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What is Wheel Alignment & Some Great Wheel Alignment Info

This is an older article we found on the internet, but we felt it makes the case for everyone to have a QuickTrick System

Really good information that many people do not consider.  We hope you enjoy the read more..

How much you know about what goes on at wheel level can help you keep your customers safe and satisfied.

Alignment Speak

After any kind of serious collision, you should just get rid of the vehicle. After all, no matter how well it’s fixed, it will never be the same again.

That statement sums up what may be the single most damaging and pervasive consumer misconception about the collision repair industry. Every year, shops spend millions of dollars on training and state-of-the-art equipment—all in the name of delivering high-quality repairs while returning automobiles to their owners quickly. Yet, many of these owners still firmly believe the next stop for their vehicles should be the local car lot or someone else’s driveway. What causes vehicle owners to form this opinion?

There are a variety of possible answers here, including jittery owners who simply don’t want to deal with what they view as damaged goods. But consider the one issue—second to appearance—that consumers pay the most attention to when it comes to repaired vehicles: The way the vehicle sounds and feels while driving. For the first couple of months after a vehicle is repaired, a consumer compares the current ride quality to the vehicle’s pre-crash form every time he or she steps into the car. And as we all know, they scrutinize every rattle and every creak to the extent that they’re just now noticing flaws that the vehicle had when it left the factory. And quite often, with every turn of the wheel and every minute spent on the road, they form opinions about your work based solely on these factors. If they find any faults, guess who pays the price?

With that in mind, ask yourself this: “What kind of alignment work was done on the vehicle?” The odds are that you probably aren’t sure, even though the alignment is crucial to vehicle handling and stability (not to mention tire life). Many repair facilities still outsource wheel alignments to mechanical shops and leave it up to the insurance company to determine the quality of work based on what the insurer is willing to pay. Unfortunately, insurance companies usually just dole out a set, bargain basement price of $60 to $70 per job to pay for alignment work that can require a relatively quick toe adjustment to labor-intensive adjustments at both axles. What those dollars ultimately pay for—or more specifically, what the technician decides to fix with the money—can determine the opinion your customers have of your shop and the collision repair industry as a whole.

When you look at it that way, you’re hoisting a huge amount of responsibility onto the shoulders of others. Fortunately, you have at your disposal the means to control this vital service. For one, you could be more assertive with your quality control measures. Second, you could begin doing this work in house, where you could also reap the benefits of a new revenue stream. Adding an alignment service is no easy or inexpensive task; so before you take a step in this direction, consider the economics of alignments. Let’s take a look at bringing alignments in house, and then we’ll see what options you have when it comes to quality control on outsourced work.

Why Outsource?
Why aren’t more shops taking advantage of alignment work, especially considering its importance and the revenue that it can generate? “It’s a matter of money,” says I-CAR’s Jamie Boettcher. “Wheel alignments just are not a profitable use of shop space.” Alignment racks take up precious square footage that might be better used for something far more lucrative—such as a frame rack or a service bay.

A good alignment rack with up-to-date computer diagnostics costs upward of $30,000. If your shop repairs 20 vehicles a week, 30 percent to 40 percent of those (about seven) will likely require alignments. Using a job in the Chicago market as an example, at $70 a job, that’s $490 a week or $2,000 a month—not bad money. Your numbers may differ according to the cost of goods and services in your area. But at that rate, providing the additional services will begin to pay off your equipment purchase. However, compare those figures to the dollar amount one of your frame racks brings in during a year. You should find the frame rack to be a much bigger moneymaker.

Now consider this: You still have to figure in the additional expense that alignment work carries with it. You’ll need a qualified technician to perform the alignments. It’s easy to throw the youngest, least experienced technician on the alignment rack, but is that a smart move considering the havoc a hard hit can wreak? You need an experienced technician who truly understands the effect collisions can have on alignment angles and the effect those angles can have on driving stability, safety and tire wear.

But to make an in-house alignment plan feasible, the technician will have to pull double duty. If you already employ one mechanical technician, this is a logical extension of his or her abilities. If you currently outsource all but the most basic mechanical repairs, then alignment services are going to be a tough fit financially—unless, of course, one or two of your collision repair technicians are trained in alignments.

If none of these scenarios work for your shop, you might be better served to subcontract this service—even if it puts you into the difficult position of having to rely upon someone else’s work. You don’t have to be helpless here, though. A proper understanding of alignment services can aid you in working with your “alignment provider” to give your customers the best possible service as well as the peace of mind that the job was done correctly and completely.

The End of Two-Wheel Alignments
An alignment in its most basic form “consists of adjusting the angles of the wheels so that they are perpendicular to the ground and parallel to each other.” The purpose of these adjustments is to maximize tire life and allow a vehicle to track straight and true on a straight, level road. To create this alignment, a technician deals with the familiar camber, caster and toe, which determine the angles at which a vehicle’s wheels ride. Because many vehicles have a straight rear axle instead of an independent rear suspension, these angles are often only adjustable on the front end of the vehicle. Hence the term “two-wheel alignment.” The term “four-wheel alignment” was typically reserved for vehicles whose back wheels could also be adjusted.

That’s at least how the terminology worked in the past. No one should be doing two-wheel alignments anymore. Even on older model cars, before you can adjust the front end, you first have to go to the rear axle and check the thrust angle. Thrust angle is the direction the rear wheels point in relation to the centerline of the vehicle. The front alignment must be set in accordance with the thrust angle. If not, and if the thrust angle is not set at zero, the vehicle will “dog track,” with the back end essentially moving sideways as the vehicle travels down the road.

I-CAR similarly stresses that all vehicles receive a four-wheel alignment, emphasizing the need to begin every alignment at the back wheels and to pay special attention to the status of the rear axle. In cases where the back end cannot be set within specifications, I-CAR warns technicians against trying to adjust the front end to compensate for as well as hide the problem. “If the back end is damaged to the point that it cannot be properly set, it’s going to need to be either repaired or replaced,” I-CAR’s Boettcher says. “If a technician adjusts by overcompensating the front end in order to make the vehicle ride correctly, the result [is] going to be ruined tires and a return trip to the alignment shop.”

Here’s an example: There usually isn’t a single correct setting for camber, caster or toe because manufacturers create a range of minimum and maximum settings. It’s up to the technician to decide which part of that range to use. A technician potentially could set the left front tire camber setting “out” a bit with the right front tire camber set “in.” Both settings would be well within specification, but the result is going to be a vehicle that pulls to the left.

Translation: There’s no such thing as an easy alignment. Proper alignments are the result of time, labor and experience. Even with a computerized alignment center guiding the technician, mistakes are not uncommon. Moreover, adjusting camber, caster and toe are usually just the final steps in setting the wheel alignment. The more complex and difficult work is often done before a single adjustment is ever made.

Vehicle Complexities
I-CAR stresses another important point about alignment services: Ultimately, they should be geared toward the vehicle’s operating environment and the individual driver. Consider this scenario: A shop properly aligns a 1999 Chevy Malibu to specification and test drives the vehicle to make sure it drives straight, doesn’t pull, etc.

A week later, the owner brings the vehicle back and complains that it isn’t handling right. The technician test drives the vehicle again and discovers that it does in fact handle poorly, but the alignment still falls well within specification. What is the source of the problem? The shop discovers that the owner of the Malibu is a salesman who typically hauls 800 lbs. of products in the back seat. The technician fixes the problem by adjusting the alignment to a lower ride height and increases the tire pressure (within the tire manufacturer’s recommendations) to help offset the heavy load.

Vehicle occupants can create similarly difficult alignment issues. A very large, heavy person in the front driver or passenger seat of a vehicle with a weak suspension can cause the vehicle to pull. Once again, the solution is to adjust the alignment and tire pressure to the lower ride height. The real problem in both cases, though, is preventing the need for a return visit. This may not always be possible because the shop may never see the occupants or may not know just how the vehicle is used until the vehicle is brought back.

Beyond compensating for the driver or vehicle usage, the more common challenges you will see can be chalked up to the design of the suspension and steering system. Some BMW models require the technician to adjust the ride height before aligning the vehicle by placing a set amount of weight in the passenger compartment and trunk. To compensate for the extreme caster specifications on some Mercedes, the technician must use a tensioned bar to push the front wheels outward while setting the toe.

Even more mainstream vehicles present challenges. To adjust camber and caster on the front of General Motors’ full-sized SUVs and pickups, you must first drill and remove slugs that are welded in during the assembly process at the factory. Ford Windstars can provide a higher degree of difficulty. To adjust the camber and caster on these minivans, the spot welds at the strut tower must be broken, adjusted and then bolted in the proper position. Unfortunately, Ford didn’t make it easy to access the strut towers. You must first remove the windshield wiper motor and the cowl. The challenges with these vehicles are multiple, primarily because no smart shop owner will perform a complete and proper alignment of this variety for the tire store special price. So you need to make sure the technician is truly adjusting all necessary angles. Setting the toe and letting it go isn’t going to do you or your customers any favors. If extensive alignment work is required, then you can eat the expense (which isn’t fair to you), pass it along to the customer (which requires some sales skills) or explain to the insurance company the reason for needing extra time and dollars.

A Checklist for Control
Camber, toe, overloaded cars, portly drivers and spot welds—you probably never dreamed that a wheel alignment involved so many factors. Now that you do, you can make the process better for you and your customers. To begin with, if your shop is outsourcing this work, you’ll want to make sure you’re receiving the kind of service you want and deserve. If you haven’t already, find out about the technician(s) performing the alignment. Then find out just what the insurance company’s $60 or $70 is buying. Finally, if you’re not satisfied, you’ll have to explore your options.

There’s a Grand Canyon-sized difference between a vehicle that’s 50 percent repaired and one that’s 100 percent repaired. Just ask any customer who’s had to bring a vehicle back to you. Despite the extra work it may take to get the vehicle out the door with the proper alignment, think of the damage it could do to your image if you take the easy way out.

So what do you do? Talk to the insurance companies and your insurance partners to see if the rate can be raised as needed on a case-by-case basis. If necessary, involve the customer. Explain the value and necessity of a proper alignment. Your customers can help put additional pressure on the insurance company, and if they understand the importance of alignment, many will be willing to pay for it on their own.

Next, put together a checklist of steps for your employees to follow from the moment a vehicle enters your shop until it’s delivered to the owner. Start by asking your body techs to look for signs of damage that likely affected the alignment. Ask them to look for damage to wheel areas, suspension and steering components and to note if the steering wheel isn’t straight while driving. Instruct your front office staff to, when possible, collect information about how the vehicle is used and who uses it.

If the vehicle needs alignment work, make sure the alignment technician prepares documentation on the service. Boettcher suggests getting a document that contains the following: (1) the alignment readings when the vehicle was brought in, (2) the manufacturer’s specifications and (3) the readings the vehicle was set to. Keep a copy for yourself and give one to the customer. This way, you both know exactly what work was performed. This information can also go a long way toward diagnosing problems and in determining responsibility should the vehicle need more alignment work in the future.

Before returning the vehicle to the owner, test drive it to make sure it passes your own quality control standards for driving straight, handling and stability. Len Verheyen, owner of Len’s Autobody in Oceanside, Calif., keeps a mechanical tech on-site whose duties include wheel alignments. However, he also has an employee whose job is to double-check all of the shop’s work.

Finally, once the vehicle’s wheel alignment is set correctly, make sure it gets to the customer that way. If your shop offers pick up and delivery services, remind your delivery personnel to handle the vehicle responsibly. A sharp hit on a curb or pothole can knock loose all that important alignment work. If you deliver it via a flatbed truck, make sure the driver knows not to fasten vehicles down to the truck too tightly. A too-rigid tie-down forces the vehicle to absorb excessive road stresses, which can also throw the vehicle out of alignment. (Note: Many vehicles arrive new to the dealership out of alignment for this very reason.) 

I-CAR is currently restructuring its wheel alignment courses to help shops cope with these issues. For his part, Boettcher is putting together an alignment work checklist—something you might want to keep in mind as you schedule training courses in the future. As if alignment work isn’t challenging enough, you’re going to need all the help you can get to keep up with ever more radically engineered suspension and steering systems. All of these new designs are eventually going to have one very important thing in common as they make their way through your shop: They’ll be riding out on your reputation.

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