(Photo by Jim Park)

(Photo by Jim Park)

While making a delivery of liquid oxygen, several years ago, to a manufacturing plant undergoing renovation, I had to drive off the paved portion of the road and into some deep mud. Once I had filled the customer's storage tank, I backed out of the muck and headed out to the highway. I had accelerated to about 35 mph when the front end of the truck began shaking wildly – so much so that I was unable to hold the steering wheel.

I slowed and stopped the truck, and then got out to inspect the truck for damage, thinking I had hit something and badly damaged a front wheel. Everything looked just fine on a cursory inspection. A closer look, however, revealed a clump of mud weighing about 5 pounds had lodged itself between the wheel and the brake drum. Those 5 pounds of mud put my right front wheel so badly out of balance that it nearly shook the truck right out from under me.

While that was a dramatic illustration of imbalance, I see similar examples regularly while driving on the highway in my car. I watch trucks while I'm driving, and it's not uncommon to see trailer wheels bouncing wildly down the road. Between the out of balance condition and the centrifugal force acting upon the heavy spot on the wheel, I often see an inch or more of upward movement in the wheel. There's less fore and aft movement because the axle is restrained -- for the time being anyway -- by the bushings.

The driver likely wouldn't notice the vibration with air-ride everything nowadays. But make no mistake, that out-of-balance condition is destroying the tires as well as the suspension bushings, the shocks, and more, as well as impinging on fuel economy.

Nobody balances trailer wheels, but oddly, they are the wheels on a truck most likely in need of balancing. Trailers are the pre-graveyard for tires. They will have been shuffled from a steer position to a drive position, retreaded sometimes, reinstalled at a drive position, and when they are all scabby and worn, they are moved back to a trailer position for a final few months of life until the tread has worn to the last few 32nds of an inch.

Tires consigned to trailer positions suffer all manners of indignity -- gauged, flat-spotted, cupped, run flat, etc. I can't help thinking that with a few ounces of balancing material those tires might easily run tens of thousands more miles before final removal.

Balanced for Life

You're thinking, "There's no way I'm going to pay to balance a half-worn tire at a trailer position."

But when you use a balancing compound instead of a fixed weight crimped to the wheel, the material remains fluid inside the tire, maintaining balance of the tire and wheel assembly regardless how much rubber has disappeared from the tread face or where it came from. According to Bob Fogal Jr., president and CEO of International Marketing Inc. (IMI), products such as Equal can stay in the tire its entire life and keep working for the life of the tire.

"Equal moves freely inside the tire and seeks low spots in the tread and balances the weight of the missing rubber," he says. "The tire remains perfectly balanced due to the distribution of the compound in the tire as it rotates."

The compound can stay in the tire, through dismounting and remounting, and be reinstalled at any wheel position. The balancing material will continue to do its job, indifferent to where it is mounted.

"I think fleets have grown accustomed to the idea that there's little point to balancing a partially worn tire at its second or third wheel position," Fogal says. "It's a cost that won't be recovered because the tire will continue to wear once the patterns have been established.

"With an internal balancing compound, the material adjusts to the tire condition. Even if some external condition such as alignment or worn shocks has caused the tire wear, the balancing material will compensate for the missing rubber and maintain proper tire and wheel balance."

Unlike fixed weights that have to be removed, then reinstalled when the wheel is rebalanced, balancing powders can stay in the tire, and they will go to work in the first mile of rotation.

The same thinking applies to balancing rings such as Centramatic. The dynamic balancing media contained in the ring adjusts to the balance condition of the tire, regardless of the tire condition or wheel position -- all other factors being equal, such as proper mounting and good mechanical condition. 

"Balancing isn't something a fleet will do every time a tire is changed or a flat is repaired," says Robert Coolidge, president of Centramatic. "Once you have invested in a set of balancing rings, they can remain at a wheel position, balancing any tire/wheel assembly that is mounted there."

If you look at balancing from a life-cycle point of view, the value of extending tread life speaks for itself, Coolidge says. [PAGEBREAK]

The more unbalance rubber you have on the road, the more it's costing you.  (Photo by Jim Park)

The more unbalance rubber you have on the road, the more it's costing you. (Photo by Jim Park)

"There’s also casing integrity to consider, retreadability and to a growing degree, disposal costs. Sure there’s an upfront cost to balancing, but it’s more than offset in the long run -- if you take the right approach from the start." 

Lifecycle Cost

According to Ian Savidge, marketing manager at Magnum, internal compounds, such as Counteract, Equal and Magnum, and the external balancing rings too, are reusable, won't damage tire casings, are environmentally benign and claim to provide lifetime balancing of not just the tire/wheel assembly but the entire wheel-end from the hub out to the tire. And because of their dynamic properties, they will maintain wheel balance even as the tire changes shape with age.

"You get all that for roughly the price of one dynamic wheel balance," Savidge claims. "And these products last the life time of the tire. It's no surprise that fleets don't follow the recommended 20,000- to 40,000-mile balancing interval for traditional methods. That would be tremendously expensive."

So indeed, who balances trailer wheels? According to Savidge, only about 20% of all heavy truck tires are balanced, one way or the other. That means 80% of the tires out there are literally at the whim of the condition of their tread. When a tire starts to show signs of irregular wear, it's often difficult to stop or reverse the trend. Balancing compounds will not prevent some externally imposed irregular wear, but they will slow the process by compensating for the missing rubber on the tire while maintaining true rotation.

If longer miles to take-off and less suspension maintenance due to unbalanced wheels isn't enough, Coley Wolkoff, National Accounts manager at Counteract Balancing beads, says his product will save fuel too.

Counteract conducted tests at Auburn University's Advanced Vehicle Evaluation facility in Alabama, and found a 2.2% improvement fuel economy. Evaluation in actual customer trucks showed even greater improvement, he says.

"When Counteract Balancing Beads were installed in all the wheels of the truck fleet of one of our customers -- about 100 trucks in all -- running line haul from Missouri to California, they measured an estimated fuel savings of more than 5.5% on fuel per truck," he says. "We also measured a significant drop in casing temperature in properly balanced wheels, which helps reduce tread wear."

CentraMatic's Coolidge also points to potential fuel savings from properly balanced wheels. He calculates that an out-of-balance wheel can sap up to 10 horsepower overcoming the additional tire flex and excess suspension motion.

"If you don't currently balance, or only balance the tire and wheel at initial installation, the direct cost is about the same as a balancing ring," he says. "When you consider the time and labor savings at installation and the reduced tread wear and reduction in driver complaints over the life of the truck, maybe four to 10 years, the savings are hard to ignore."

Maybe now is a good time to take another look at balancing trailer wheels. Some of the less mainstream alternatives such as internal balancing compounds and balancing rings do not require rebalancing and they can stay with the tire or wheel for life. All of which are the traditional arguments for not balancing drive or trailer wheels.

At the very least, these products offer true dynamic wheel assembly balancing all the while the wheel remains mounted on the truck. How long you choose to run that tire at any wheel position is up to you, but tread condition is often a deciding factor in when to pull the tire. If the tread lasts longer, the tire will stay in service longer, and that saves money. Period.

About the author
Jim Park

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

A truck driver and owner-operator for 20 years before becoming a trucking journalist, Jim Park maintains his commercial driver’s license and brings a real-world perspective to Test Drives, as well as to features about equipment spec’ing and trends, maintenance and drivers. His On the Spot videos bring a new dimension to his trucking reporting. And he's the primary host of the HDT Talks Trucking videocast/podcast.

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