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Do I Need a Tire Balance or a Wheel Alignment? What's the Difference?


Every day I hear, "My car shakes, I need my tires aligned." Or, "My car pulls to the right, I need my tires balanced." My response is always, "Well, who told you that?" . . . "My mechanic."

There is a fundamental misunderstanding between balancing tires and lining up the front end of a car. To balance a tire is completely different than lining up a car, not to mention that these maintenance services treat two totally different automotive ailments.

Here's how balancing and aligning are different, what they involve, and how to tell if your car needs one.

The Difference Between Tire Balance and Wheel Alignment

Tire BalanceWheel Alignment

• Weights are applied to planes on the tire rim, inside and out.

• Adjusting angle of wheels, including caster (angle between upper and lower ball joints) and camber (the angle between the tire and the axle).

• Sign it's time for one: Shaking or vibrating at 60 - 70 mph.

• Sign it's time for one: Severe wear on outside or inside edge of tire.

Tire Balance

Balancing a tire involves the application of zinc, lead, or non-lead/composite weights to each plane of the rim—the inside and the outside. However, since there are many different styles of rims, there are several different weight applications used to balance.

  1. The easiest and most basic way uses "pound on," inside and outside weights to the top dead center (TDC) of both rim planes.
  2. On a fancier rim, where an outside weight is undesirable or inapplicable, stick-on weights are carefully applied using laser guidance on the inside of the outer plane (the part of the rim that slides over the brake assembly when bolted on). One must be careful not to use too thick of a weight or it will hit the brake caliper and be ripped off. Conveniently, there are thin, quarter-ounce weights for this purpose.
  3. Lastly, for certain tires that require too much weight (are maybe too old and out of whack) and especially mud-terrain tires, there is the static balance. This balance involves applying a weight to TDC of the inside plane only, creating "perfect balance" when the tire is not in motion. It is a last resort and the least accurate balancing technique.

The tell-tale sign of your tires being out of balance is a shake or vibration between 60 and 70 miles per hour. Generally shaking in the steering wheel and/or seat of the vehicle are the top complaints customers come in with.

There are several different reasons tires can be out of balance. Tires, as they wear down, begin to take on a different shape than how they began. This is due to many factors, such as wear and tear on your front-end parts (ball joints, control arm bushings, tie rods, etc.), the crown of the roads, potholes, hard braking causing flat spots, throwing (losing) weights, and even poor construction of the tire (more common with "economic" tires). If you live in a snowy area or trek through mud regularly, snow and ice build-up can cause major shaking as well as the clumping of mud on and around the rim. In that case, removal of ice or mud would be necessary followed by a test drive and a re-balance if needed.

Typically, tires don't need to be re-balanced unless the customer experiences any of the shaking or vibrations associated with out-of-balance tires. Most customers prefer to balance their tires with tire rotations or oil changes. Some companies offer complimentary tire balancing with such services. Our policy is, "If it's not broke, don't fix it." In other words, if it hasn't posed a problem thus far, there is no need to waste the customer's time and money.

NOTE: Having a shake and having a wobble are two entirely different things. A wobble would be felt around take-off speed to 40 mph, indicating a bad tire. Having a "bad tire" means belts breaking inside the tire or having a tire severely out of round.

The camber is the angle from the top/bottom of the tire to the axle. If the top of the tire sticks out farther than the bottom, it is a positive camber.

The camber is the angle from the top/bottom of the tire to the axle. If the top of the tire sticks out farther than the bottom, it is a positive camber.

Some car models tend to "toe in" too much. A good tech will account for this when performing a wheel alignment.

Some car models tend to "toe in" too much. A good tech will account for this when performing a wheel alignment.

Your car's wheels need to be aligned when the caster, or the angle of the pivot line that runs vertically through car, is off.

Your car's wheels need to be aligned when the caster, or the angle of the pivot line that runs vertically through car, is off.

Wheel Alignment

Obtaining a wheel alignment for your vehicle could be necessary for many reasons. In fact, several maintenance and repair jobs require wheel alignments when completed due to the obstruction of the caster and the camber.

  • The caster is the angle between the pivot line (an imaginary line that runs vertically through the center of the upper ball joint to the center of the lower ball joint) from the front to back of the vehicle.
  • Camber is the angle from the top/bottom of the tire to the axle. If the top of the tire sticks out farther than the bottom (farther away from the axle), it is a positive camber. If the bottom of the tire sticks out more than the top, it is a negative camber.

Several things indicate you should consider getting an alignment.

  1. Severe inside or outside edge wear on your tires is the most common.
  2. Your vehicle pulling to one side or the other is a sign too. However, this can also be a result of a few other things: low air pressure, tire going down, malfunctioning brakes, front-end problems, etc.
  3. An accident towards the rear of the vehicle or rough edge tire wear may indicate that a four-wheel alignment is necessary.
  4. It is suggested that one get an alignment every time the tires are replaced.
  5. A car may need one sooner if they there is uneven wear or if ball joints, tie rods, or suspension have been replaced.

Every car maker has a factory setting for what their specific alignment should be. Unfortunately, due to the unevenness of the environment, the crown of the roads, accidents vehicles suffer, and daily driving, factory settings can be way off. For example, Ford's older models are infamous for being toed in too much. A good alignment tech will learn these traits over the years and account for such degrees when performing the alignment.

Do you need a four-wheel alignment? Some vehicles aren't set up for four-wheel alignments. Examples are most trucks (old and new) and older cars. Anything with a single-tube axle in the rear end can only have a front-end alignment. Newer SUVs have adjustments, and most independent suspension cars will accept the four-wheel alignment. In most cases, a four-wheel alignment is unnecessary but not a bad idea.

One crucial thing to know about getting an alignment is if front-end parts are needed, the alignment should be put on hold until said parts are replaced. There is no need to pay for the alignment twice!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Charles Joseph on May 07, 2019:

why tire wear out?

William on March 19, 2019:

Thank you for this article. I needed it....

Farren on November 12, 2018:

What if my car only has three wheels?

ronnie a. reynolds on May 22, 2018:

my tacoma truck shakes violently when I apply brakes and especially at slow down from 65 to 50 mph. when driving, the vehicle tracks really straight, any ideas ?

Lisa on May 01, 2018:

Car vibrates at 60-65 mph. could it be out of balance only?

sfiso on October 22, 2017:

my car if rich 100 km one tyre is shaking

JP on September 23, 2017:

Thanks so much for the detailed information. Told me exactly what I needed to know to identify the problem. Went in this morning and got my tires balanced and can already tell the difference.

Andy on July 08, 2017:

If I had my alignment done and all 4 tires balance and it still shacks going 70 mph what can it be

U Maung Soe on May 24, 2017:

Are the front wheels of a car always straight?

mike on February 07, 2017:

these are really great illustrations. I am building a car maintenance website for a car care shop and would like to ask permission to please use your alignment illustrations.

Bill on January 25, 2017:

My alignment has seemed ever so slightly off since I got new tires last April. They said I needed alignment so I said okay. Glad to know it's possible they did a bad job on the alignment. Now wheel seems to vibrate a bit in that 60-70mph range. Will have a more trusted shop do an alignment and balance soon. Thanks for all the info! Very helpful.

paul on September 06, 2016:

got my tires at costco steering wheel wobbles ever since ..now I know why ...thanks!

josh wilson on August 19, 2016:

Thanks this wasn't helpful

josh on August 19, 2016:

hi there

Ant on March 17, 2015:

Good bro

dia on February 10, 2015:

My car is a 2003 chev malibu, its shaking at 35-40 mph well I would say wobbles. Concerned, the last owner said replaced back stabilizer rod. Just got it unsure what to do. Balance tires get stabilizer rod. Not to smart when it comes to cars mechanically, need advice, liked article!

Rajesh sharma on July 25, 2014:

Wheel Alignment&balancing

will on March 27, 2014:

Thank you very much. This was a helpful article. After I got my tires rotated and balanced from costco, it started shaking when I drive faster than 60 mph. I suspected it to be the balance but wasn't sure as that was the only thing that changed.

BeckonsAttore on September 03, 2013:

It is easy for people to find replacement tires in Canton and elsewhere, however, not everybody knows what they need to properly do with them. This is a great article to help people to efficiently and safely put on tires, I do believe. Thank you very much! URL: http://www.horizonaudio.com/wordpress/?page_id=46

fresh on March 26, 2013:

on my 83 grand prix i changed the rims and on the drivers side the tire sticks out farther and also looks like that positive camber picture but the other side looks right and doesent stick out could this still be the allignment ???? need help

john on February 19, 2013:

just had four tyers replaced in cyprus they done tracking on it. this was 3 days ago..1st day was shakeing and pulling to one side. went bk they told me it was break disks fronts. i told them it can't be its was fine bfore. they said if it still dose it bring it bk, today i discovered there no weights at all on fronts nothing. what a joke they have no idea out here really pissed me off......

Lois Ryan from Upstate NY originally from Long Island on February 06, 2013:

Good article. I have a trust-worthy mechanic tell me if I should have an alignment. I commute and hour-and-a-hald each way to work so I usually get the car aligned every six months

Abdul Wahab from Yanbu Al-Bahar, Al Madinah, Saudi Arabia on December 02, 2012:

good info. thanks for sharing

Stairway2success from Tasmania, Australia on April 08, 2012:

I had to laugh when I came across this hub as it was only a few weeks ago that I had my car serviced and told them I would need a wheel alignment. I arrived at the mechanics and happened to mention about the car shaking when it hits around 80km. I was then told that it would need a balance not an alignment. Oops!!!

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