Wheel balancing is a must anytime tires are mounted on wheels. The wheel may also require rebalancing if a tire has been dismounted for repair.
Wheel balancing provides a smoother ride by minimizing tire vibration and bounce. This helps improve traction, steering control and extends the life of your tires. But no matter how carefully wheels and tires are balanced, they will eventually lose their balance. As the tread wears, the distribution of weight around the circumference of a tire changes altering the balance of the tire and wheel assembly. Eventually the tire may have to be rebalanced because only 1/4 ounce of imbalance can produce a noticeable vibration.
WHEEL BALANCE PROBLEMS
An out-of-balance tire and wheel will typically create a vibration or shake that become progressively worse as the vehicle's speed increases. The speed at which the vibration first becomes apparent will vary depending on the size and weight of the tires and wheels, the size and weight of the vehicle, the sensitivity of the steering and suspension, and the amount of imbalance. The vibration or shake usually starts in at 40 to 50 mph and increases in intensity as the speed increases.
Speed-related tire and suspension vibrations may also be caused by radial (vertical) or lateral (sideways) runout in a tire, wheel or hub. Loose, worn or damaged wheel bearings as well as certain kinds of tread wear can also cause vibrations. So too can an out-of-balance or out-of-phase rear wheel drive driveshaft (FWD shafts usually don't rotate fast enough to cause vibration problems).
CHECK WHEEL BALANCE
If you have a vibration problem or your steering wheel shakes at highway speeds, take your vehicle to a tire dealer or repair shop so they can check the balance of your tires. They should also inspect the steering and suspension for any other problems that might be causing a vibration or shake.
If the problem turns out to be the tires, rebalancing them should eliminate the vibration. If it does not, the problem could be wheel/tire runout or one of the other problems already mentioned.
The going rate for rebalancing tires typically ranges from $10 to $15 per wheel. Or, it may be free if you purchased new tires some time ago and free rebalancing and rotation were included in the price.
To accurately balance tires and wheels, a tire dealer or repair shop must have an up-to-date and accurately calibrated wheel balancer. This type of equipment should be capable of achieving both static (at rest) and dynamic (in motion) balance. Old fashioned bubble wheel balancers can do a decent job of achieving static balance, but dynamic wheel balance can only be achieved with a spin balancer. This is especially important with today's larger, wider, heavier tire and rim packages, and absolutely essential for run-flat tires that have thicker, stiffer sidewalls.
Most wheel balancers today have self-calibrating electronics with accuracy to hundredth's of an ounce (or tenths of a gram). Graphical displays also make information easier to read and understand, and reduce the chance of making a mistake. Automatic data entry for wheel width and diameter on some balancers also saves time.
Most wheel balancers today operate a lower speeds. This helps extend motor life and reduces cycle times as well as risk to the operator. Older balancers typically had to spin a wheel fairly fast (about 500 rpm, or the equivalent of 55 to 60 mph) to generate a usable signal. But the more sensitive electronics in today's wheel balancers are able to pick up vibrations at much lower speeds (only 100 rpm, or 10 to 15 mph).
WHEEL BALANCING TECHNIQUES
One of the limitations of balancing tire and wheel assemblies off a vehicle is that repeatability can be an issue. In other words, the machine may not show the same results when an attempt is made to rebalance a wheel that has already been balanced. This can happen if the wheel is not remounted on the machine correctly.
The way that a wheel is mounted on a balancer will not only affect the accuracy of the balance job itself but also the repeatability of the balancing results. Worn mounting cones or shaft bearings are sometimes the problem. Using the wrong type of cone can also give inaccurate results. So too can dirt on the wheel or nicks in the wheel center hole. But another often overlooked cause is using the wrong mounting technique for the type of wheel.
The basic idea is to mount the wheel on the balancer the same way it is mounted on the vehicle. A pilot hole centric wheel (one where the center hole positions the wheel on the hub and prevents it from wobbling sideways when the lug nuts are removed) can be mounted on a balancer with a cone from the backside. But a lug centric wheel (one that does have some sideways movement when the lug nuts are removed) requires a different balancer mounting procedure. A lug centric wheel should be mounted with a cone from the backside and an adapter flange plate against the front side. The fingers on the flange plate must be properly positioned so they line up with the lug holes in the wheel. This is necessary to center the wheel on the WHEEL balancer shaft. If this is not done, the results will not be 100 percent accurate or repeatable.
WHEEL & TIRE RUNOUT VIBRATIONS
Sometime wheels will still shake and vibrate even after they have been carefully balanced. The problem is often excessive wheel runout or tire runout. Most tires should have less than .030 to .050 inch of runout. An out-of-round tire can produce harmonic vibrations that come and go at various speeds depending on how many "humps" are in the tire.
As a rule, most steel rims should have less than .050 inch of runout, or .040 inch of runout if the rims are aluminum alloy. Some trucks and SUVs can tolerate up to .060 inch of radial and lateral runout, but others can't handle any more than .030 inch of runout before vibrations become noticeable.
Runout problems can often be corrected by "match mounting" the tire on the wheel (rotating the tire so the tire high spot is over the rim low spot).
RADIAL FORCE VARIATION
Sometimes the problem is neither balance or runout. It is radial force variation (RFV). This is the amount of change in stiffness of the sidewall and footprint when a load is placed against a tire. Subtle differences in the position of the cords and belts in a tire's construction can create stiff spots that make the tire roll unevenly. The stiff spots act like runout to cause vibrations at various speeds.
Vibrations caused by RFV tend to appear at certain speeds, then disappear as the speed changes or increases (unlike vibrations caused by imbalance that usually get worse as the speed increases). In one test, a perfectly round wheel that was properly balanced experienced a vibration that appeared at around 50 mph but vanished at 70 mph. The vibration at 50 mph was caused by RFV in the tire, and produced as much side force as if the tire were out-of-round by .030 inches or out of balance by one and a half ounces.
Some high end tire balancers (such as the GSP 9700 made by Hunter Engineering) have a large roller that can be placed against the tire to detect runout. If RFV is present, it shows the technician where it is and how to correct it. RFV can be countered by adding offsetting weights and/or rotating the tire on the rim. It also makes it easier to determine if a tire is responsible for a vibration problem or not. If there is no runout problem, no RFV and the tire is accurately balanced, but the car still vibrates, the vibration is in the driveline or powertrain, not the wheels and tires.
WARNING: DO NOT USE OIL, GREASE, ANTI-SEIZE OR LUBRICANTS OF ANY KIND WHEN TIGHTENING LUG NUTS!
Proper torque on lug nuts is very important for three reasons. One is to keep the lug nuts from loosening up and the wheel coming loose, another is to prevent distortion of the brake rotor behind the wheel, and a third is to prevent broken studs. A torque wrench should be used for final tightening of the lug nuts, and the nuts should always be torqued to the recommended specifications.
CAUTION: Torque specifications for lug nuts are always for CLEANand DRY studs and lug nuts. That means no oil, no grease, no anti-seize and no lubricants of any kind. Any of these products will reduce the friction between the threads. This may seem like a good thing to prevent rust and frozen lug nuts, but the reduction in friction means a much higher percentage of the applied torque (up to 25% or more) will go toward loading the lug nuts. The end result may be brake rotor distortion or broken studs!
Wheel studs should be cleaned with a wire brush to remove rust and dirt BEFORE the wheels are mounted. If the lug nuts are heavily rusted or have damaged threads and won't turn easily on the studs, replace the lug nuts. The same goes for any wheel studs with damaged or badly corroded threads. And remember to mount the wheels DRY with nothing on the threads.
According to the Ecology Center, most automakers are continuing to move towards the elimination of lead wheel weights, but aftermarket tire dealers don't seem to be doing much. The Ecology Center's second Lead-Free Wheels Survey of new 2006/2007 model year vehicles showed that while many automakers have aggressively phased out lead wheel balancing, some automakers have made no progress (Chrysler), and no aftermarket tire retailers have committed to phasing out lead wheel weights.
The Ecology Center says lead wheel weights falling off cars and trucks is one of the last major, unregulated sources of lead pollution in the U.S. Yet all that needs to be done is to discontinue the use of lead wheel balance weights and use other metals such as steel or zinc. Everyone who installs tires should be aware of this and get on the lead-free bandwagon.
The Ecology Center estimates that approximately 50% of the new cars sold in the US at the end of 2006 had lead-free wheel weights. This accounts for approximately 68 million lead-free wheel weights on new cars in 2006. This represents a 79% increase over 2004 when the Ecology Center estimated 38 million wheel weight were installed on new vehicles. These weights eliminated the use of over 1,500 tons of lead on vehicles in the US. The results of the survey are available here.
The Ecology Center has called on all auto manufacturers and tire retailers to commit to phasing out the use of lead wheel-balancing weights in the U.S. Use of lead weights in Europe were banned as of July 2005, and U.S. production capacity currently exists to provide the lead-free alternatives.
On average, cars and light trucks use up to 10 of these weights, which are 1/2 to 6 inches in length. Recent studies have documented that on average 13 percent of wheel weights fall off vehicles during normal driving. One study estimates that 3.3 million pounds of lead per year are deposited on urban roads in the United States.
Lead wheel weights are actually very soft and when they fall off a vehicle they are rapidly abraded by traffic into smaller pieces, scattered into the wind as dust, washed into storm sewers and waterways, and picked up by shoes, animal paws, and bicycle tires. The EPA considers lead and lead compounds persistent bioaccumulative toxic (PBT) chemicals because of their toxicity and because they remain in the environment for long periods of time. Lead is especially dangerous to children and developing fetuses, even in very small amounts.
More information and survey results are available at: www.leadfreewheels.org.
On April 28th, 2010, Washington became the first state to ban the use of lead wheel weights in the U.S. The ban requires using lead free wheel weights starting on January 1, 2011.
On May 12, 2010, Maine became the second state to enact a ban on lead weights. Their law bans the use of lead wheel weights for tire balancing January 1, 2011.
The EPA is also proposing a nationwide ban on lead wheel weights, and is currently reviewing comments for its proposed rule making. For more details and public comments, Click Here.
California did a study of the environmental impact of various types of wheel weights, taking into account both human and ecotoxicity. manufacturing impacts and usage impacts. Their conclusion? Steel weights are better than lead or zinc weights. To read the complete report, Click Here.
For more information about the environmental and health hazards posed by lead wheel weights, see www.LeadZero.org.