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Old 02-12-2019, 03:39 PM   #1
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Default Wheel alignment shops and issues

Based on the experiences we have had getting wheel alignments lately, and from what I have been reading on this forum and other places, it is starting to look like the whole wheel alignment business is turning into a big money making scam. Although there most certainly are some good shops out there somewhere, most us have not been able to find them consistently, it appears.


I tend to be very particular on wheel alignments, both from an accuracy and from a repeatability standpoint. The specs I like to use sometimes fall outside the "green" limits of the alignment machines, but I have found them to work better in particular vehicles. I also want tolerances on those specs to be very much tighter than the "green" limits as they are often wide enough to allow horrible handling issues.


Because I am wanting more than a normal alignment, I always go to the shop foreman or manager of whatever place I am looking at to explain plainly what I want for spec and tolerance and if it costs a bit more, I am OK with that. I tend to get the "our tech is really good and the machine extremely accurate, so we can do that easily without issue". Then, when they are done, I get the printout and it doesn't resemble what I asked for. The excuses tend to be pretty consistent between shops, including that it was taking too long, the adjusters where out of travel, it was in the green so it is OK, we test drove it and it drives great, etc. Others have gotten some excuses I don't get, like the parts are loose, when they may or may not be bad. The craziest one, that just came up on this forum, for the bad results was that they wouldn't use the adjusting cams to set the camber and caster because "it would mess up the geometry".


I think a lot of the problems are being caused by the newer 3D, 4 wheel, alignment machines, which are really nice machines if they are in perfect condition, perfectly calibrated, and run be someone who actually knows how to align a vehicle. They locate the sensors off the wheel surface, so only as good a measurement as that surface is, so no better, and maybe worse than the old systems that locate on a machined section of the wheel hub.



A huge deal in trying to use the machines comes when an adjustment is needed, especially with designs like our rear drive vans and older cars and trucks. In many cases the body needs to be lifted a bit to get at the adjusters, or maybe the wheels need to be turned a bit, and this makes using the machine basically useless for watching the screen and adjusting until the reading is correct. On the last alignment on our van, the operator jacked up the van to loosen the lock nuts, put it back down and adjusted until it read right, then jacked it back up to tighten the lock nuts. Then he had to do a complete, several minute, rescan to see the results. Surprise, surprise, it was off every time when retightened. I good tech would just jack it up, loosen, adjust the cams the amount his experience tells him to for the right change, tighten, drop and rescan. The having to do a complete rescan at every change is a huge time waster, so they don't want to do it and try to avoid changing anything. If they were using old school bubble gauges, the recheck would take well under a minute.


I think most shops have gotten into the mode of not doing any changes at all, and if it does need adjusting they use the too loose, or the adjusters are rusted tight, excuse to not do them. On most unibodies with struts, except the very early ones, they can get away with that if the vehicle has not be in an accident, I think, because they are very structurally good and don't go out of alignment very often. None of our unibodies have ever needed and caster or camber adjustment and we keep them until they are dead. Of course, one shop said my old Escort was off on camber in the middle of it's life. It still drove well and no visible camber problem or tire wear, so I took it too another place that gave the same readings it had always been, so the first machine was bad.


I think the bottom line is if you have A arm front suspension, it may be tough to get a good alignment. An old school shop or truck shop that does front wheel only aligning may be the best choice if yu can find one.



What you will hear from the normal places is that the machines are much more accurate, which I just haven't seen in my experience. Sure, the printout comes with readings to 1/100 of a degree, but I truly doubt they are accurate or repeatable to even 1/10 of a degree. For reference, if you have a bubble gauge they claim 1/8-1/4 degree accuracy, which is probably true, but can be allowed for if you check them. The bubble gauges will be very repeatable, though, which is what you need when making adjustments to prevent "hunting" with changes.


I am currently collecting what I need to do DIY alignment in the driveway at home, and trying to work out the best and most accurate procedures. There are lots of articles and videos online of how to it, but I think many of them would not give really good accuracy or repeatability, so some tweeking needed to get better results. Will I get better results than the machines? I don't know yet, and may never know because I don't think you can trust the results off of any one given machine that you compare to. If someone on a video or post says they are getting "much more accurate readings than a machine" be cautious because the almost certainly don't really know they are. I think the only real way to evaluate will long term handling consistency and tire wear, but it will take a long time to know much. Probably the most rewarding fro me will be that the cam that "is out of travel" but has 1/2 inch of space left to move, it appears, can be attempted to be moved. You never know, the hole in the frame may be too small and restricting it.
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Old 02-12-2019, 04:58 PM   #2
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Thanks booster. Looking forward to your writeup. I am due for an alignment on my 2006 210 which hasn't been checked in 40,000 miles, though tires are wearing evenly. I had 50,000 miles on last set and changed due to tire age even though I had 1/4" of tread left. I did a check of toe last time and was pretty close.

So I will use your writeup to check and adjust.
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Old 02-12-2019, 06:32 PM   #3
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I too will be watching for your reports. I think the key is the word repeatability. a couple of years ago when I was trying to get our van to drive better, I went to a local shop where I had a rapport with the main technician - he took my requests seriously and tried to give me the settings I asked for rather than settling for "the green zone".
So, I had a setting done and then drove it for a week or two and then went back to try something different.

This shop records the starting data and then the new data after changes and you get all that on a print-out when they are done. The problem I observed was that the 'starting' measurements are never the same as the previous 'ending' measurements. Because I was not satisfied with the way it drove initially, I had several (at least 5-6) re-alignments and this lack of repeatability was evident in all cases.

I think it is another case of the latest high-tech tools dumbing down the work force because people are trained to not second guess the computer since it is infallible. Problem is they forget that it is a person, not the computer, who connects the measuring devices to the vehicle and finding a tech who understands this is hard to do. Garbage in, garbage out thing.

I learned many years ago as a machinist that you cannot turn a part in a lathe, remove and subsequently re-chuck the part, and expect it be on center again without fiddling with it. Repeatability is very difficult and it requires someone who understands this and is willing to put the effort in to get it right.

Good luck,

Dave
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Old 02-12-2019, 06:51 PM   #4
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I too will be watching for your reports. I think the key is the word repeatability. a couple of years ago when I was trying to get our van to drive better, I went to a local shop where I had a rapport with the main technician - he took my requests seriously and tried to give me the settings I asked for rather than settling for "the green zone".
So, I had a setting done and then drove it for a week or two and then went back to try something different.

This shop records the starting data and then the new data after changes and you get all that on a print-out when they are done. The problem I observed was that the 'starting' measurements are never the same as the previous 'ending' measurements. Because I was not satisfied with the way it drove initially, I had several (at least 5-6) re-alignments and this lack of repeatability was evident in all cases.

I think it is another case of the latest high-tech tools dumbing down the work force because people are trained to not second guess the computer since it is infallible. Problem is they forget that it is a person, not the computer, who connects the measuring devices to the vehicle and finding a tech who understands this is hard to do. Garbage in, garbage out thing.

I learned many years ago as a machinist that you cannot turn a part in a lathe, remove and subsequently re-chuck the part, and expect it be on center again without fiddling with it. Repeatability is very difficult and it requires someone who understands this and is willing to put the effort in to get it right.

Good luck,

Dave

I spent 14 years in a machine/fabrication/machinery building shop while I was in high school, college, and after graduating, so I know exactly what you are saying. I have a Bridgeport and lathe in the garage to this day.



I have done a preliminary check on the bubble gauge I got, mostly for zero point and repeatability in mounting. I leveled my small surface plate doing the .005"/1" level with turn in 180* routine to get really level and then confirm with a steel bearing ball. Put the angle plate on it, confirmed perpendicular with three different precision squares. Gauge was right on for one of the camber bubbles, 1/8* low on the other, so within their rated 1/4* degree and easy to allow for. It repeated mounting and unmounting the magnetic mount to the angle plate to and unmeasureable amount, probably less than 1/32*. I am very OK with those results. I checked the angles by shimming and calculating the mount and it tracked pretty well, very close to the 1/8* off on one and nearly right on for the other. I need to check that a bit closer, but the actual numbers aren't nearly as important as repeatability side to side on the vehicle.


We have gotten 20" of snow in the last 8 days, so it certainly will be a while before I can get out on the most level part of the driveway and see how much I have to shim the wheels to get the vehicles level there.


I don't think we can ever stress enough that accuracy is good, but repeatability makes stuff actually work right.
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Old 02-13-2019, 02:00 PM   #5
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A question for you D&J.



Do recall how big the variances were between your ending and the next starting readings? I think that would be very interesting information to help get a feel for the true repeatability of the machines.


I have asked several places to scan the vehicle twice without changing anything, but they all won't do it. It may be cost thing, but I was paying by the hour on a couple of them, so shouldn't have been. I got the feeling they didn't want anybody to see just how unrepeatable they are.
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Old 02-13-2019, 04:42 PM   #6
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Hi Booster,
I have found, copied, and grouped 4 of my alignments into one PDF file.
I have not tried to attach a PDF before so unsure if this will work.

Assuming you see the attachment, you will soon discover that these machines are not very repeatable - by comparing the "before" in a given report to the "actual" of the previous alignment, you quickly see there is not much consistency. The first one, dated 6/24, was the first at this store so the "before" and "actual" are the same.

These were all on the same vehicle, by the same technition (their senior tech), on the same machine, in the same building. No other work had been performed to the chassis between visits. At the end of this series, it was pretty obvious that they wished I would just go away...

Hope this helps,
Dave
Attached Files
File Type: pdf Xplorer allignments.pdf (1.86 MB, 25 views)
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Old 02-20-2019, 11:31 PM   #7
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Hi Booster,
I have found, copied, and grouped 4 of my alignments into one PDF file.
I have not tried to attach a PDF before so unsure if this will work.

Assuming you see the attachment, you will soon discover that these machines are not very repeatable - by comparing the "before" in a given report to the "actual" of the previous alignment, you quickly see there is not much consistency. The first one, dated 6/24, was the first at this store so the "before" and "actual" are the same.

These were all on the same vehicle, by the same technition (their senior tech), on the same machine, in the same building. No other work had been performed to the chassis between visits. At the end of this series, it was pretty obvious that they wished I would just go away...

Hope this helps,
Dave
Hi D&J Phillips,
Looking at your numbers, something very similar seemed to happen to me lately. Just did a few alignments after suspension mods.

So I took your numbers and compared to mine because something familiar seemed to jump out here. This might just be a coincidence (I don't believe in coincidence by the way), but toe inaccuracy is very relevant in both yours and mine between scans. I would guess that caster and camber have a bit of inacuracy but not as relevant on both our vans.

That scared the hell out of me because my toe delta would translate to apprx. a 1 inch play in the steering linkage. I still do not know to this day what to think of it but I will recheck toe with the old tape measurer.

So I'm wondering why mainly toe would be so different between scans. Is it the devices they put on the wheels. The last place I went, they even had a wall so you could not see what the mech. was doing.

If anybody else wants to publish their numbers, maybe we could get a better feel on this instead of just a hunch at what the problem is.

Here is the little compilation I did using your and my numbers.
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File Type: jpg alignment comp..jpg (242.7 KB, 15 views)
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Old 02-21-2019, 12:19 AM   #8
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Wow, the last two posts certainly confirm what I was very suspicious of, and that is huge repeatability issues with the machines. Even though they read to .01 increment, they are really closer to .2 repeatability, which is no better than the bubble gauges are for accuracy, but they seem to repeat better than the machine does.


It is no wonder they don't want to move the cams, as they have no idea if the cam moved the reading or it just changed because of the machine issues.


For camber, accuracy counts because you are talking very small numbers around zero and you need to get repeatable results to dial that in. I can't believe how many times they sent them out with plus camber on one side and minus on the other, which they also did to me and refused to change.


The actual caster numbers if high enough aren't all that critical, but having the cross caster right certainly is so repeatability also important there.


The toe numbers also seem to be a random thing, likely because they do it last and probably cheat and don't rescan before printing it out.


It appears lejeep has paid for two complete alignments and the only thing they set was the toe, and they messed that up. He has noted that the cams on his have not been touched.
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Old 02-21-2019, 12:46 AM   #9
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I would think that a critical element to get an accurate alignment would be to:

1. Measure toe, caster, camber
2. Adjust
3. Roll the vehicle backwards, then forwards again
4. Remeasure
5. Readjust as needed
6. Roll the vehicle backwards, then forwards again
7. Remeasure
8. ... Continue this until angles are as desired

Main point here (or question): doesn't the vehicle need to be moved/rolled so suspension adjustments "settle out" in order to get an accurate measure of the angles?
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Old 02-21-2019, 01:05 AM   #10
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Those steps are pretty accurate, although the rolling part has mostly gone away if they are on good turntables that float easily. Toe is the biggest one for that issue. The problems really start if they have jack up a wheel or two to get to the adjusters and then drop it down again. Even bouncing them doesn't always settle the same, especially for stuff sprung as stiff as our vans. Rolling and bouncing is always better, it is just a matter of how much.



They get into trouble for a couple of reasons, I think. One is that the rescans with the machines take so long that they are limited in how many adjustments they can make, plus as soon as the touch the vehicle the readings move around a lot. It appears the folks selling the machines tells them that they can just move the adjusters until the machine goes green and then tighten up the lock nuts or bolts. Unfortunately that doesn't work well, and the next scan is off again, so they chase it forevr. The old school guys didn't look at the gauges while adjusting, they knew which way to move the adjustments to correct the setting and moved it what they thought was right based on experience. A recheck took seconds instead of minutes, so the could do 3 or 4 times the adjustments in the same amount of time.
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Old 02-21-2019, 02:03 AM   #11
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Those steps are pretty accurate, although the rolling part has mostly gone away if they are on good turntables that float easily. Toe is the biggest one for that issue. The problems really start if they have jack up a wheel or two to get to the adjusters and then drop it down again. Even bouncing them doesn't always settle the same, especially for stuff sprung as stiff as our vans. Rolling and bouncing is always better, it is just a matter of how much.
Do you have a turntable or equivalent with your homemade setup?
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Old 02-21-2019, 02:11 AM   #12
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Do you have a turntable or equivalent with your homemade setup?

I just got a set of turntables (second set first was junk) and played with them a little after I modded them for more travel. They will make it much easier once I get out on the level driveway in the spring. I did try the two vinyl floor tiles with grease between them, and it worked suprisingly well, so that is also an inexpensive option for folks. With the tiles, I would definitely roll the vehicle when doing toe, and probably camber. Caster not as critical I think.
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Old 02-21-2019, 03:03 PM   #13
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What if the bolts on the inside of the cam adjuster were slotted or something preventing them to rotate as you loosen the accessible nut ?
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Old 02-21-2019, 03:47 PM   #14
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What if the bolts on the inside of the cam adjuster were slotted or something preventing them to rotate as you loosen the accessible nut ?

The bolts go through slots in the frame, so the A arm can move in and out, so you would need to have some kind of floating nut plate to allow the motion in and out, but prevent turning. Probably could be done, but GM would never put that much cost into them. The previous generation didn't even come with cams, so you had to buy them to be able set the camber and caster. I am pretty sure the bolts and nuts are high strength hardened material so it would be pretty costly compared to off the shelf nuts.
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Old 02-21-2019, 03:56 PM   #15
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The previous generation didn't even come with cams, so you had to buy them to be able set the camber and caster.
I saw the cams for sale and bought a set. But it looks like my 2006 has something that looks similar. Sounds like I didn't need to buy the cams.
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Old 02-22-2019, 06:14 PM   #16
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Wow, the last two posts certainly confirm what I was very suspicious of, and that is huge repeatability issues with the machines. Even though they read to .01 increment, they are really closer to .2 repeatability, which is no better than the bubble gauges are for accuracy, but they seem to repeat better than the machine does.

It is no wonder they don't want to move the cams, as they have no idea if the cam moved the reading or it just changed because of the machine issues.

For camber, accuracy counts because you are talking very small numbers around zero and you need to get repeatable results to dial that in. I can't believe how many times they sent them out with plus camber on one side and minus on the other, which they also did to me and refused to change.

The actual caster numbers if high enough aren't all that critical, but having the cross caster right certainly is so repeatability also important there.

The toe numbers also seem to be a random thing, likely because they do it last and probably cheat and don't rescan before printing it out.

It appears lejeep has paid for two complete alignments and the only thing they set was the toe, and they messed that up. He has noted that the cams on his have not been touched.
Looking again at the after and before new adjustments numbers from me and D&J Phillips. it seems that caster is the least affected by the non repeatability thing. Then would come camber and the most non repeatable numbers would be toe.
I wonder if bearings (caster) and steering linkage (toe) could be contributing factors for numbers non repeatability.
Did you notice the same pattern on your van or was it random ?
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Old 02-22-2019, 06:23 PM   #17
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Looking again at the after and before new adjustments numbers from me and D&J Phillips. it seems that caster is the least affected by the non repeatability thing. Then would come camber and the most non repeatable numbers would be toe.
I wonder if bearings (caster) and steering linkage (toe) could be contributing factors for numbers non repeatability.
Did you notice the same pattern on your van or was it random ?

If they are calculating the caster the same way as it is done with the manual gauges, that does kind of make sense, as the caster is the taken from two readings that kind of balance the errors out, it appears. I have seen that with the bubbles also in my messing around. The bubbles have been much more repeatable than the readings you guys have put up off the machines, though, probably because a very small wheel movement would probably really mess up the machine but with the manual gauge you rezero the gauge in the tire rotation direction. With as much unrepeatability as they are getting, they would time and accuracy ahead if they just used and old pointer gauge, I think.
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Old 02-22-2019, 09:32 PM   #18
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Booster, I wrote that wrong. I meant to ask if some front bearing looseness would affect camber (not caster) results non-repeatability and steering linkage looseness would contribute (even more) to toe results non-repeatability.
I noticed that D&J Phillips and I have about the same mileage and maybe same wear on those parts.
D&J Phillips, did you have any of those parts replaced to your knowledge ?
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Old 02-22-2019, 10:14 PM   #19
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Front wheel bearing looseness certainly could show up as variability because it would make a difference which was the looseness was pushed out. I think with aluminum wheels that have the big negative offset, the centerline of the tire would be near being outside of the area between the wheel bearings, do those would go negative camber almost all the time. If the center of the tire is between the bearings like it should be the tilt would be more centered and could be pushed either way a bit. Ball joints, particularly lowers, are a normal cause of camber movement, but the rest of the steering parts won't change camber except for pushing when turned and moving a loose balljoint or bearing.


Age of front end parts, and even mileage are not good indicators of if they will be worn, as ungreased ones can be shot in under 20K miles and well maintained ones can go well over 100K.
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Old 02-23-2019, 05:08 PM   #20
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@lejeep - when I bought it in 2014 it had just over 40k on it. First thing I did was go to the dealer to have ALL fluids changed, then to the tire/suspension shop with instructions to replace anything they thought needed replacing and they replaced the ball joints, 2 or 3 tie rod ends, and the rear 'brace' bushings (Dodge has a lower "A" arm that is not actually an "A" arm but rather sort of an "I" arm with a separate rearward brace from the lower ball joint area to the frame). The result is that anything that moves was replaced/checked. I then had the steering box rebuilt by Red Head and added this steering box stabilizer Dodge Ram Steering Gear Box Stabilizer. Also got a new set of shocks and the tires are relatively new.

So, that is when I went back for this series of alignments. The only upgrade I didn't make was the addition of a rear sway bar, which I think would help but it is very crowded under there and I am not sure I can get one in along with the air bags.

@booster - on the need to roll after setting it down after an adjustment. I have no experience with heavy trucks like our vans, but I have set and maintained my Austin Healey for racing for 20 years and I think rolling between settings is necessary for camber as well as toe. Healey's left the factory with no adjustments possible except toe. There are now replacement suspension mountings that can be welded in to allow adjustment but most of us just use eccentric bushings - and, since there are no factory adjustments, the alignment shops don't want my business...they are all afraid of liability if they make a setting outside 'factory' parameters. This means a lot of trial and error. I use plumb bobs and chalk on the shop floor, roll the car out of the way and measure, roll back and make another stab, repeat. In this process I have found that there is enough arc difference between the lower A arm swing (long) vs the upper shock (a arm) swing (short) that the side movements of the wheel are going to put the tire and suspension in a bind until you roll the car. Having said all that, I have not tried skid plates of any kind so maybe they work better than I imagine.

I still think most of the problem is operator error/laziness. The general feeling is that the computer can't lie, therefore it speaks the truth. In my case the frustration was compounded by the fact that the technician seemed sharp and genuinely desirous of giving a good result and worked with me cheerfully - I just couldn't shake the feeling that he really didn't get why I was being so demanding? Also, I have no idea how comprehensive the training is for and alignment tech? When I asked him to do it again, he cheerfully complied, but never decided on his own to redo any particular result. A couple of times I even booked two alignments back to back so he could take as much time as needed and wouldn't feel rushed - and kept offering to pay more if 'machine time' was an issue.

All this is why I generally do things myself - it is often easier than trying to educate someone who thinks they already know. It's not that I think I am a superior mechanic, but rather that I am driven by a fundamental issue......WHY? The need to understand what is going on is paramount.

Dave
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