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Wheel alignment is one of those things that sounds super simple, and yet for many people, it’s shrouded mystery.
You’d be surprised how we often get asked why wheels need to be aligned at all. For many drivers, they simply point the steering wheel, and the car travels in that direction.
However, having misaligned wheels can make keeping that car on-course more difficult, not to mention, it can also be a potential safety hazard.
In this article, we will cover the basics of what you need to know about wheel alignment before diving a little deeper into some of the finer mechanics of how it all works.

How to Know When Your Wheels are out of Alignment

The first and easiest sign that tells you that your wheels are out of alignment is the steering wheel’s position. The logo in the middle of the wheel should be staring straight back at you. If you need to keep it on an angle to have the car headed in a straight line, you are in need of a wheel alignment. Of course, this condition can be so slight that it’s hard to notice. An easy way to test this is to place your car on a straight line with the steering wheel centred in an empty parking lot. Next, drive the vehicle slowly forward and notice if it can follow the line without needing correction.

Of course, some symptoms are a little harder to miss. Sloppy steering is also a sign of wheels that have come out of alignment. To see this in action, all you have to do is watch most any scene on television or in the movies where the character is driving. They seem to be going in a straight line, and yet, they are continually moving the wheel back and forth slightly in either direction. It’s no wonder many drivers fail to notice this as a problem; we’ve seen it as normal our entire lives. While sloppy steering doesn’t seem to affect the cars on the screen, in real life, it makes it harder to direct the vehicle to where you what it to go. On a wide-open road, these small adjustments may not seem like a big deal. However, in bumper to bumper traffic, with tight turns, in the middle of an Ottawa winter, you will feel this loss of control quite quickly. 

Steering wheel vibration can also be a sign of poor alignment. Although this symptom is often a combination of tires that are misaligned and out of balance. If the steering wheel feels like it’s receiving a phone call, get that car in for a wheel service quickly.

Uneven tire wear is another indicator. Ideally, your tires will wear evenly across the surface of the rubber. If you notice your tires wearing irregularly, it could be a sign of poor alignment. This will often occur on the inside of the rear tires if it’s due to a misalignment. However, if you notice any uneven tire wear, it’s good to check it out. Uneven wear is almost always a sign that something in your vehicle is miscalibrated, and if it’s not corrected, it will cause you to need new tires much sooner than you should.

How often should my Wheels need to Be Aligned?

Having your wheels aligned is not something that is required regularly. Most mechanics will recommend that you want to have an alignment service performed about every 10,000 kilometres or about every second oil change. However, you may find your vehicle can go even longer. What’s important is that your technician keeps an eye on the alignment at every oil change or regular service appointment. This way, you won’t ever find yourself dealing with an alignment problem while on the road.

What causes my Wheels to become misaligned?

While misalignment will happen as part of the regular wear on the vehicle, many situations will cause it to happen more quickly or more frequently.

Potholes. As we all know, Ottawa is notorious for our potholes per capita. So much so that the municipality has even invested in a pothole filling robot to help address the problem. One of the side effects of coming into contact with a pothole is that it tends to wreak havoc on your car’s alignment. This sudden shock, often to just one tire, is why we see many motorists in the shop for premature alignment service. (Be sure to check out our post about potholes in Ottawa.) 

Uneven roads. If you live in Ottawa, you know something about driving on bumpy roads. The continuous back and forth between freezing and humid temperatures means that the asphalt is always in a state of flux. Of course, as you get further outside the City proper, the use of occasional chains and less frequent plowing means that driving out there will make it more likely your car’s alignment will suffer. 

Sports cars. This may sound strange, but the wider tires most often used on high-performance automobiles have a tendency to need more frequent alignment service. With more surface in contact with the road, the imperfections they roll over have a more significant effect on them and the car’s alignment. 

Winter Tires. Something everyone in Ottawa knows about all too well. By swapping your all-seasons for a good set of winter wheels, you may encounter a change in the offset. Essentially, what that means is that the tires you put on are a different size than the tires the vehicle was aligned to. In some cases, the new wheels will have a little less offset and, in other cases, a little more than the original wheels. The change in offset can alter how the tire responds to the road and upset the delicate balance of the alignment and suspension. Of course, at Sipan Tire and Rims, we’ve been fitting cars with winter tires for many years, and we know how to ensure the offset change is kept to a minimum. 

Understanding Alignment

While it’s not always essential to understand the finer points of wheel alignment if you have a good technician to help you get it sorted. However, a little knowledge of how it all works is never a bad thing. 

The three main points to pay attention to in wheel alignment are the toe angle, the camber angle, and the caster angle.

The toe angle refers to how parallel the wheels are to each other and is essential for getting the most life out of your tire tread. For the best possible tire wear, you want to have the two front drive wheels perfectly parallel while driving. This position prevents any uneven drag on the surface, which is referred to as tread scrub. That said, depending on the car, the manufacture will prescribe the ideal toe angle range needed for the most efficient operation of that vehicle, and it can vary from car to car. For example, a rear-wheel-drive car will often need a slight toe-in setting; this is because as it rolls forward, the front wheels have a tendency to push away from each other. With front-wheel-drive vehicles, you will usually require the opposite, a small toe-out angle. This is because as the car moves forward, the driving momentum causes the front two tires to pull towards each other.  

Of course, because adjusting the toe angle alters how the vehicle responds, many performance enthusiasts tweak it to achieve various handling benefits. These advantages usually come at the expense of the tire tread.

The camber angle refers to a wheel’s angle from top to bottom when viewed from the vehicle’s front or rear. If the wheel leans out at the top, it’s referred to as positive camber. If the wheel leans inward at the top, this is called negative camber. A true vertical wheel setting, on the other hand, is a zero camber. 

A negative camber angle is preferred for high-performance driving to compensate for the lateral forces experienced in cornering. However, again it’s worth noting that this comes a the expense of the tire tread, and for everyday driving, the best setting will be closer to a zero camber.

The caster angle, or steering axis angle, refers to the upper ball joint’s relationship to the lower ball joint as viewed from the vehicle’s side. A positive caster angle assists in directional stability at higher speeds and helps the steering return to a straight-ahead position after a turn. And while a reduced caster angle could help in tight corners, it would make the car feel twitchy at higher speeds. On the other hand, a zero caster angle results in reduced directional control and low steering wheel return. Meaning that the driver would have to manually drag the wheels back to a straight-ahead position after making a turn.  

Of course, at Sipan Tire and Rims, we look after all these details, so our customers only have to focus on the driving. If you suspect that your alignment may be off, schedule an appointment to chat with one of our automotive experts today by calling 613-695-8866. We’ll have you back on the straight and narrow in no time!