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Even though your car was designed to handle most of what you can throw at it, there are times when even a perfectly maintained vehicle needs some love. Alignment and suspension issues can pop up, seemingly out of the blue. Maybe you hit a pothole or your kid bumped a curb at Burger King, both of which will require some straightening.
Unlike mundane problems like oil changes or a small dent, driving a car that is out of alignment can lead to unevenly worn tires, a wobbly ride, and can even cause dangerous safety issues if the problem is bad enough. The challenge here is that aligning a car at home is a very difficult prospect. There’s good news to be had, though.
Getting an alignment done at a chain or local shop should cost less than $100, but with a little know-how, and your friends at The Drive, you might even be able to save some time by checking your own alignment at home. The process to do this is much simpler and quicker than doing a full alignment, and you can then walk into a shop knowing exactly what’s wrong.
Let’s get into this.
There’s no such thing as good vibrations here.
What Exactly Is a Wheel Alignment?
When a technician performs an alignment, they’re working to correct the angles of the wheels so that they align with the manufacturer’s guidelines.
This is done by checking two alignment metrics: Toe and camber. Toe refers to how straight the wheels are in relation to each other. If you imagine two perfectly parallel tire tracks, that’s a vehicle with good toe. If you imagine the unlikely scenario of two tire tracks that get closer or farther apart, one or both wheels’ toe is out of spec.
Camber refers to the wheels’ angle in relation to the ground. In an absolutely perfect scenario, a wheel would be perpendicular to the ground, but over time that angle can shift, allowing the wheel to “lean” in or out. Know about “Stance Nation?” Now you know what camber is, albeit to the extreme.
Misaligned wheels can cause vibrations and unnecessary wear and tear on suspension components, and can even cause tires to wear unevenly. If a misaligned car goes unchecked, it can rack up big repair bills when it comes time to replace tires and other components.
Wheel Alignment Terms You Should Know
Before we get into how to check your alignment, let’s talk about the terms you absolutely need to know before sauntering off to your local tire shop and trying to tell the mechanic about how your tires are “Off-square at their roundel because of wearing from Flugplatz.”
Your car’s wheels are the metal part that actually attaches to the vehicle. They are where the tires are mounted and can become bent or broken if subjected to a severe enough impact.
Tires are the only part of your vehicle that is actually designed to touch the road, despite what Ken Block thinks. Depending on the type, your tires may be designed to work best in summer, winter, or a combination of both.
Tire balancing, not to be confused with wheel alignment, is when a vehicle’s tires are weighted and measured to ensure that they rotate with a constant balance in all directions.
Tire rotation refers to the process of moving tires from one wheel to another to ensure proper wear. Depending on your vehicle’s drive wheels, you may need to move them in a specific manner.
This is not a part of your foot. Toe refers to the inward or outward angle that the wheels are facing toward or away from each other. The best way to think of this is to imaging to wheels traveling perfectly in alignment. The shape of the treads would be parallel. If one or both wheels is facing in or out, the tires are constantly attempting to roll toward or away from each other, which would cause those tire tracks to move closer or further apart over time.
Camber refers to the angle of each wheel relative to the ground. Ideally, a car’s camber is pretty close to 90 degrees to the ground, which would mean that each tire is contacting the ground evenly.
Wheel alignment measures a variety of angles.
Basics Of Wheel Alignment
We’re assuming you’re hiring a pro to actually take care of this job, but we can give you the tools so you can check your own alignment at home below.
Estimated Time Needed: A skilled tire tech should be able to complete an alignment job in under an hour. Checking your alignment at home should take about an hour.
Skill Level: Intermediate
Vehicle System: Suspension
Here are some things to think about when measuring your vehicle’s alignment.
- Use real, approved jack stands. If you’re finding out that your jack stand is defective while you’re under the vehicle, you’re going to have a bad day.
- If you decide to remove a wheel at any point in this process, make sure you get it torqued back onto the vehicle properly to ensure that you’re not losing one at highway speeds.
- Work in a ventilated area. The paint or chalk you use to mark each wheel during the process below is probably not approved for breathing.
Everything You’ll Need To Know To Check Your Own Alignment
Wheel alignment is a complicated process, so let’s focus on how to check your alignment at home. This can help you nail down any issues before taking the car to a shop.
- Car jack
- Jack stands
- Wheel chock
- Mechanic’s gloves
- Tape measure
- Paint, chalk, or other marking substance
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won’t need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. You’re not spraying super hazardous chemicals here, but you should still be working in a well-ventilated space. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.
Sometimes, it’s best to let the pros handle the job.
Here’s How To Check Your Alignment At Home
We don’t want to answer angry emails about how hard it was to align your car at home, we haven’t suggested you do so! The biggest thing to remember here is to work on a level surface. There’s no sense trying to align your car if it’s sitting cockeyed or is wobbling on a poorly positioned jack stand.
Let’s do this!
- This is most easily accomplished by placing a can of paint on the garage floor and spraying it gently while rotating the wheel with your other hand.
- Repeat the process on both sides.
Get Help From a Mechanic On JustAnswer
Although The Drive’s detailed how-to guides are easy to follow, a rusty bolt, an engine component not in the correct position, or a messy oil leak can derail a project. That’s why we’ve partnered with JustAnswer, which connects you to certified mechanics around the globe, to get you through even the toughest jobs.
So if you have a question or are stuck, click here and talk to a mechanic near you.
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q. So How Much Will an Alignment Cost?
A. If your car only needs a two-wheel alignment, count on spending between $50 and $100 to get the job done, and at least double that amount if all four wheels need work. If that sounds unreasonable, consider the fact that replacing even one tire can cost that entire amount and then some.
Q. How Often Should I Get an Alignment?
A. If you find yourself bumping into curbs and hitting potholes quite often, you’ll probably also need an alignment quite often. The frequency with which you’ll need to have an alignment job done all depends on how and where you drive. Sometimes, such as during early-spring in northern New England, the roads are pockmarked with torn pavement and cracks from the brutal winter (cries in Maine). In these cases, you may be facing the prospect of an alignment even if you’re at no fault in the matter.
Q. Is It Safe To Drive a Car With Bad Alignment?
A. We’re not going to claim that your wheels are going to fall off and say that things will go badly, but don’t try this at home. You can cause damage to other parts of the vehicle and may not have the same handling and stopping abilities you had before.
Q. Do I Need New Tires With an Alignment?
A. Not every time. If you’ve been able to catch the bad alignment early enough, you may not need to change tires. Fortunately, it takes a little time for damage and improper wear to occur.
Q. Why Are You Telling Me To Have a Professional Do The Job? Do You Not Trust Me?
A. No, we don’t. Just kidding! We love you as if you were our children. Our adult, non-related children we have zero ties to financially and lovingly… But, to be serious, doing a wheel alignment at home is just asking to waste time, and you’ll still probably need a pro to help. If you try to align your wheels and don’t get it quite right, you can end up causing more damage than you fixed, and you may even end up making your vehicle unsafe in the process. Spend the money to have a pro fix the alignment for you.
Find the Right Tires With Tire Rack
Listen, we know how hard it can be to pick the right tire. Between the word-jumble that are tire specifications, as well as the tire manufacturer’s names for tires that never just say what they are, it can be a pain and you might end up with the wrong shoes for your ride. That’s why we’ve partnered up with our friends at Tire Rack. They’ll take the headache out of tire shopping.
Let’s Talk, Comment Below To Talk With The Drive’s Editors!
We’re here to be expert guides in everything How-To related. Use us, compliment us, yell at us. Comment below and let’s talk! You can also shout at us on Twitter or Instagram, here are our profiles.
Jonathon Klein: Twitter (@jonathon.klein), Instagram (@jonathon_klein)
Tony Markovich: Twitter (@T_Marko), Instagram (@t_marko)
Chris Teague: Twitter (@TeagueDrives), Instagram (@TeagueDrives)
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