Most car owners understand the importance of well-maintained tires for a safe and fuel-efficient vehicle. After all, a car simply cannot function properly without good, reliable wheels.
But while most owners perform the habitual checks on tires such as tire pressure, tread depth, and tire alignment, the wheel is far from a simple component. And often, one of the most crucial parts of the drive-axle and steering assembly that’s overlooked, are the wheel bearings. Nevertheless, wheel bearings are not only important in promoting efficient wheel rotation, but they also help keep the wheels on your vehicle while supporting the weight of your vehicle.
A set of steel balls housed in a metal ring called a race, wheel bearings are engineered to last 100,000 miles if properly maintained and regularly checked, regardless of whether or not they are the newer hub-assembly style bearings or the older-style bearings. It is recommended, though, that older circle bearings be regularly checked once they reach around 60,000 miles.
But like any other mechanical part of your vehicle (especially ones that rotate, rub and roll), wheel bearings will give way to wear and tear.
To know when it’s time for your wheel bearings to get looked at by an automotive professional, here are five tell-tale signs that your wheel bearings need replacement.
Any mechanical part that rotates, rolls and rubs as much as wheel bearings do are packed with heavy multi purpose grease to lubricate them, reduce friction, and protect them. One of the main and most identifiable symptoms indicating that you may have an issue with your wheel bearings is an unusual noise coming from your wheel.
The noise will vary, but the most common sounds are cyclic chirping, growling, or rumbling noises. These can indicate that the seal (that keeps the grease in, and water and other contaminants out) has started to leak, which is causing problems. The sounds you hear can differentiate at certain speeds, getting louder or disappearing as your vehicle accelerates or decelerates.
Uneven Tire Wear
Another immediate and easily recognizable sign of faulty wheel bearings is uneven tire wear.
When wheel bearings start to fail, they begin to loosen within their housing, allowing the wheels to wobble slightly as they travel down the road. Also called “bearing play,” this particular type of looseness is not immediately felt through the steering wheel, but rather through a visual inspection of your tires. If the tires to your vehicle appear to be excessively worn despite regularly rotating your tires or routine wheel alignments and maintenance checks, then it may be time to have your wheel bearings assessed.
Pulling While Driving
Wheel bearings that are in near perfect condition allow your car’s maneuverability to feel tight, responsive and controlled. If you start finding that your vehicle has the tendency to wander, or feels less responsive or less precise than usual, this can be symptomatic of defective wheel bearings.
While the problem may not simply rest with the wheel bearings, as it could be indicative of a bigger drivetrain issue, it could certainly be the culprit. A professional mechanic can diagnose the problem and determine whether or not the wheel bearings are the cause of the problem.
Steering Wheel Problems
A related phenomenon to your vehicle feeling less responsive or pulling in a certain direction is the visible vibration or wobble felt through your steering wheel. When wheel bearings corrode, this corrosion transfers to the steering wheel, giving it the feeling of unwarranted pulling.
Wheel bearings are not the only cause of a loose steering wheel or one that has the tendency to pull. Feeling a pull in the steering wheel is a common symptom for other mechanical problems in the drivetrain and steering assembly. However, a vibration that’s felt at slower speeds and becomes noticeably worse as the vehicle accelerates is a good indicator that it could be a wheel bearing problem.
Issues With Braking
While the classic symptom of a bad wheel bearing is a cyclic chirping, squealing, or growling noise, an audible clicking sound as the vehicle accelerates is indicative of a problem with the wheel hub assembly, which houses the wheel bearings. Excessive runout due to severe looseness related to worn or damaged bearings can cause brakes to pulsate and pull when brakes are applied. Uneven wear on brake pads are also visible. If the problem persists and the wheel bearings aren’t checked and replaced, ABS failure may occur, which could be suggestive of a loose bearing clamp that will result in excessive movement caused by too much end play, damaging the internal and external sensors.
If any of these symptoms present themselves, they can compromise the effectiveness of your vehicle and may lead to further catastrophic failure if left unattended. While these circle bearings are often an overlooked component of the drivetrain assembly, proper maintenance of your wheel bearings is crucial to the longevity of your vehicle. Any long-term neglect of this component will result in the eventuality of your wheel literally coming off while driving.
By attuning yourself to these tell-tale signs, you can quickly and readily be prepared to diagnose the situation.
Hassanein Alwan is the Marketing Director for Mineral Circles Bearings. He boasts of more than 10 years’ experience in the bearing industry’s technical support division, sales and marketing, with expertise in strategic business development consultancy.
With a degree of Master of Science in Engineering from KTH Royal Institute of Technology and an International Diploma in Business from the University of Cambridge, he started his career in Sweden as a Machine Safety engineer for Gröna Lund and as SAAB Aerosystems’ Aeronautical engineer. Today, he serves as a member of the Know Your Market Committee after joining EPTDA in 2013.