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Normal everyday car maintenance is a balancing act. Not only when it comes to recalling its most crucial aspects to keep an eye on (oil change frequency, keeping tires aired up, and so on), but quite literally balancing as well.
Having properly balanced wheels is paramount to fuel economy, getting the most life out of your tires, as well as avoiding premature wear on your car's other nearby components.
Here's what wheel balancing is (otherwise known as tire balancing) and why it's so important to every part of your car's dynamics.
Wheel Balancing Adds Weight
An assembled wheel and tire combo are inherently unbalanced. This is usually due to a mix of the wheel itself being a tad off-kilter off the production line, the addition of valve stems and/or TPMS sensors, and/or the tire itself not being perfectly balanced off the production line. The end result of mounting it all together requires balancing to ensure it rolls smoothly down the road.
There are two types of wheel balancing—static and dynamic—and both entail adding little tiny weights to either the wheels' outer rim, outer rim just behind the spokes, or inner rim that faces towards the inside of the car. These weights either clip on or adhere via an adhesive backing.
Static balancing is done with the wheel stationary. Usually, it sits face up on a simple contraption that shows the technician which way the wheel leans, thus showing where the imbalance is. It's then balanced by adding weight to the opposite side.
Dynamic balancing involves putting the wheel on a machine that spins it up and more precisely shows the technician where the imbalance—or imbalances—are. It then shows where to add weight, and sometimes the exact amount to be added. This is the preferred method and usually means the wheel and tire package will stay balanced longer.
It's hard to get a wheel and tire completely, 100% balanced, but keeping it within a certain spec ensures it won't cause any adverse issues.
Why Wheel Balancing is Necessary
What's immediately apparent is a well-balanced wheel rolls more comfortably down the road. The steering and chassis vibration that big imbalances cause are quite annoying, as ain't nobody got time for that.
Poorly balanced wheels also cause premature wear to the tire and nearby components attached to the car, like the bushings, wheel bearings, tie rod ends, and suspension components. Some of this premature wear could lead to terrible results if not remedied, such as one or more of these components completely failing and making you lose control of the vehicle.
Finally, poorly balanced wheels cut down fuel economy, forcing you to pay more at the pump.
Wheel Balancing Isn't Permanent
There's no guarantee that a wheel and tire combo will stay balanced over the course of the tire's normal life. Potholes, running over debris, and other damage-causing elements can throw wheels out of balance, usually by denting the wheel itself.
Then, wheel weights occasionally fall off over time depending on the amount of heat or G forces that they experience. Especially if their initial installation was a tad lacking. For autocross and track driving, the increased heat from the tires and brakes often causes the weights' adhesive backing to give out. Adding extra adhesive or an added layer of tape over the weights helps avoid this.
Can You Balance Your Wheels At Home?
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(Editor's Note 3/1/22: made change regarding dynamic balancing)