Wheel alignment is a necessary maintenance procedure your vehicle requires to function at an optimum level. Neglecting it can lead to serious damage to your car parts like the control arm, tie rod assembly, and suspension in the chassis. It can also pose a danger to you the driver, your passengers, and other road users.
The answer to the question – ‘how long does an alignment take’ is dependent on different factors. And in this post, we’ll be going through those factors. I’ll also be helping you understand what wheel alignment really entails.
Table of contents
Understanding Wheel Angles?
At first glance, the wheels of a vehicle look as if they’re perfectly straight and vertical. And this arrangement seems logical. The surprising thing is that to improve vehicle performance, each manufacturer specifies some predefined angles to the wheels of their cars.
There are basically 3 different angles associated with the wheels. They include the following:
1. The Camber Angle
The camber angle is visible when you view the car from the front. This angle can either be positive or negative. A negative camber improves the cornering performance of the car.
2. The Caster Angle
Steerings are designed in such a way that the wheels turn around a steering axis. This steering axis is never vertical in practice. The inclination of the steering axis is called the caster angle. This angle is quite critical for an automobile.
You may have noticed that after taking a turn when you release the steering wheel, it automatically goes back to its central position. This steering wheel returnability is created by the caster angle.
3. The TOE Angle
The TOE angle is the most sensitive of the three angles. A zero TOE angle would give minimum wear to the wheels. However, as you drive, the steering wheel undergoes minor unintentional movements.
These minor steering wheel movements should not affect the straight-line motion of the car. To understand how the TOE angle does it, let’s look at the principle of steering.
Principle of Car Steering
For perfect steering, the inner wheel should turn more than the outer wheel. This is a TOE-out condition. This means that if you set the wheels in a TOE-out manner, you can achieve a perfect steering condition with just a slight movement of the steering wheel.
However, such a high steering response leads to safety issues as the vehicle responds even to your unintentional steering wheel movements. Thus, resulting in a loss of straight-line stability.
For this reason, a TOE-in arrangement is always used in passenger cars. It provides an opposite effect to what the TOE-out provides by reducing the steering responses and increasing the straight line stability of the car.
Usually, the TOE-in has a very low angle. Each car will have an optimum setup wheel angle decided by the car manufacturer.
These angles may undergo considerable variations over time which can result in excessive wear on the tires.
A routine wheel alignment operation is imperative for a car’s good performance as well since these angles are quite sensitive in deciding the car’s straight-line stability, steering wheel returnability, and cornering performance.
Why Do Vehicles Need Wheel Alignment?
When your vehicle is out of alignment, three basic problems may occur:
1. Irregular Tire Wear
A common indicator of misalignment is irregular tire wear. The wear begins at the shoulder of the tire or tires and continues until corrected. This may lead to a significantly shortened tire life.
2. Handling Problems
Another indication of misalignment is a pull from one side to the other requiring constant correction to maintain a straight path.
3. Crooked Steering Wheel
A crooked steering wheel indicates that your vehicle needs an alignment especially if your vehicle has driver assist systems that typically rely on data from the steering angle sensor to function properly.
So, if you see a shift in the position of your steering wheel, irregular tire wear, or if your call pulls to one side or the other while driving, you’ll need to get an alignment check as soon as possible.
Some alignment conditions can be corrected with simple adjustments while others may require parts replacement. Ignoring these signs can make your alignment more expensive to address later on. It can reduce the life of your tires, and can even cause driver assist systems to malfunction.
What Causes Wheel Alignment To Change?
Accurate alignment of your wheel does not last the life of your car. In fact, you can leave a wheel alignment facility and an innocent hit to a curb or an unavoidable pothole can cause a sudden, and sometimes, a dramatic change in alignment.
Wheel alignment is always changing regardless of impacts like these. A considerable shift in alignment can occur in only 12 to 18 months. But before these changes are small, and occur slowly over time, it’s easy for certain handling problems and tire wear conditions to become firmly established.
Let’s take a look at what’s happening…
The bushings and joints in the suspension system wear gradually. This makes it more difficult to hold the alignment in place.
Camber and Caster both begin to change. The same thing happens with the steering system. Normal wear and tear take its toll, and TOE begins to change.
Let’s not forget about the rear of the car. The same slow decay occurs there as well. The springs wear out too. And as the springs give way, so goes the alignment.
Even though this type of wear is slow, eventually, certain parts may require replacement before the alignment can be done.
Rapid changes in alignment are usually caused by collisions or impacts while driving. The type of impact that will bend or move parts. For example, a control arm, a tie rod assembly, or even a shift in the position of the suspension in the chassis. Of course, damaged parts will require replacement.
The alignment condition of your car changes with time. And because these changes can be small and occur slowly over time, it’s easy for handling problems and tire wear conditions to become firmly established.
How Long Does An Alignment Take?
A wheel alignment takes an average of 1 hour. It could take longer if there are parts that need to be replaced due to tears and wear.
But generally, the basic procedures and steps to prepping your vehicle for a wheel alignment would include:
- Centering the vehicle on an alignment lift and having a spotter guide you on it
- Placing wheel chunks on only one rear tire
- Turning the steering right, left, and then center in order to equalize the power steering pressure and your rack and pinion assembly
- Shifting the vehicle gear into neutral
- Leaving it in neutral and then, turning the vehicle off
Once it’s turned off, the specialist can commence their diagnosis to know the best way to approach your alignment.
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Wheel alignment is a very important aspect of your vehicle maintenance routine. Ideally, it should be carried out every 12 to 18 months. But if you often drive on terrains with rough roads, potholes, and so on, you would need to check your alignment a bit more often.
Also, once you notice that your vehicle is beginning to have handling problems, drifting out of straight paths, or having irregular tire wear, then you need to get a wheel alignment done as soon as possible to avoid causing more expensive damage to your car.
How long does an alignment take? An average of one hour. However, if there are parts that need to be replaced, your wheel alignment could take longer than an hour.