Whether you’re replacing your ball joints or any other part of your steering or suspension system, it’s not mandatory but always a good idea to get an alignment afterwards.
What Are Ball Joints?
Ball joints are a part of the front suspension of all cars. A ball joint consists of a ball attached to a stud that fits into a socket, pretty similar to how your femur connects to your pelvis (feel free to look up a diagram of a hip joint if you can’t picture this).
Ball joints are incredibly important to the functionality of your car, as they give the front wheels the range of motion they need to handle rough road conditions.
Ball joints allow the front wheels to move up and down independently from each other, and the nature of ball joints helps the wheels remain as flat to the ground as possible at all times, which, of course, makes for better handling and more even tire wear.
The socket of a ball joint is filled with grease, which gives it the lubrication it needs to operate smoothly and without noise. Ball joints are usually built as a single piece, with a rubber seal around the stud to keep out water and dirt.
If this seal fails, then the grease can leak out and unwanted substances can leak in, causing the ball joint to fail. We’ll talk more about the signs of a failing ball joint and the consequences of driving on a bad ball joint later on, but for now, let’s go over what an alignment does and why it’s necessary to get one after replacing your ball joints.
What Does an Alignment Do?
Put simply, your car’s wheels need to be periodically aligned in order for you to have proper control over your car. This may be referred to as a wheel alignment or a tire alignment, but in reality, an alignment is always performed on your vehicle’s wheels.
An alignment is done to ensure that your car’s wheels are pointed straight along with your steering wheel, that the wheels are as flat to the ground as possible, and that the wheels turn on the correct axis when steering. This is all necessary for proper car control, but also to ensure that your tires wear down evenly.
When performing an alignment, the repair technician will look at three things: camber, caster, and toe. Here’s what each of these three things refers to:
- Camber is the angle of the wheels when looking at the car from the front. Camber is measured in positive or negative degrees; positive camber is when the top of the wheel is tilted away from the car, and negative camber is when the top of the wheel is tilted toward the car. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a “stanced” car, you’ve seen an extreme case of negative camber.
- Caster is the angle of the steering axis when looking at the car from the side. Ideally, your car’s caster angle should be at 0 degrees; if your caster is off, your vehicle will either be more unstable or harder to turn.
- Toe is the angle that the wheels are pointing when looking at the car from below. Ideally, both of your wheels should always be pointing in the exact same direction; if this isn’t the case, then your car has toe alignment issues.
There are a few ways to tell if your wheels need to be aligned:
- Your car keeps pulling to one side while you’re driving, even when you’re not making any steering inputs
- Your tires are wearing down unevenly
- Your steering wheel is off-center when your wheels are pointed straight
It’s a good idea to get an alignment after replacing your ball joints because driving on bad ball joints for a while can mess with the other components of your steering/suspension system and throw off your alignment even further.
How Do I Know if My Ball Joints Are Going Bad?
You should never ignore the signs of a failing ball joint, as a broken ball joint can severely compromise the safety of your car. Here are the signs you should look out for if you think one of your ball joints might be on its last legs:
- If the seal around your joint fails and dirt or water gets into it, the first signs you’ll notice are squeaking or clunking sounds as the grease inside gets contaminated and leaks out. This will also prevent the joint from being able to articulate properly.
- When your ball joints get really worn down, your vehicle will start to shake and vibrate when in motion. This is caused by the ball part of the joint not sitting correctly in its socket.
- Worn-down ball joints can also mess with your steering, causing your car to drift from side to side even when you’re not turning the wheel.
If the damage is really bad, the ball part of the joint may separate from the socket entirely, causing a complete loss of control of the vehicle, so you definitely don’t want it to get to this point.
While the ball joint is a part of your car that you probably don’t think about too often, it is nonetheless a very important component of your car’s steering system. If your ball joints fail, your car may be rendered basically undrivable.
Fortunately, it can be easy to catch a failing ball joint before it gets too bad if you know what signs to look for. If you do suspect that your ball joints are starting to wear out, make sure you get them looked at as soon as possible (and be sure to get an alignment afterwards as well).