Bad Vibrations

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December 22, 2008


Vibration can be maddening, especially when you don’t know where it’s coming from and what’s causing it. Typically, vibration is caused by either a tire/wheel issue, or a driveline component.

Tire/wheel vibration can be caused by two things: an out of balance condition, and/or an out of round condition. If we suspect that the tire is out of balance, we put it in our tire balance machine and check them out. It’s important to understand that not all tire machines are created equal, and not all tire technicians do things the same way. Variations in the way the wheel is chucked up in the machine versus the way it mounts on the coach can cause inaccurate readings; in other words, just because the balance machine says it’s balanced, doesn’t mean it will be on the coach. To remove as many variables as possible, we actually use tapered, threaded centering tools that we have for most popular coaches. We’ll put the wheel on with these first, then one by one remove them and replace with the wheel studs to be absolutely sure the wheel is centered. We’ve also tried several tire balancing machines, and they’re not all accurate. Back in the old days, the best way to determine tire balance was by spinning them up to highway speeds on the vehicle using another machine we have. We now have a tire balancing machine that has proven itself to be accurate, but when it doubt, we can still spin the tire/wheel assembly up on the vehicle as fast as 70-90 mph depending on the size of the assembly. This spinning machine is still very valuable to us when we are trying to diagnose unique problems. For example, we had a customer come in a while back whose coach was vibrating so badly, his refrigerator stopped working. We balanced the tire and wheel assemblies several times, but it was only until we spun the assembly up while mounted on the coach that we found out the drum brake assemblies were out of balance. In that case, we balanced the wheels right on the coach with our strobe light balancer to offset the drum imbalance. That’s the way we always used to do it, but it is very time consuming-sometimes 45 minutes to balance one tire.

Out of round tires can cause major problems, too. How do you tell the difference between out of balance and out of round vibrations? Generally speaking, with out of balance tires, the faster you go, the worse it shakes. With out of round tires, it will usually shake worse at a certain speed, and then you can eventually drive through it…but it could be a very high speed before it goes away. We’ll use a dial indicator to determine the run-out of a tire, and see if it is within specs for the given tire and tire diameter. Very seldom are tires perfectly round, so you have to know the specs of the tire you’re working on. If the tire wasn’t mounted properly last time, it may not be properly seated on the bead, which will cause the tire to be out of round. This is an important thing to take into consideration before “truing” the tires to make them round again; if the tire is not properly seated, and you true it, you’ll end up ruining the tire. Sometimes, it may be necessary to mount and dismount the tire several times to make sure.

In other cases, the problem is caused by bad wheels; if the wheel isn’t round, it’s going to affect the tire and how it works. An alloy wheel like an Alcoa is more concentric than a stamped steel wheel. You’ll notice that more expensive cars always have alloy wheels, and this is not just for looks. It’s a rounder wheel, so there is less problems with out of round conditions, and less road harshness.

I think it’s important at this point to make the distinction between vibration and what we call “shimmy”. If you hit a bump and the steering wheel begins shaking in your hands (sometimes violently) then goes away when you apply the brakes, that’s shimmy, and it’s not a wheel or tire issue. It means something in the front suspension isn’t right-there’s a loose tie rod end, drag link or a worn-out steering damper. Excess camber can also cause it. You should take your coach to a qualified alignment shop as soon as possible, because something may be coming loose. Interestingly, people often think that their coach is out of alignment because it’s shaking, but that’s usually a tire/wheel problem.

Driveline problems usually come from the center of the vehicle, and there are several things you can do to determine if it’s driveline related or not. For instance, if it happens on acceleration or deceleration, it’s usually caused by incorrect driveline angle. Driveline vibration can also be caused by a drive shaft that was installed, or re-installed incorrectly. The U-joints all have to be lined up so they are in phase; if the technician knows what he’s doing, he can look and see that the U-joints are properly phased.  A bad U-joint or lower CV joint are other potential causes of vibration. A driveshaft can also be out of round, so we’ll check it for run-out with a dial indicator and see if that is the problem.

If a customer comes in with what he thinks is driveline vibration, I’ll put it in Park and bring the engine up to speed. If there’s vibration, we know it’s absolutely not the tires or the driveshaft; it’s the flywheel, harmonic damper, torque converter, or maybe the engine itself. If there’s no vibration in Park, we can take the wheels off completely, put the coach on a lift, and run it up to 60-70 mph. If we don’t get any vibration there, we know the problem is with the wheels and/or tires.

Like anything else, finding and solving vibration requires a systematic approach. But when you know the root causes, it’s a lot easier.





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  340. Lynne

    I am experiencing a violent vibration problem and want to know if anyone has had this problem. I own a 33 ft. Class A motorhome (Ford chassis) and occasionally have experienced drivng in a construction area at a slow speed (30-35 mph) when all of a sudden the rig begins violently shaking. I can’t brake or steer for about 10 seconds and then it stops and the rig drives normally. This has happened 3 times over one year. My tires are new and I would assume they balanced them when they were put on. Any ideas? I have mentioned it to my mechanic and he has never heard of this problem. Could it be a suspension problem?

  341. Gary Workman

    Something else to check is to make sure the tire is mounted on the wheel/rim correctly. Confirm the toe of the tire has not rolled under when mounting. Follow proper procedures for mounting tires.

  342. Jere Jarrell

    I saw a shop using about a cup of sand to balance the tire. They poured it into the tire before it was reinstalled on the wheel. They swore it worked very well after about 10 miles per hour.. what are your thoughts. J.

  343. John Shelton

    An additional check is to remove just the drive axles and plug the axle housing ends with a Styrofoam coffee cup or another suitable “stopper” and run the drivetrain. This procedure is less work that jacking and safely supporting the vehicle and removing the wheels. Vehicles the size of a motorhome usually have brake drums balanced with lugs welded to circumference of the drum. The balancing weights occasionally fall off and result in an out-of balance condition that is often overlooked. If the drivetrain is smooth with the axles out and rough with the axles reinstalled and the wheels off, the drums or drive axle wheel bearings are usually the culprit.

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  345. Don Hopper( hoppers4)

    Great info Robert! I especially like the part about determining drive shaft balance. Take off the rear wheels and spin er up. Also good info determining out of round or out of balance.