The suspension in your car is one of the most complex systems. You might think it's only there to ensure a smooth and comfortable ride, but it's much more than that. Namely, the suspension also ensures the wheels are always in contact with the road while also giving them freedom of motion.
Setting up the suspension optimally is not an easy task, and even some automakers fall at the task. Thus, even some modern cars have less-than-stellar ride quality and so-so handling. With that said, the work that goes into setting the suspension is important from other aspects as well, like the wheels.
Namely, the engineers align the wheels so that they provide a balance between responsive handling, high-speed stability, and tire wear. Aligned wheels will wear the tires evenly across the tread while also ensuring your vehicle doesn't pull to one side and remains responsive and agile.
However, the tires on your car will misalign over time. This is normal and is caused by wear and tear on the suspension components. Fortunately, you can solve the issue with a tire alignment, which is a procedure that many shops offer. But how long does a tire alignment take? I am often asked about this, and the simple answer is that it takes, give or take, one hour.
But you didn't click on this article only to get that answer. So, here is everything you need to know about tire alignment, including how it's done, why the procedure takes longer on some vehicles, and whether you should do the alignment yourself. So, without further ado, let's have a closer look at the timeline of tire alignment!
Introduction to Tire Alignment
Tire alignment, also known as wheel alignment, is an essential aspect of car maintenance that ensures your vehicle's wheels are set to the manufacturer's specifications.
1. What is Tire Alignment?
Tire alignment is a procedure that involves adjusting the angles of the wheels. The technician does that by fine-tuning the suspension components to their factory settings.
After alignment, the wheels should be parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground. This ensures good stability, responsive handling, and even tire wear.
2. Why is Tire Alignment Important?
Misaligned tires don't only make your vehicle pull to one side – they also affect the handling characteristics and the tire's lifespan. Properly aligned tires also ensure higher performance, smoother ride, better fuel economy, and ensure an overall safer ride.
Severely misaligned tires can also lead to safety issues. For instance, one side of the tread could experience high loads, which could lead to overheating and, eventually, a blowout. This doesn't happen often, but I wanted it to serve as a warning for those that will ignore the problem.
The Process of Tire Alignment
Tire alignment requires a certain level of expertise and machinery. It's done in several steps to ensure quality and consistency. Here is how we do it at the shop:
1. The Pre-Alignment Check
This is a step that many technicians would like to skip, but I think it's very important. Namely, most shops would just put the vehicle on the machine and start measuring whether the wheels are misaligned.
However, to ensure quality work and satisfied customers, we make a pre-alignment check. This includes inspecting the suspension and steering components and checking the tire condition and air pressure. Then, if necessary, test-driving the vehicle to identify any specific issues that may affect the alignment process, like severely damaged components.
2. Measuring the Wheel Angles
Now we come to the fun part – measuring the wheel angles. Most shops today use computerized equipment with lasers to get accurate readings of tire alignment.
These machines are very easy to work with, as they will give you the measurements compared to the manufacturer's recommendation for the specific model. This is important, as each vehicle has different wheel alignment settings.
If the current alignment does not match the desired specifications, we will adjust the vehicle's suspension and steering components. However, if everything was right with the alignment, yet the customer had issues with uneven tire wear or unresponsive handling, we would continue to investigate the issue and find the culprit.
3. The Alignment Process
This procedure ensures that the wheels align properly according to the automaker's specifications. This includes camber, caster, and toe adjustments.
The camber is the inward/outward angle of the tire when you view it from the front or back of the vehicle. If the top of the wheel tilts outwards, the camber is positive, and if it tilts inwards, the camber is negative.
On most vehicles, the camber is never zero, but it's very close to it. For that reason, looking at the manufacturer's recommended settings is crucial. On some sports cars, though, the engineers put larger negative camber for better high-speed cornering.
The camber is adjusted by changing the position of the upper and lower control arms or by altering the strut height.
The caster refers to the angle of the steering axis when viewed from the side of your vehicle. A positive caster is when the steering axis tilts towards the driver, while in a negative caster, it tilts away from the driver. All road cars today have a slightly positive caster, which ensures excellent straight-line tracking. Meanwhile, negative caster, like on shopping trolleys, ensures higher agility.
Adjusting the caster involves changing the position of the steering knuckle pivot points relative to the suspension. However, not all cars have adjustable casters – in fact, most modern cars don't. Fortunately, the caster angle rarely gets misaligned.
Toe alignment is the extent to which your tires turn inward or outward when viewed from above. If the tires tilt inward, it's referred to as "toe-in" or positive toe; if they tilt outward, it's called "toe-out" or negative toe. In most cases, RWD cars have a slight positive toe, while FWD vehicles usually have a slightly negative toe.
The mechanic adjusts the toe by changing the position of the tie rod ends, of course, following the manufacturer's recommendations for the particular vehicle. By doing that, he ensures that the wheels are largely parallel to each other, which minimizes tire wear and improves handling.
4. Post-Alignment Verification
After the adjustments, we at the shop conduct a final measurement to verify that the alignment is within the specified range. If necessary, we also conduct a test drive, particularly on vehicles with severe misalignment issues, and then check again.
Factors Influencing the Time Required for Tire Alignment
Although the procedure is not very long, especially when tackled by an experienced technician, a few factors can still influence the tire required for wheel alignment.
1. The State of Your Vehicle
Obviously, the condition, i.e., the severity of the misalignment, will affect the time required for doing the job. However, the real-time waster here would be worn-out or damaged steering/suspension components. In that case, these will need to be repaired or replaced before alignment, which can add significant time to the overall process.
2. The Type of Alignment
Shops do two different types of alignments: two-wheel (front-end alignment) and four-wheel alignment. A four-wheel alignment is more comprehensive and typically takes longer than a two-wheel alignment.
Usually, the front wheels are misaligned more often, so in most cases, your vehicle will only necessitate two-wheel alignment. Still, the technician will only know that after checking the wheels using the computerized equipment.
3. The Expertise of the Technician
In my decade of working as a manager at the shop, I noticed that some technicians are doing the job faster than others. Experience plays a key role here since aligning the wheels includes fine-tuning the suspension components.
With that said, it's important to note that a good alignment should not be rushed — thoroughness and accuracy are key to ensuring that your vehicle handles properly and that your tires wear evenly. I had many mechanics rush the job, only having to re-adjust the suspension, which makes the whole process longer eventually.
How Long Does a Tire Alignment Generally Take?
As you probably learned by now, the duration of alignment varies based on several factors. Still, the golden rule is that you should plan on spending around one hour of your time in the shop.
1. Estimated Duration for Different Types of Alignments
On average, a two-wheel or front-end alignment might take about 30 to 60 minutes, while a four-wheel alignment could take 60 to 90 minutes. However, these are general estimates, and the actual duration can be different based on your vehicle and the alignment center. A thing to note here is that some shops do it faster than others, especially those that skip the pre-alignment check.
2. Situations That May Prolong the Alignment Process
Wheel alignment solves the issues most of the time, but not always. Namely, some vehicles with damaged suspension and steering components will necessitate a repair, which will take much longer. Still, in most cases, the shop will make an appointment for another day, as replacing suspension/steering components takes quite a lot of time.
Tips for a Smooth and Swift Alignment Process
You can also play a role in the alignment process and speed things up. Here is what you need to do:
1. Pre-Alignment Preparations
Before going to the shop, I strongly recommend checking the tire pressure, as you'll cut the pre-alignment check. Also, worn-out and unevenly worn tires can make it hard for the mechanic to measure the wheel angle, so consider replacing them first.
2. Choosing the Right Service Provider
Online reviews nowadays can give you a very clear picture of the quality of work service providers give. Look for shops that have experience in the field, with skilled technicians that can perform the alignment accurately and efficiently, saving you time and potential rework.
Can You Align the Wheels Yourself?
The idea of performing a tire alignment seems appealing to many DIYers. However, it's important to understand that this is not a simple task, although it looks pretty straightforward. Sure, you might be great at fine-tuning the suspension/steering components, but getting an accurate reading is way beyond the capabilities of most home garage setups. Notably, wheel alignment machines cost from several thousand dollars and upwards!
1. The Complexity of Wheel Alignment
Wheel alignment involves adjusting the angles of your vehicle's wheels to match the manufacturer's specifications, which requires precision down to fractions of a degree. To achieve this precision, shops utilize specialized computerized equipment, which provides levels of precision you simply can't match with any DIY method.
2. The Risk of DIY Wheel Alignment
By doing the wheel alignment yourself, you are risking not finishing the job and spending time on nothing. But even worse, you could make things worse and compromise your vehicle's handling and safety.
3. String or Tape Method
If you still insist on doing wheel alignment in your garage, you can use the string/tape method, which will adjust the toe. This procedure won't replace a professional wheel alignment, but it could help you correct serious alignment issues temporarily.
For the string/tape method, you will need four jack stands, a long piece of thin rope, and a tape measure. Here are all the steps required:
- Prepare your vehicle: before attempting a wheel alignment job, I strongly recommend ensuring the tires are properly inflated. Then, park your vehicle on a flat, level surface. This is crucial, as an uneven surface might mess with the readings. Finally, make sure the steering wheel is centered.
- Set up the jack stands: Position a jack stand near each wheel, creating a rectangle around your vehicle.
- String line setup: Run the string or rope from one front jack stand to the rear jack stand on the same side of the vehicle, ensuring the string is taut and level. Repeat on the other side.
- Align the strings: this requires expertise, or at least looking at someone doing it, which is why I'd recommend looking at a YouTube video. But basically, the string should be touching the rear tires but should be slightly off the front tires. Adjust the position of the string on the jack stands until the string just barely touches the front and back edges of the rear tires.
- Measure the alignment: use a tape measure to check the distance from the string to the front edge of the front wheel and then to the back edge of the same wheel on both sides. If the measurements are not equal, it indicates that your wheels are not aligned. For front wheels, a smaller distance at the front edge suggests toe-in alignment, while a smaller distance at the back edge suggests toe-out alignment.
- Make adjustments (if necessary): if you notice toe misalignment, you will need to adjust the tie rods. Locate the lock nut on the tie rods and loosen it, then turn the rod in or out. Turning the rod in causes toe-in, while turning it out causes toe-out.
- Re-check the alignment: repeat the measurement process to ensure that the wheels are aligned.
Please note that you can only use the string/tape procedure to adjust the toe. If you want to adjust the camber, you will need a special camber gauge or a digital-level app. Still, you can't adjust the camber on most cars. Besides, camber adjustment is a more serious procedure that should be done in very small increments and can have a significant effect on how your vehicle handles.
Like many things in life, an alignment might seem simple on the surface, but it's a complex interplay of many parts working together, requiring expertise and skill. While there's merit in the attempt, and while you may be able to make minor adjustments at home, wheel alignment's intricacies are often best left in the hands of experienced professionals.
I don't want to discourage anyone from attempting wheel alignment, though. So, if you trust your DIY skills, you can, of course, tackle the issue. Or, do what numerous enthusiasts have already done in the shop where I work – follow what the mechanics are doing. I am sure they won't even mind explaining what they are doing to you. It's silent work, and they will surely want to have someone to talk to (and maybe brag a bit).
So, the next time your vehicle is up on the lift for a wheel alignment, consider looking at the fascinating process unfolding! You might learn an invaluable skill!
I’m Ivo Gievski, the content writer for Tireer. We built our website with over 15 years of experience and extensive research in the automotive and technology sectors. My dedication to delivering high-quality content is unwavering, and I strive to continuously hone my skills to stay ahead of industry trends and provide readers with informative, engaging, and valuable insights.