For some, wheel alignment can be as mysterious as going to the doctor. Your auto technician explains your vehicle is out of balance, your caster is positive, your camber is way off, and your toe needs adjustment. Then the technician, armed with rubber mallets and strange-looking tools, starts operating on the underside of your vehicle. Meanwhile, you have no idea what he’s actually doing under there.

To clear up the mystery, Mighty Auto Parts outlines seven important things you should know about wheel alignment here, starting with how to know if you need one. Read on for a quick overview of those mysterious terms used by your auto technician.

  1. Check the Steering Wheel: One obvious sign your vehicle needs alignment is the steering wheel is off center. With your tires completely straight, when driving down a straight highway, check the alignment of your steering wheel. If your steering wheel is not perfectly centered, you may have an alignment issue. If you have to tilt your head to read the carmaker’s logo at the center of the steering wheel, the alignment is certainly off!
  2. Notice Handling Problems: You are driving along the highway and look over to the radio for a second to change the station. When you look up again, your auto is cruising on the shoulder and there’s a narrow bridge dead ahead. It’s as if the car has a mind of its own! But your car is not possessed. Rather, this movement is a clear sign you need an alignment check. Handling problems, such as steering wheel play, drifting, instability in turns, vibration, and constant steering adjustment are signs of a wheel alignment problem.
  3. Check the Tires: Irregular tire wear indicates a problem with alignment. Is one side of the tire tread worn more than the other? Do your 50,000-mile tires wear out after just 25,000 miles? When you run your palm over the tread, do you feel “saw-tooth” projections rather than a relatively smooth surface? All of these signs mean an alignment is probably needed.
  4. Consider Camber Alignment: Imagine you have a flying car and its wheels are able to fold up flat to the bottom of the car for flight. Now, imagine when they unfold and go back into position, they unfold too far out, or they don’t unfold far out enough. That is camber. When camber alignment is out of adjustment, your tire contacts the pavement at a slight angle, rather than perfectly flat on the tread. It’s easy to imagine how this can affect tire wear. One side of the tread gets worn down before the other. Not only does this lead to uneven wear, it can also contribute to drift, imperfect handling, and reduced stopping ability.
  5. Have an Auto Technician Check Caster: We’ve all seen the nose wheel on a jet airplane. Along with a shock absorber, the nose wheel is attached to a long strut emerging from the underside of the plane. The angle of the strut is usually straight up and down in relation to the pavement. On your auto, each tire is similarly attached to the underside. The angle of the strut holding your wheel on should be straight up and down. When the angle is forward, it’s called positive caster. A backward angle is negative caster. Both cause wear similar to bad camber adjustment: one side of the tire tread wears faster than the other. Caster also affects stability when turning.
  6. Look at The Toe Setting: If the front of your tires point inward or outward when your steering wheel is perfectly centered, the toe setting is off. A sign of this is uneven wear across the WIDTH of the tire. Bad toe adjustment causes that saw-toothed feel when you run your palm across the tire. If it’s really bad, the saw-tooth effect can be seen. This type of wear is called feathering. Imagine the tire constantly scraping slightly sideways as it rolls along the pavement. After a few thousand miles, the effect is apparent.
  7. Check for Wheel Balance: If your steering wheel vibrates for no clear reason, it’s likely your wheels are out of balance. Every tire and rim has a small weight imbalance from one side to the other. As the wheel rotates during driving, the imbalance causes the tire to shimmy and shake. This can be felt through the steering wheel. Auto technicians solve this problem by adding small wheel weights to the tire and wheel assembly in order to balance the uneven weight.

Unnecessary tire wear is not the only result of bad wheel alignment. The shaking and pulling also wears out wheel bearings, ball joints, and wheel suspension parts, which can be costly to repair or replace. If these parts are already worn, they can mimic bad wheel alignment. Either way, the problems should be checked.

Bad wheel alignment is a safety hazard for you and those on the road with you. Considering the relatively low cost of wheel alignment, it makes sense to have it checked once a year or every 10,000 miles. To find more great tips for maintaining your vehicle, visit us today at MightyAutoParts.com!