Tool Q&A: Tire, wheel service

With an ever-changing landscape of new vehicle technology, there’s always a new twist coming your way when it comes to tools and equipment. So, if you have anything on your mind in that regard, please send your questions to PTEN so we can consider...

Off-the-car balancing is the most prevalent technique today because wheels can be balanced without being concerned about placement on the car and lug positioning. Although on-the-car balancers have had some success, they don't really balance the wheel and tire assembly specifically because other rotating components influence how and where the weight is applied. Early spin balancers used high rpm (about 55 mph) to check balance, but the latest models use low-rpm designs. In fact, some balancers can be spun by hand, reducing cost, weight, and potential repair expenses. In other words, just because a customer complains of a vibration at 55 mph, it doesn't mean the wheel and tire have to be balanced at that speed. Specialty modes are also common on many of the latest balancers. Optimization for lowest weight and best cosmetic results is one example, but an increasingly popular feature is known as "match balancing." This feature allows you to match the high or heavy spot on the tire with the low or light spot on the wheel. As a result, the wheel and tire can be balanced with a minimum amount of extra weight. This feature can come in real handy for problem wheels or for tires to get smooth, vibration-free performance. Prior to the introduction of the match-balancing feature, it was done in an experimental fashion. It involved dismounting the tire, turning it 90 degrees, then remounting it and rechecking the balance.

When shopping for a new balancer, what should we look for?

When searching for a balancer, remember that you're buying it to make money. It may sound obvious, but it means you should look for a machine that will work reliably with consistent results. You may want to ask yourself the following questions for each balancer under consideration:

  1. Does the balancer have a proven track record? Is it really dependable? You may also want to pose this question to some local high-volume shops using the same balancer. If you don't know, ask your rep for the names of some shops using one.
  2. Does the balancer have all the features you need? Be realistic about this; carefully review your needs so you don't over-buy or under-buy. Make sure the balancer has all the modes you need, including fine balancing for sensitive suspension systems.
  3. Does the balancer come with all the wheel adapters you need or are some of them optional? See what you get and what else may be optional.
  4. Will the balancer handle the tire and wheel sizes you see? You may want to consider another model if you plan on balancing larger tires for trucks.

We’re long overdue for a new tire changer for our shop. What are some of the things we need to consider in a new machine?

Tire machines have become just as sophisticated as the new tires and wheels on today’s vehicles. Make sure that the units you’re considering can handle the entire spectrum of wheels and tires you’ll be servicing. This includes specifics like special rim designs and sizes and run-flat tires. You should also compare the functionality, ergonomics and intuitiveness of using the machine. Remember to ask about warranty and service, along with any training that comes included. You should also learn what regular maintenance is required to maximize uptime. Don’t underestimate these aspects as you have to live with the machine for many years to come, you don’t want any regrets over the long haul.

I’ve noticed that there are some electric tire changers on the market. Does this mean air-powered machines are becoming obsolete?

Not at all. Electric tire changers may offer some operating advantages such as not needing an air supply. From a performance perspective, some users like the characteristics of an electric motor in the changer rather than air power. Since “better” in this regard is in the eyes of the beholder, it’s best to try both electric and air machines out to see what you prefer. Also, ask around to see what other technicians and shop owners have to say about their experiences with the two different types of machines. Finally, get some feedback from others on whether one design has durability advantages over the other.

Since tire and wheel service can be a reliable profit center, you may want to take a “big picture” look at your operation beyond the equipment itself. For instance, are there any improvements you can make to workflow to improve the throughput of your shop? Would installing the new equipment in a different location help boost productivity? For example, would having the new equipment placed closer to your wheel alignment system consolidate services in that area? These are some key things to consider to ensure customer satisfaction and a healthy bottom line for your business.

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