New drivers are often faced with an onslaught of car maintenance terms when they get a car, and one of those is tire alignment. This process helps keep the car driving straight, but it's also often confused with balancing, and sometimes it becomes a neglected task. Tire alignment is one of the easier things to deal with on a car.
Why Your Wheels and Tires Need to Be Aligned
The tires on your car (and the wheels that the tires are placed on, but for simplicity's sake, "tires" will do) are meant to contact the ground along the treads along each tire. If a tire tilts to the side even a little bit, the car will not steer straight. The wrong part of the tire will contact the ground and wear out, creating uneven wear between all the tires. This can result in a tire needing emergency replacement.
Alignment and Balancing Are Not the Same
You'll also hear the term "wheel balancing," and this is not the same as wheel or tire alignment. Balancing is a process that helps ensure weight is distributed evenly across all four tires. The balance can be thrown off if there is uneven wear or if you've whacked a tire into a curb or serious pothole. It can also go off-balance on its own over time. Asking to have the wheels balanced at the same time as the alignment is the most convenient way to handle it. Balancing is also sometimes offered free as part of a warranty from the shop that you bought your tires from, so check out that policy before you pay for the service at another place. And, if you're driving and notice that your steering wheel seems to shake more at freeway speeds, that's often a sign the wheels need balancing.
How Often to Get an Alignment
Alignments generally happen in two circumstances. One is a periodic alignment just to make sure the tires are still actually in alignment, and the other is when you get new tires. Always get new tires aligned right after you have them put on your car. The installation process will ensure they are on your car securely, but it will not ensure that they are aligned. Note that some tire installation companies don't do alignments, so you should coordinate with your regular mechanic and set up an appointment for an alignment the same day you have the tires added. It's best if you can drive straight to the mechanic from the tire place; you'll be OK driving a short distance between the two shops.
Tire alignment is one of those tasks that is easy to lose sight of; suddenly you realize a few years have passed between alignments, but you're not the only one who's ever been through that. If you're just now realizing that you need to get your tires aligned, call your mechanic or a tire and wheel service shop. For more information on wheel alignment, contact a professional near you.