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Why Do You Need Both Tire Balancing and Wheel Alignment?

Mechanic tuning aligner for wheel alignment
If you own a car for long enough, you'll get used to all of the routine work that has to be done each year or so. But for new car owners, or those who just never really thought about what had to be done, the details of the work are often a mystery, especially when you have different tasks that sound like the same type of repair.

Balancing and alignment are two tasks that sound the same. If the wheels are aligned, aren't they balanced? And if they're balanced, aren't they aligned? The confusion lies in both the similarity of the names of the procedures and the proximity of the tires and suspension.

What's the Difference Between the Two?

Wheel alignment is a procedure in which the suspension (and thus the wheels, which are connected) is readjusted so that the tires all sit and aim straight as you drive down a road with the steering wheel in a non-turning position.

Tire balancing is a process in which the tires are checked and adjusted with weights to ensure that weight in your car is evenly distributed. Obviously the weight in your car varies depending on what and who are in the car at any given time. But when the car is generally empty of humans and really heavy items that aren't normally in the car, the weight of the car should be relatively well-distributed between the tires.

That does mean that you should not have extremely heavy items in the car when you balance it if you normally don't carry those items. In other words, if you normally have a substantial emergency kit in the trunk, that's fine. But do not take the car in for tire balancing if you are carrying a heavy piece of furniture in the trunk that you're going to donate that day. Do the donation first.

How Do You Know Which One You Need?

The symptoms generally vary between the two if you have issues with either tire balancing or wheel alignment. Tires that are unbalanced have a very obvious symptom: your steering wheel starts shaking like mad when you drive over about 60 or 70 miles per hour. So if the car is fine on a 35-mph street but shakes once you hit the freeway and its 70-mph traffic flow, your tires are likely in need of rebalancing.

Additional symptoms can include uneven wear on the tires and poor mileage, though those two are also symptoms of poor wheel alignment. That contributes to the confusion when people read up on car symptoms. However, if the steering wheel is also shaking in addition to poor mileage and uneven wear, then balancing is the likely culprit.

Wheel alignment has its own obvious symptom: your car fights you when you try to drive in a straight line. It might not fight hard, but if the car seems to pull to one side, you need an alignment. Also, if the car is easy to control, but you find that you have to hold the steering wheel in an obviously off-center position to stay straight, you need an alignment.

Note that in many cars, the steering wheel may normally be a tad off-center even with proper alignment. What you're looking for as a sign of improper alignment is a steering wheel that looks like you are making a turn. Also, don't rely on the "drive without hands" test for alignment. Road surfaces have imperfections and imperceptible side slopes for drainage that can make properly aligned cars drift to the side if you let go of the steering wheel.

What Happens if You Ignore the Signs?

The consequences of ignoring the signs that you need either repairs are clear:
  • Your car becomes harder to control.
  • Your tires wear unevenly and prematurely, leading to higher repair costs and possible blowouts.
  • The suspension and tire structures in the car suffer from additional stress that leads to premature wear.
Alignments and balancing are among the cheaper car maintenance tasks, and they're also among that faster jobs. Contact Anderson Road Alignment if you think your car needs wheel alignment or tire balancing. The sooner you check out strange issues, the easier it will be to fix them.

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