BALL BEARINGS: TAABS’ system, pictured, consists of a hoop in which ball bearings continuously rotate ironing out deficiencies in a vehicle’s balance.
WATCH YOUR WHEELS: Wheel balancing should be part of your regular safety and maintenance checks.
EDMONTON, Alta. – When you buy something that’s brand new, you expect it to be perfect right out of the box.
But tiny imperfections, impossible to detect with the human eye, can be present in any product that’s mass-produced.
Commercial truck tires are no exception, and for that reason dynamic balancing is often recommended by truckers in the know, as well as many respected tire shops.
“Because tires are mass-manufactured there are quite often imperfections inherent in that brand spanking new tire,” says Shawn Mac Donald of Alberta-based Tregor Automatic All-Purpose Balancing Systems (TAABS). “The tire may not be perfectly round. Balancing in general just takes those imperfections and keeps those tires in balance.”
Wheel balancing is not a new concept. In the past, enterprising truckers actually placed golf balls within their tires to eliminate imperfections and improve the ride of their vehicle.
More recently, lead weights have become the most popular method of wheel balancing.
The weights are placed on the wheel in areas where imperfections occur in an attempt to achieve a perfect balance all around the wheel.
The problem with lead weights is that inconsistencies within the tire don’t always stay in one place, so it’s necessary to re-balance the tires from time to time.
That’s not always cheap, since the equipment required to balance tires this way is costly and the balancing must usually be done at a shop.
Within the past 10 to 20 years, however, dynamic balancing has emerged as a popular and cost-effective way of ensuring the wheels remain balanced day in and day out. The permanent solution provides a one-time fix with some systems even outlasting the life of the truck.
There are three main methods of dynamic balancing:
Powder balancing – Companies such as Equal (www.imiproducts.com) provide a sand-like substance which can be placed directly into the tire through the valve stem. As the wheel turns, the granules respond to force variations caused by non-uniformities within the tire, the company says.
The product repositions as the load and speed change to “maintain a vibration-free, stable footprint with no load variation.”
Powder balancing is not without its critics, however. Some skeptics have said the powder can damage the interior of the tire wall.
Corey Johnston, shop supervisor with Fountain Tire in Calgary, says his company will provide the service to those who demand it, but he often tries to dissuade them.
“I prefer not to put anything within the tire,” he admits. However, he adds some truckers swear by the technique and his company will accommodate those customers.
Ball bearings – TAABS (www.taabs-int.com) provides a system consisting of a dish and a hoop that houses chrome ball bearings within a silicone lubricant. Other companies provide similar systems that use lead balls, but TAABS prefers the more environmentally friendly steel ball bearings. Its system is recyclable and non-toxic. The premise is the same regardless of the ball bearing’s composite, however. As the tire rotates, the balls revolve around the hoop (which is placed inside the wheel) and iron out any imperfections in the tire.
Liquid mercury – Balance Masters’ (www.balancemasters.ca) system also consists of a hoop containing a counterbalancing material, but in this case it’s liquid mercury. Like ball bearings, the fluid constantly self-adjusts based on the movement of the wheel and the road surface to provide continuous equilibrium. At highway speeds the mercury spins around the hoop about 15 times per second.
It has been estimated that about 30 per cent of steer tires and 90 per cent of drive tires on the highway today employ no form of wheel balancing whatsoever. Since so few fleets and owner/operators have taken measures to ensure their tires are properly balanced, does that mean it’s not an idea worth exploring?
TAABS’ Mac Donald and Len Prince of Balance Masters may be competitors, but they do agree on one thing. And that is that properly balanced tires can significantly improve a fleet or owner/operator’s bottom line.
Both Mac Donald and Prince estimate that tire tread life can be extended by 50 per cent by using some form of dynamic balancing. As a case in point, Prince refers to a customer’s trailer that has one million kilometres on each of its tires and is still going strong.
With tires being a trucker’s second largest operating expense after fuel, a 50 per cent increase in tread life alone can provide a quick payback.
But there are other benefits as well. Balanced wheels provide far less vibration which results in an improved ride for drivers, and also for components which will last longer if they’re not subjected to abuse resulting from unbalanced tires.
Truckers who have used dynamic balancing systems have also reported a substantial improvement in fuel mileage, to the tune of between eight and 12 per cent according to Prince. “Obviously you’re using less energy to pull something that’s in balance than out of balance,” reasons Prince.
Based on those numbers a three axle tractor equipped with a dynamic balancing system travelling 2,500 miles per week could achieve a payback time of four to five months. Of course, payback times can vary widely depending on the application and miles driven.
In addition, some operators have been able to extend the life of their brakes since the brakes wear out more evenly on a properly balanced rig.
No additional maintenance is required after implementing a dynamic balancing system, with the exception of a quick cleaning whenever the wheels are removed. And the systems are generally easy to install.
So if extending brake and tire life, improving fuel mileage and enhancing ride quality can be achieved with a single solution, why are so many fleets and owner/operators continuing to run on improperly balanced wheels? While primitive forms of dynamic balancing (such as the use of golf balls and even anti-freeze) have been around for some time, the more advanced systems discussed in this article are still relatively new to Canada. Also, the initial price tag may be a deterrent for fleets that remain skeptical of the entire concept of dynamic balancing.
Still, both TAABS and Balance Masters have made significant inroads in recent years. Mac Donald says most of TAABS customers are owner/operators who are always keen on reducing their operating costs.
“A lot of our sales are to owner/operators because when those gentlemen are putting their own money into their own business, they’re going to try to get as much out of their tires as possible,” he says. “It’s only a matter of time before dynamic balancing is a technique utilized by multi-unit owners to properly maintain a lower cost of business.”
It’s a trend already being observed in Eastern Canada where Prince says about 50 per cent of Balance Masters’ customers are fleets. In an industry where profit margins are razor thin, dynamic balancing may be worth a serious look.