You may have no idea what wheel bearings are, or what they do. But if your wheel bearings go bad, you will certainly have to deal with it. Your wheel bearings are key parts of your car’s drivetrain, and so they must be in good working condition, or your car will be unable to take you where you want and need to go!
Join us for an insider’s view of what wheel bearings are, what they do, what makes your wheel bearings go bad, how to know if they go bad, how to fix or replace your wheel bearings, what replacements cost, and finally, whether it is worth fixing bad wheel bearings.
What are wheel bearings and how do they work?
Your car has one wheel bearing for each of its wheels. The wheel bearings in your car allow your car’s wheels to turn freely, with as little friction as possible. They also keep your car’s wheels attached securely to your vehicle, and support the weight of your car, all of which rests on your wheels.
Each wheel bearing is inset into a wheel hub. A wheel and its tire are bolted onto the moving part of the hub, which allows the wheel to turn as the car moves. The non-moving part of the hub is attached to the car’s suspension. Inside your wheel bearings are moving parts built to very close tolerances, which are lubricated to keep them moving smoothly around each other. Depending on the make, model, and year of your vehicle, these will usually be either roller bearings or ball bearings.
Many vehicles that were made before the turn of the 21st Century have a type of wheel bearing that can be cleaned and repacked with lubricating grease at regular intervals. The cars, trucks, and SUVs made since then have sealed bearings, which cannot be serviced and are simply replaced when they wear out. This can happen as your wheel bearings age, wear, or are damaged.
What are the signs of bad wheel bearings?
Your wheel bearings operate in a hostile environment. Located inside your wheel wells, directly connected to the rotating wheels, they are exposed to heat and cold, precipitation of many kinds, as well as every bump and pothole that your wheels hit. Here are some of the signs of bad wheel bearings:
Unusual noises coming from your wheels
This is a common symptom of a bad wheel bearing. You will hear noise when the wheels are turning. It can get louder at higher speeds, or when you make a turn. The noise can be a specific type (such as a grinding noise) or a combination, depending on the kind and extent of the damage, including:
Problems with your car’s handling
Because your wheel bearings both support your wheels and allow them to rotate with minimal friction, damaged wheel bearings will directly affect the way your car handles. You may notice this effect of bad wheel bearings in a few different ways:
- Your car feels loose, like the wheels are not solidly attached
- Your car pulls to one side, at random or when you brake
- Your car responds sluggishly to steering inputs
Vibrations and wobbling
Bad wheel bearings lose their precision and tight manufacturing clearances as they wear out. This produces a looseness in the structure of the wheel bearings, which creates an opportunity for a variety of vibrations to be transmitted to the driver and passengers when the car is in motion. You may feel this through the steering wheel if your front wheel bearings are bad, as well as through the seats and the body. In extreme cases a “death wobble” can make you feel like the car is shaking itself apart at higher speeds. If you experience this, carefully slow down and pull off the road immediately. Your car is not safe to drive. Have your car towed to an auto repair shop immediately.
Uneven tire wear
If you are following the basic routine maintenance procedures that will prolong the life of your car, then you should be regularly checking the pressure and general condition of your tires. Doing this will alert you to uneven tire wear, which is a sign of bad wheel bearings. As bad wheel bearings wear out, the wheels can move around in ways that they normally could not, losing their proper alignment and wearing the tires unevenly. This uneven wear will get worse as your wheel bearings deteriorate.
Smoke pouring out of your wheel
If you see this happen, you have definitely waited too long for repairs! Your bad wheel bearing is so far gone that the intense friction and heat, produced by its damaged internal parts, has ignited what’s left of the original grease. Failure is imminent – call a tow truck!
Your wheel separates from your car
You have hit the jackpot of neglect! Instead of dealing with a bad wheel bearing when the symptoms were much less severe, you have allowed things to progress to total disintegration. The wheel bearing has been totally destroyed and is unable to retain the wheel. Off it goes, rolling away to parts unknown. Without a wheel, you will now experience your wildest driving adventure – especially if you lose a front wheel at highway speeds, and then try to steer your car to safety. You’re on your own!
What causes a bad wheel bearing?
The primary causes of a bad wheel bearing are:
- Wear and tear
- Moisture infiltration
- Corrosion on the interior parts
- An impact with a curb or a pothole
- An accident
When a wheel bearing wears out or gets damaged, its seals often fail first. The wheel bearing can then lose its lubrication, and this can also allow moisture to enter the wheel bearing. Loss of lubrication leads to dry metal parts coming into direct contact, and moisture creates corrosion and pitting on the finely machined surfaces. Dirt and debris can also enter the wheel bearings when this happens, adding more harmful contaminants. The result is that the wheel bearing will eventually grind itself to destruction.
Is it safe to drive with a wheel bearing problem?
It’s not a good idea to drive with a bad wheel bearing, for a variety of reasons:
- You can’t be sure exactly how far gone your wheel bearing is, and how close to total failure
- If your wheel bearing was damaged by an impact, most of the damage has already been done
- A bad wheel bearing can eventually destroy your brakes, tires, and other parts of your suspension
- When your wheel bearing goes, your wheel could lock up or detach from your vehicle, causing a dangerous situation
As soon as you suspect that you have a bad wheel bearing, call a mechanic immediately and have the problem fixed. It’s just not worth the risk.
How do you replace wheel bearings?
There can be quite a lot of variability in the process of replacing your bad wheel bearings. The exact process depends on the suspension and wheel hub assembly of your specific vehicle, as well as whether there are drive axles on the wheels involved.
The mechanic will place your vehicle on a lift, and then raise it up so that it can be worked on. The wheel and tire, and then the brake disc or drum, and related parts, will be removed. On some vehicles, the bearing and wheel hub can be easily unbolted from the steering knuckle, and a new one bolted back on. On others, a hydraulic press is necessary to remove the bad wheel bearings and insert the new ones. Any other related components that are damaged should also be repaired or replaced. After everything is back together, your car will be road-tested to be sure that your new wheel bearings are working correctly.
If your vehicle has 100,000 or more miles on it, it is a good idea to replace both wheel bearings at that end of the vehicle, even if only one has gone bad. The other one may not be far behind.
What is the life expectancy of a wheel bearing?
Wheel bearings can last a very long time, but that does not necessarily mean forever. It is not unusual for wheel bearings to last between 100,000 and 150,000 under ideal conditions. If your vehicle is regularly exposed to extreme heat or cold, heavy snow or rain, disintegrating roads, or off-road driving, your wheel bearings may well have a shorter life, and need replacement sooner.
How often do wheel bearings need servicing?
The wheel bearings in most modern passenger vehicles are sealed, and therefore require no maintenance. If they go bad, they are replaced. Some vehicles do have wheel bearings that require routine servicing at regular intervals. Check your owner’s manual for information on whether your wheel bearings require servicing.
How much does wheel bearing replacement cost?
As with most types of car repairs, prices can vary widely, depending on who is doing the job, the degree of difficulty, and the total cost of the parts. Because the wheel bearings live inside your wheel wells in a hostile environment, there can be rust and corrosion for the mechanic to deal with, as well as other related parts of the suspension and braking system that could also need repair or replacement. If your car has four-wheel drive or front-wheel drive, the wheel bearings on those drive wheels can require other parts to be moved out of the way before the bad wheel bearings can be removed and the new ones installed. Labor costs can be a major component of your total repair cost, ranging from $150 to $300.
Depending on the year, make, and model of your car, the average cost of replacing the wheel bearings could run anywhere from at least $100 to well over a thousand dollars. The best course of action is to call several well-rated car repair shops, and get some firm estimates of repair costs for the wheel bearings that fit your specific vehicle.
Is it worth replacing your wheel bearings?
If you do need your wheel bearings repaired, and your car is otherwise in good running condition, it is definitely worth fixing your wheel bearings. First and foremost, this is because you can’t drive your car safely if the wheels won’t stay on your car! The consequences of losing a wheel while you are driving can be truly tragic.
On the other hand, if your car is very old, has a lot of miles on it, is not particularly reliable, and the cost of fixing your wheel bearings or getting new bearings is high, you have a decision to make. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What is your car worth?
- How many miles are on it?
- Does your car have any other chronic issues that could result in a big repair soon?
- Will the brakes or tires need replacement soon?
- Is it time to cut your losses and get rid of your car now?
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