbalance on your tire and wheel assemblies. Uneven tire wear and vibration in your steering wheel, floorboard, or seat. Proper balancing can lead to a smoother ride, less tire wear, and reduced strain on the drivetrain.
The tire balancing (also known as wheel balancing) corrects the uneven distribution of weight in the wheels. Imbalanced wheels can lead to vibration, excessive tire wear, damage to the suspension, and other problems.
During a tire balance service, your tires and wheels are mounted onto a tire balancing machine. The machine spins the tire and wheel assembly to measure the imbalance so that a technician can precisely install the correct tire weights to achieve a properly balanced wheel and tire assembly. Often, wheel balancing and alignment happen during one service, but they shouldn’t be confused for the same thing!
What Are the Signs That Your Tires Needs Balancing?
Tire balancing is a tune-up for your wheel-tire set. It makes sure that weight is evenly distributed around the entire circumference of the unit. The common symptoms of out-of-balance tires are uneven and faster tread wear, poor fuel economy, and vibration in the steering wheel, the floorboard, or the seat that gets worse at faster speeds.
When all areas of the wheel-tire unit are as equal in weight as possible, the tire will roll smoothly. This helps it wear evenly, for the longest life. Balancing also contributes to ride comfort: Imbalanced tires will wobble or hop up and down, which causes vibration.
If a front tire isn’t properly balanced you’ll likely feel vibration in the steering wheel. If the problem is in the rear the tremor will be noticeable in the seat or floor.
Imbalanced tires are easily corrected, but the work is precise. It’s done by attaching small weights, just fractions of ounces, to the wheel.
How Do Wheels Get Out of Balance?
Everyday wear on tires will contribute to imbalance. Normal manufacturing imperfections are also a cause: Tires and wheels don’t have precisely equal weight distribution. They’ll be slightly heavier in some spots.
Just half an ounce in weight difference is enough to cause a vibration when you’re driving.
How Tires Are Rebalanced
Rebalancing is done in a tire shop by putting the wheel-tire unit on a tire balancing machine that takes measurements to pinpoint lighter or heavier areas and making adjustments to account for these weight differences.
The best time to get it done is when tires are being rotated, both for convenience and because you might have a tire out of balance on the rear of the vehicle and won’t feel it until it is moved to the front.
Here’s how it’s done:
- A tire mounted on a wheel is attached to a tire balancing machine.
- The wheel is spun while vibration measurements are taken. This tells the tech if the weight is spread evenly, how much weight to add, and were on the wheel to attach it.
- If an imbalance is found, the technician may be able to rebalance and adjust the weights (adding more). But sometimes it requires the tech to also move the tire on the wheel and then rebalance. This is because a heavy spot on the wheel and on the tire can sometimes line up together, causing a greater imbalance that needs to be corrected.
Balancing Versus Alignment
Though both should be part of regular auto maintenance, balancing isn’t the same as getting an alignment. Wheel alignment corrects the angles of the tires so they travel in the same direction and make contact with the road properly. Alignment reduces uneven tire wear and extends the life of your tires. Oftentimes tire balancing and alignment are perceived to be the same thing but are not.
What Is Wheel Alignment?
Tire alignment, also known as wheel alignment, can help your tires perform properly and help them last longer. It can also improve handling and keep your vehicle from pulling in one direction or vibrating strangely on the road.
Alignment refers to an adjustment of a vehicle’s suspension the system that connects a vehicle to its wheels. It is not an adjustment of the tires or wheels themselves. The key to proper alignment is adjusting the angles of the tires which affects how they make contact with the road.
What Are the Signs That Your Car Needs an Alignment?
Your vehicle might need an alignment if you notice any of the following:
- The car is pulling to one side of the road.
- The tire treads are wearing out prematurely or unevenly.
- The tires are squealing.
- The steering wheel tilts off-center when you’re driving.
- The steering wheel vibrates when accelerating.
Your alignment can get knocked out of whack after being in a car accident, driving over a pothole, or running into a curb.
CAMBER, TOE, & CASTER
When a technician checks your tire alignment, he or she is mainly concerned with three things:
This is the inward or outward angle of the tire when viewed from the front of the vehicle. Too much inward or outward tilt, also known as negative and positive camber, respectively, indicates improper alignment and will need to be adjusted. Worn bearings, ball joints, and other wheel-suspension parts may contribute to camber misalignment.
Distinct from camber alignment, toe alignment is the extent to which your tires turn inward or outward when viewed from above. If that’s confusing, just stand up and look down at your feet. Angle them inward toward the center of your body.
When the tires on your car are angled the same way (remember, we’re thinking in terms of birds-eye-view), we call this toe-in alignment. Angle your feet outward and you have toe-out alignment. Both require adjustment.
Your caster angle helps balance steering, stability, and cornering. Specifically, it’s the angle of your steering axis when viewed from the side of your vehicle. If you have positive caster, the steering axis will tilt toward the driver. Negative caster, on the other hand, means the steering axis tilts toward the front of your vehicle.
Why Tire Alignment Matters
Improper wheel or tire alignment can cause your tires to wear unevenly and prematurely. Here are some specific types of undue tread wear attributable to misalignment:
Tires are “feathered” when the tread is smooth on one side and sharp on another. This is usually a sign of poor toe alignment.
This strain of tread wear means the inside or outside of the tread is significantly more worn than the center of the tread. As its name implies, positive or negative camber causes this type of wear.
This happens when one side of your tread block wears down more quickly than the other in a circumferential direction. When you run your hand over the tread, it will look and feel like saw teeth when viewed from the side. Heel/toe wear could be a sign of under inflation and/or lack of rotation.
If you’re experiencing any of these unusual wear patterns, you should have a technician check your alignment. While tire wear prevention is a good reason to keep your wheel alignment in check, the consequences of misalignment can also play out in overall vehicle performance. A car that pulls to one side or steers erratically, for example, probably has an alignment problem.
How Do Balancing and Alignment Benefit Your Car?
The most significant benefit of balancing services is that they prevent premature tire tread wear. Technicians agree that getting your tires balanced every 5,000 to 6,000 miles (or as recommended by your manufacturer) can help extend their lifespan and improve their performance.
Wheel alignment benefits, on the other hand, include improved vehicle handling, fuel efficiency, and tire life. Firestone Complete Auto Care recommends that you have your vehicle’s alignment checked every 6,000 miles or twice a year. Left untreated, alignment issues can shorten a tire’s life by thousands of miles, and they can damage critical steering and suspension components.
Tire Balance vs. Alignment Quick look:
|Service||Definition||Signs It’s Time||Benefits|
|Tire Balance||A tire balance corrects the weight imbalance on your tire and wheel assemblies.||Uneven tire wear and vibration in your steering wheel, floorboard, or seat.||Proper balancing can lead to a smoother ride, less tire wear, and reduced strain on the drivetrain.|
|Wheel Alignment||An alignment corrects the angles of the tires so that they come into contact with the road in just the right way.||Vehicle pulls to one side, rapid tire wear, squealing tires, or crooked steering wheel when driving straight.||Proper alignment ensures a smoother ride for you and a longer life for your tires.|
Are you noticing symptoms of balancing and alignment issues in your car? Don’t let them disrupt your flow. Schedule an appointment with your mechanics.