Front-end and full-vehicle alignment tends to be an afterthought for many fleets, often happening only after a driver logs a complaint.
“From a fleet perspective, alignments are a lot like doctor visits,” says Victor Cummings, vice president of service operations at Rush Truck Centers. “The trucks go in when they’re sick. And there are almost no checkups to catch an alignment issue before it becomes a full-blown problem.”
Alignment is the adjustment of a vehicle’s suspension, particularly the angle of the tires, explain Bridgestone officials, and centers on three critical factors:
- Camber is the inward or outward angle of a tire when viewed from the front of a vehicle. Too much inward or outward tilt, also known as positive and negative camber, indicates improper alignment and the need for adjustments to be made. Worn bearings, ball joints and other components are common causes of camber misalignment.
- Toe is the extent to which tires turn inward or outward when viewed from above. Toe-in alignment is when the front edges of tires are angled in toward one another. Toe-out alignment is when the front tire edges are angled away from one another. Both conditions require adjustment.
- Caster is critical for balanced steering, stability, and cornering. Specifically, caster is the angle of the tires when viewed from the side of a vehicle. If the tires have positive caster, the steering axis is tilted toward the driver. Negative caster means the steering axis tilts toward the front of the truck.
Improper alignment can cause several problems for fleets beyond driver complaints. The most obvious is tire wear.
“When I’m talking to fleets about alignment issues, the first thing I ask them is if their technicians understand how to read and identify tire wear,” says Michael Beckett, founder and CEO of MD Alignment. “It is absolutely critical to train your technicians so they can look at tires and understand if there’s a problem. It could be alignment, or inflation issues, or a mechanical problem. But in each case, the tire will tell you what you need to know.”
If you’re dealing with an alignment issue, Beckett says, it will usually manifest itself in one of three ways.
- Feathering is a wear pattern where the tire tread is smooth on one side but still sharp and well-defined on the other. This is usually a sign of poor toe alignment.
- Camber wear is when the inside or outside of a tire is noticeably more worn than the centerline of tread.
- Heel and toe wear is when one side of a tire’s tread blocks wears down faster than the other in a circumferential direction. You can confirm heel and toe wear by running your hand over the affected area and look for a sawtooth feel as you do so. Heel and toe can also be a sign of under-inflation or that the tires aren’t being rotated properly.
Most of these issues can also be felt when driving the truck up the road. If you have drivers complaining about trucks pulling to one side or the other or wandering around in lane at cruising speed, those are often signs that a realignment job is necessary.
“Keep in mind that 50% of irregular tire wear on a tractor is from alignment problems,” Beckett says. “While only 10% or less of irregular tire wear on trailers is caused by alignment issues. So, in many cases, the problem will lie elsewhere. But checking your alignment is always a good place to start troubleshooting these issues.”
Settle In, Then Set Them Up
Class 8 tractors are aligned at the factory, although it’s common practice for fleets to check the alignment when they take possession of new trucks.
“You can run your trucks with the manufacturer alignment specs — and many fleets do,” says Lee McLaughlin, president of Bee Line Company. “At Bee Line, we have our own set of recommended specs that are tighter than the factory recommendations. But, at the very least, we recommend that fleets check the alignment on new trucks to make sure they’re correct.”
MD Alignment’s Beckett agrees fleets should check alignment when they take possession of new trucks. “OEMs only have around 20 minutes on an assembly line to do both steer and tandem alignments.”
More importantly, Beckett says, is understanding that it’s not just new engines that have a break-in period once a new truck is up and running.
“It takes truck frames approximately 60 days or 30,000 miles to ‘settle in,’ as well,” he explains. “At MD Alignment, we recommend rechecking your alignment around the 60-day mark and then set everything up nice and tight. If you do that, the alignment will generally hold until the truck reaches 200,000 miles, unless something out of the ordinary happens.”
Joel Morrow, senior driver and vice president for fleet procurement at Ohio-based Ploger Transportation, says that while rechecking alignment after the settling-in period, he reduces the wheel cut from the factory spec 58 degrees down to 42 degrees and reduces the factory caster settings.
“We reduce the wheel cut so we can close up the gap [between tractor and trailer] and get better fuel economy,” he explains. “And reducing the caster allows the trucks to ride significantly better — and makes for better steer tire wear, as well.”
Alignment and Steer Tire Life
How much steer tire life a good alignment job can deliver for a truck is an ongoing topic of debate. MD Alignment’s Beckett has made waves for years now, arguing that a “holistic” approach to total vehicle alignment can deliver up to twice the life for steer tires in long-haul applications — up to 180,000 miles in some instances. It’s a claim that Morrow backs up, saying that Ploger has seen steer tire life double by using MD Alignment and its specs.
Bee Line’s McLaughlin is more comfortable with citing a 30% increase in steer tire life — but he notes that it is a conservative figure, and that it’s not uncommon to see Bee Line customers see even more enhanced tire life after a comprehensive alignment program.
“I’m not so sure about 50% more steer tire life,” says Otho Ries, shop manager at Peco Foods’ Pocahontas, Arkansas, facility. “But you’re absolutely going to see significant increases in steer tire life if you’re paying attention to your truck alignments. There’s no question about that.”
A few years back, Ries began an annual inspection program that included checking the alignment on every one of the 60 tractors in his fleet, including all three axles on the tractors, and trailers as well.
“We made that move because a good alignment boosts your fuel economy and saves you money on tire purchases,” he says. “We used to rely on driver input. But our trucks spend a good deal of time off road. And we realized that they just needed more attention because of that extra wear and tear.”
Ries does all his trailer alignments in-house but outsources the tractors.
“The alignment equipment for trailers is cheaper,” he explains. “And the difference in cost for an alignment system for tractors versus what I spend on alignments annually, I’d wear the machine out before I ever broke even.”
Farming alignments out versus doing them in-house is a debate that comes up all the time, McLaughlin says.
“On the negative side, you’ve looking at tying up two drivers to send a truck in for an alignment,” he notes. “And you really don’t control when you’ll get the truck back.”
McLaughlin generally cites the 25- to 30-truck number as the cut-off between doing alignments in-house or sending them out. “But everyone is different,” he says. “We have some Bee Line customers with as few as six trucks who do their own alignment work.”
“A good alignment man can turn a truck around in about an hour-and-a-half,” adds Cummings at Rush Truck Centers. “We tend to push three-axle alignments when we talk to our fleet customers because there are so many additional wear issues that go unaddressed if the tandems are out of line. Steering is one thing. But remember that your rear axles can certainly push your truck one way or the other. And lining up all three axles is the best way to avoiding those issues.”
Driver fatigue is often reduced after an alignment, McLaughlin says. “And that can be very helpful when it comes to retaining experienced drivers,” he adds. “With the wheels and axles in parallel with each other and true to the centerline, [it] minimizes the rolling resistance and eases drivability, promoting a safe driving experience.”
But, Ries says, the biggest advantage alignments deliver for Peco is safety.
“If you’ve got your tractor and trailer lined up correctly in a way that the driver doesn’t have to constantly fight it going down the road, you’re going to have much less driver fatigue as the day goes on,” he says. “And while that makes for a happier driver at the end of the day, it also makes for a safer driver during the day. And that alone is worth the investment of my time and money.”
This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking magazine.