Signs of Bad Wheel Bearings
Because they literally bear so much weight, wheel bearings wear out just like most other moving components in a vehicle. Regardless of what ultimately causes wheel bearing malfunctioning or wearing out over time, it is important to understand and recognize the signs of symptoms of bad wheel bearings so that you can fix the problem as soon as it arises.
An unusual noise coming from the bearing assembly is usually the first and most common symptom of a bad wheel bearing. More specifically, humming, rumbling, squealing, or grinding noises during cornering or acceleration are often caused by a breach in the bearing assembly seal, ultimately causing a lack of lubrication for the ball bearings.
These noises often get louder during acceleration and cornering and can usually be easily traced to either the front wheel bearings or rear wheel bearings depending on the location from which the noise is coming. Though other worn components can make similar noises to worn wheel bearings, they are often distinguished by an increase in volume when accelerating and cornering.
Worn wheel bearings can make similar noises to worn ball bearings, brake assembly components, differential components, and other drivetrain-related issues. Bad ball joints usually make a popping or clicking noise when cornering, differential issues usually create noises more akin to howling and more upon deceleration, and bad brake pads and brake rotors usually squeal during braking.
Numb, Vibrating, or Loose Steering:
The noise alone is not always the definitive indicator of worn wheel bearings. Numbness or a general feeling of steering wheel looseness can be another indicator of bad front wheel bearings. Regardless of how much a car owner knows about maintenance and vehicle issues, it should become apparent when their vehicle starts feeling and behaving differently than normal.
Looseness and steering wheel vibration can also be caused by suspension and ball joint problems, but the decreased confidence in vehicle control should be reason enough to have the issue investigated immediately.
Vehicle Pulling to One Side:
The first thing that comes to mind when a vehicle starts to track to one side of the road is that it has an alignment issue. This is usually the case when there are no accompanying noises or unusual steering wheel feel, but the looseness of the bearing assembly within the hub can be the ultimate cause of a misaligned wheel track.
Uneven Tire Wear:
With alignment issues often come uneven or unusual tire wear. Of course, this can also happen when your vehicle’s tires are not properly inflated, but if your wheel bearings are bad, the looseness can result in the same damage as would improper tire inflation or misaligned wheels.
This is not always the most obvious sign of worn wheel bearings by itself, but if you notice uneven or excessive treadwear along with the other common symptoms of bad wheel bearings, it can become quite obvious. Fortunately, if you do suspect worn wheel bearings, your treadwear is an easily visible sign without having to dig through multiple vehicle components.
Braking and ABS System Issues:
A less common symptom of worn wheel bearings is problems that arise within the braking system. Again, this has much to do with the overall looseness that comes from a worn bearing not fitting tightly within the wheel hub assembly, but in some cases, a bad wheel bearing can cause the ABS warning light to illuminate.
Even if the ABS system warning light does not come on, a worn wheel bearing can create general braking feel issues and can even damage the brake rotors and brake pads if there is any looseness between the drive axle and wheel hub assembly.
What Causes Wheel Bearings to Wear Out?
Though they usually do not have to be replaced as often as engine oil and tires, quality wheel bearings can last for well beyond 100,000 miles under normal driving conditions. But, there are several things that can shorten their lifespan, including some things that may surprise you.
Age is inevitable and it is the most common cause of any component’s failure. Things wear out when they get used for long periods of time, including wheel bearings. Even if you keep your vehicle pristine, have no accidents, and take care of every single maintenance need, you will still eventually need to replace your wheel bearings from general use.
Adverse or Extreme Weather:
The environment in which you own your vehicle can have an adverse effect on its condition. Things like extreme heat, extreme cold, large swings between the two, and road salt can all have negative effects on each component within your vehicle. Road salt is especially corrosive and can eat away at exposed components, eventually penetrating into sealed components.
Potholes and Poor Roads:
Poorly maintained roads, roads with many potholes, and even speed bumps can all accelerate wheel bearing failure because of the added stress that these things place on the suspension and wheel assembly. This is just one reason that vehicles bought and used within the northeast of the country are often passed over for those bought and maintained in Florida or California.
Wheels and tires that are not properly balanced or aligned, or ones that are not balanced at all can also cause undue stress on wheel bearings. This may not have the immediately jarring impact like a pothole or a particularly bumpy road, but it will wear them slower and cause premature failure.
Any car accident can cause the failure of just about any component within a vehicle. If the damage is extensive enough, the car will be totaled. The wheel assembly, though, is a prime culprit for even minor accidents since it is an exposed component. Both the front wheel bearings and rear wheel bearings are always at high risk for damage during an accident as a result of any impact to the wheels, wheel assembly, or hub assembly.
Many people forget that their driving style can have a negative effect on their vehicle’s lifespan as a whole. Aggressive drivers generally use more fuel than more passive drivers, but they also contribute to faster wear and tear on nearly all components of their vehicle. The wheel bearings take an especially hard beating because of the axial and radial loads they carry during cornering, braking, and acceleration.
The quality of the parts you install has a great impact on their longevity. Recalls often happen because of a manufacturing flaw or because the quality of an installed part is known to be shoddy. Just with everything else, quality wheel bearings will hold up better over time than the cheapest and most quickly deliverable products.
If you need your wheel bearings replaced, it is important to find a reputable repair shop that has good reviews so that you know their work is good. A repair shop known to rush and do poor work will not bode well for the life of any part they install.
It is possible to replace your own wheel bearings at home, but as with everything, it is important to know what you are doing. Of course, there is a first for everything, and you have to start somewhere, but installing something as important as wheel bearings incorrectly could have dire consequences, or, at the very least, can decrease their lifespan significantly.
Replacing Your Worn-Out Wheel Bearings
Compared to other auto repairs, wheel bearing replacement is usually quite inexpensive. Repair Pal estimates that it can cost between $300 and $400 on average to replace worn wheel bearings, including parts and labor. For parts that carry so much weight – literally – this is a small price to pay compared to the safety ramifications if left alone.
Replacing the wheel bearings yourself will only cost the parts and your time. In order to access the wheel bearings, you will need to remove the wheel hub assembly, including the brake calipers and rotors.
Do You Need New Wheel Bearings?
Given all this information, the question is whether or not you need new wheel bearings. If, while driving, you experience any one of the common symptoms of wheel bearing failure, it is a good idea to have your vehicle checked out at the very least. If you experience two or more worn wheel-bearing signs, you should take your vehicle to your favorite repair shop immediately.
Bad wheel bearings not only affect your vehicle’s safety, but they can have an adverse effect on other close components like your CV shaft, driveshaft, axle shaft, other drivetrain components, and of course, your tires and brakes.
What Even Are Wheel Bearings?
Wheel bearings are circular components that contain ball bearings, roller bearings, or tapers contained within a metal ring. The entire bearing assembly looks like a metal doughnut, and it fits tightly within the wheel hub at the end of the drive axle. The set of steel balls within the bearing assembly allow certain components to move freely while keeping others stationary.
Components of the hub assembly such as the brake pads and brake caliper are not permitted to move while the brake rotor and wheel can spin freely and securely as long as the wheel bearings remain tight, retaining the proper lubrication within the bearing assembly. When the bearings wear out or become damaged, the entire hub and wheel assembly can become loose.
Bad wheel bearings can pose a safety hazard while driving since they help bear both the axial and radial loads on the hub assembly created by your everyday driving habits. Replacing them is a relatively inexpensive fix that is crucial if you suspect that your wheel bearings are starting to wear out or malfunction.
Unfortunately, strange grinding or humming noises can be a preliminary sign of bad wheel bearings, a part of the vehicle about which few people think, despite its importance. Not only do wheel bearings help maintain a smooth ride, but they are also crucial to the connection between the drive axle and wheel hub assembly.