What is an alignment? Merriam-Webster says, “the proper positioning or state of adjustment of parts in relation to each other”. In the automotive world, proper position is what we are talking about. The main points we are going to explain is camber, caster, and toe. There are other points to consider such as total toe, steering angle, and included angle but for our purposes that isn't necessary. We are also going to try and help you understand what to look for as possible signs you need an alignment.
So, let's try to use your legs and feet to try and understand camber, caster, and toe. Imagine you are standing on a hardwood floor in some socks. If you twist on your heels pointing both feet outward away from each other that is toed out, if your feet are straight ahead that is neutral toe, and turned in pointed at each other toed in. Now bow your knees outward, that would be positive camber, bowed inward would-be negative camber, and yep you guessed it, straight is neutral. Now do a small squat, that would be negative caster, if you could bend your knees backwards positive caster. For me it was always easy to remember caster is like casting out in front. Toe, like your heels and toes is their relation to one another front to back, and that would be your front wheels relation. Camber and caster are all within the suspension just like your knees are your suspension.
Manufacturers set specification in degrees where camber, caster, and toe should be in relation to one another. Alignment machines use lights and cameras to monitor adjustments as they are being made on your vehicle. Be leery of “lifetime” alignments. The reason I say be leery is that, it typically is used as a ploy to get you to return. I believe most of the time it is with good intensions, but we have seen vehicles after these “lifetime” alignments, and they are not properly adjusted.
You may notice things that are clear signs of alignment. If your steering wheel is crooked, you most likely need and alignment. Your vehicle uses steering angle that it gets from the clock spring in your steering wheel for active safety controls such as vehicle stability control. If your vehicle pulls to one side or the other could also be a sign. This could be a tire or crown of the road along with other things, but it should be a sign to have your vehicle inspected. Pay attention to noises and vibrations as well. If your tires have gone from street tread to mud terrains or are worn obviously strange those are sure signs your trusty wagon needs attention.
Age, mileage, and road conditions could cause the need for an alignment. Road conditions in metro areas and road debris like that paint bucket you hit on 285 can certainly cause issues. Repeatedly hitting the curb into your driveway in the exact same way everyday can cause things to wear early as well. To correct some issues at even 20K miles may require parts. Some alignments require ball joint replacement, control arms, shims, or cams. We try to be open with you about this upfront, sometimes we are even caught off guard. When you need your next alignment, are curious as to why it seems to wander like a bloodhound, just want to more info feel free to come by or give us a call at Dalton Automotive 770-427-0996