You might think the wheel bearing is just another unnecessary part of your vehicle. However, you shouldn’t take it lightly if you’re experiencing a bad wheel bearing. If left unaddressed, it could lead to more significant issues. So, it’s best to act swiftly and care for the problem immediately.
This article will discuss the various symptoms of a bad wheel bearing, why it fails, and probably most importantly, how to tell and how much you might have to spend to fix it.
So without further ado, let’s get started.
Brief Overview Of Wheel Bearings
Wheel bearings are essential components of any wheeled vehicle, connecting the wheel to the axle. It’s a circular metal ring composed of small ball bearings or tapered bearings and a metal housing.
Its purpose is to enable the wheels to rotate freely and with minimal friction while also helping to support the car’s weight and absorb vibration. Without it, the wheels would not be able to turn properly.
Moreover, wheel bearings ensure even load distribution, reducing friction and wear, and they absorb shocks, making the wheel more maneuverable over uneven surfaces.
Furthermore, they are necessary for proper wheel alignment, as they absorb acceleration and deceleration forces. Otherwise, the alignment would be an issue, leading to premature tire wear and further damage to the wheel. Finally, wheel bearings reduce operating noise and vibration for a more comfortable ride.
What are the Symptoms of a Bad Wheel Bearing?
The most common symptom of a bad wheel bearing failure is strange noises that are very speed dependent. This includes humming, squealing, or growling noises that get worse the faster you go or turn. Other common symptoms are vibrations or a feeling of excessive play in the steering wheel.
1. Strange Noises That are Speed Dependent
One of the most common signs of a bad wheel bearing is strange noises from the wheel area. If you hear a loud grinding, growling, or humming noise that increases in volume when you turn or accelerate, there’s a good chance you have a bad wheel bearing. You may also notice an intermittent clicking sound when you accelerate or turn the wheel.
Regardless of the exact sound, any noise coming from the wheel area should be addressed immediately.
2. Vibrations in the Steering Wheel
Vibrations are also a tell-tale sign that something is amiss with your wheel bearing. When you’re on the move, you may start to feel a shaking sensation from your steering wheel. This is often caused by an excess “play” from a loose or worn-out wheel bearing.
The vibrations may be more pronounced at certain speeds or when turning corners. Pay attention to the way your car is behaving, and don’t put off taking action if you think it’s necessary.
3. Looseness and Excessive Steering Wheel Play
If the steering feels loose or if there’s excessive play in a steering wheel, in other words, if the steering feels unresponsive or abnormal, it many times is a sign of a worn-out wheel bearing. It’s an ever-so-subtle symptom that should not be ignored as it can indicate a much more serious issue.
At this stage, however, it would be strange if you didn’t hear a growling sound that increases as you put a strain on the bearing, such as when turning or going faster.
4. ABS Malfunction
The wheel bearing rarely comes to mind when discussing ABS components, yet it plays a direct role in the system. Suppose the bearing is worn to the extent that the wheel wobbles about its axis; it is very likely that an error code will be stored. This means you might see an ABS light or other warning light pop up.
To explain further, many front-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles have tone rings (or reluctor rings) attached to the axle.
In cases where the speed sensor is mounted on the hub, it is placed at a fixed distance from the spinning ring. When the bearing fails, this distance changes, resulting in the speed sensor having brief intervals with no signal. In rare cases, the axle can even damage the sensor.
5. Vehicle Pulls to One Side
In some cases, a bad wheel bearing could cause your vehicle to pull to one side when applying brakes. However, this isn’t very common and is more likely an indication that you’ve got an issue with your brakes, such as a sticking brake caliper, faulty master cylinder, or unevenly worn brake pads.
So if this is the case, you should also check the brakes before deciding to do expensive and maybe unnecessary repairs.
What Causes a Wheel Bearing to Go Bad?
The most common cause of why a wheel bearing goes bad is normal wear and tear. Wheel bearings have to withstand constant strain and beating. However, a few things can cause excessive or premature wear to the bearing. This includes improper installation, bad road conditions, suspension or tire modifications and driving habits.
Let’s take a closer look at what causes a wheel bearing to go bad:
Improper Installation – If the bearing isn’t properly installed, it can have catastrophic consequences, as the slightest mistake in installation can lead to its premature failure. When installing a wheel bearing, it’s essential to use the popper tools to ensure a proper fit and to avoid damaging the part.
You also want to replace old bolts, nuts, split pins, circlips, etc., as this, too, can negatively affect the wheel bearing wear.
Bad Road Conditions – The roads we drive on today are not always in the best condition. From potholes to bumps, these conditions can significantly impact your vehicle’s performance and longevity. The bearings do a tough job of supporting the vehicle’s weight and allowing the wheels to rotate smoothly.
So when the road conditions are poor, the wheel bearing can take a beating, leading to premature failure.
Poor Wheel Bearing Quality – The wheel bearing quality can significantly impact the longevity and lead to premature wear, increased noise, vibration, and heat. As a result, the bearing can become damaged, leading to a lack of performance and a greater risk of failure.
Driving Habits – Good driving habits are essential in keeping your car running smoothly and efficiently. Hard cornering, accelerating, or unnecessarily fast stops will put much more strain on your wheel bearings, causing them to wear prematurely.
Car Modifications – When fitting bigger or wider rims, lowering tire threads, or doing modifications to the suspension, the wheel bearing must be able to handle the increase in load. If the wheel bearing is not up to the task, it can eventually become damaged or worn out, leading to wheel bearing failure. The best thing to do is to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
How to Diagnose a Bad Wheel Bearing?
The best way to diagnose a bad wheel bearing is to start driving down the road while paying attention to any noise that increases with speed. If so, the next thing you want to do is to check the wheel for excessive play and clunkiness. This confirms a bad wheel bearing.
Many people believe that diagnosing a wheel bearing is a daunting task. But most times, it’s actually not. Since a bad wheel bearing usually causes these loud noises that are very speed dependent, that also increase with more load, such as when turning, that’s usually all it takes to determine the cause.
But to ensure you’re correct, let’s walk through the steps to diagnose a bad wheel bearing. Here’s what you want to do:
Step #1. Road Test
Start by driving down the road and pay attention to any noises that seem out of the ordinary. These can include grinding, growling, or humming, which increase with speed. You might not hear them as much when going slow, but as you go faster, the frequency increases.
Step #2. Check for Play
Lift the vehicle off the ground and grab the wheel at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions. Shake it to check for any play or clunkiness. Do the same for the 12 and 6 o’clock positions. If there is any play, it’s likely that the wheel bearing is bad and needs to be replaced.
Step #3. Manually Spin the Wheel
The final way to confirm a bad wheel bearing is to spin the wheel. If it’s really bad, you’ll be able to hear it by manually spinning it by hand. If so, it confirms a bad wheel bearing.
How Much Does It Cost to Fix Wheel Bearing?
The cost of replacing a bad wheel bearing can vary depending on the make and model of your vehicle. On average, you can expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $300 for bolted hub bearings and $200 to $450 or more for pressed-on hub bearings. This includes both labor and cost.
Since replacing a pressed-on wheel bearing usually is a complex and time-consuming job that often requires removing the whole steering knuckle. The labor is often the biggest chunk.
Suppose you’re having the job done professionally. In that case, the technician might also inspect the other components of the steering and suspension to ensure that everything is in proper working order.
This might seem like an unnecessary thing to do. However, depending on how long you’ve been driving with a faulty wheel bearing, you may have other parts that are soon about to break down. This will surely add to the repair cost, but it might be the best choice to ensure the safety of your vehicle.
How Long Do Wheel Bearings Last?
In general, wheel bearings are designed to last for around 85,000 to 100,000 miles under normal driving conditions. However, this can vary greatly depending on the bearing type, quality, and how much load, strain, and beating the wheel bearing is subjected to.
With that said, it’s hard to say how long you can expect a wheel bearing to last, as so many factors are to consider. But you can do a few things to help prevent it from going bad.
How Do You Prevent a Bad Wheel Bearing?
Besides trying to avoid driving on too bumpy roads and hitting potholes, which is easier said than done, normal wear and tear is typically something we can’t do anything about.
But one of the most effective ways to prevent a bad wheel bearing is to ensure that your tires are properly inflated and balanced and that your wheels are properly aligned. This will minimize unnecessary vibrations and, therefore, strain and load on the wheel bearings, resulting in a longer lifespan.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Happens If a Wheel Bearing Fails While Driving?
Besides leading to extreme wear on suspension parts, including the CV joint, axle, tires, and other parts of the drive train, the wheel bearing can, in a worst-case scenario, totally seize if it fails while driving. This could be extremely dangerous since your wheel may lock up, causing a crash or accident.
Can I Drive With Bad Wheel Bearings
No, you should not drive with bad wheel bearings as it could lead to further damage to your vehicle and possibly be dangerous. If you suspect or know you have a bad wheel bearing, you should get it fixed as soon as possible.
Can You Fix a Wheel Bearing Without Replacing It?
No, wheel bearings are designed to be replaced when worn or damaged. Since the wheel bearing is a sealed unit, it cannot be disassembled without destroying it.
Can You Just Replace One Wheel Bearing?
Yes, it is possible to replace just one wheel bearing. While only replacing the bad one will save you money, replacing both wheel bearings could save you the effort of having to return for repair soon, which may be more cost-efficient in the long run.
How Long Will a Wheel Bearing Last After It Starts Making Noise?
According to way.com, you should avoid exceeding 500 miles once you notice any signs of a bad wheel bearing. You must do so to avoid dangerous situations where the wheel bearing completely fails. This means you could end up with a locked wheel, leading to accidents.