Being a car guy in Pennsylvania sucks. Our roads are terrible, and the road salt might as well be a swarm of locusts hungry for car parts. Anyone from here will tell you that part of the local experience is spending a lot of time cleaning up and repairing things in the wheel wells of your treasured vehicles. That includes the wheel hub and, even deeper, the wheel bearings.
When those rough driving conditions are combined with bad luck and, perhaps, a bit of abuse, the wheel bearings are forced to withstand an immeasurable amount of wear and tear, and they don’t last forever. Eventually, they start to fail, and your ride starts to show signs that it might be time for a repair or complete replacement. You might hear clunks, whirring, humming, grinding, or clicking, or you might feel the chatter during regular driving. Loose steering feel, wheel lock, or uneven tire wear might also indicate an issue.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, you need to stop driving and plan a repair. You’re in the right place for that, as Car Autance is here to talk about everything wheel bearings, including what they do, what happens when they fail, and a little bit about what goes into repairing them, regardless of the state you live in. Let’s get started.
What Is a Wheel Bearing Anyway?
What happens when metal rides on metal? Friction! It slows things down and chews things up like nobody’s business. Bearings are the solution.
A roller bearing is made up of rollers in a cage. The rollers are responsible for supporting the load, but they spin in place, which helps to reduce friction. This is a massive oversimplification, but the idea is that they work to keep things moving freely while reducing wear.
A wheel bearing is simply the bearing that the wheel assembly rides on. Well, the wheel itself doesn’t ride on the bearing. Rather, it’s the hub that the wheel is mounted to that rides on the bearing.
Not all wheel bearings are the same, though. A couple of things determine what kind of wheel bearings are present. For the most part, the drive type, what kind of steering knuckles are used, and the position of the wheel bearing all influence what type is used. Still, most vehicles, unless we’re talking about those with straight axles and axle bearings, feature either a tapered roller bearing or a ball bearing setup.
Taper roller bearings are typically found on older vehicles with a spindle-type steering knuckle. The wheel and hub assembly ride on the spindle, and an inner and outer bearing are necessary to the function.
Most modern cars, on the other hand, use ball bearings for the hub-type steering knuckle. Rather than riding on the spindle, the hub is set into the center of the steering knuckle. The ball bearings are held in a cylindrical body that fits in that opening, allowing things to move freely.
How Do I Know If My Wheel Bearings Are Shot?
So, how do you know if your wheel bearings are bad? Well, there are a few signs to keep an eye on and one quick test you can perform. In most cases, shakes, grinding, humming, and play in the steering wheel are all signs that the wheel bearings are suspect. I have seen wheel bearings do some funny things, though.
Weird Noises and Shaking
I’ve heard wheel bearings that gave off a humming sound like that off poorly aligned tires with some metallic clinking thrown in the mix. Other times, a shake was present, along with a slight grinding noise. I’ve even heard them sound like full-on spaceships as you drive along the road with no shakes or issues that would otherwise indicate there is an issue.
Wheels Are Physically Loose
To err on the side of caution, whenever you think it might be the wheel bearings, the best thing to do is physically check them. That entails simply jacking the vehicle up and giving the tire a couple of shakes.
Get the vehicle on jack stands and check the wheels by giving them some back-and-forth tugs. If you notice that there’s play top to bottom and side to side, you can pretty much determine that it’s a bad wheel bearing. It helps to keep an eye on steering components while you do this, as loose ball joints and tie rod ends can also allow for some play in the wheel assembly.
Steering Wheel Feels Loose
Small issues like bad wheel bearings can translate to bigger problems like worse steering. If you notice extra play in the steering wheel or generally looser steering, that might be a result of failing bearings.
Can I Fix My Own Wheel Bearings?
Replacing wheel bearings is absolutely a job you can do at home, but it takes some effort and patience. Take note of our safety tips, check out which tools you need, and follow our instructions below to tackle the job on your own.
Working with wheel bearings is one of those jobs that’s vastly understated on paper. Don’t listen to what others say, this job can be extremely frustrating, so keep your head on straight.
- Take your time. Don’t let the clock get in your head because it’s really easy to start skipping details when it does, and that can be dangerous.
- Don’t get under the vehicle or start beating things with a hammer if it isn’t properly secured. Make sure you’re working on level ground, the wheels are secured, and that you have the vehicle on jack stands.
- Make sure you throw on safety glasses and protective gloves. We know from experience that this job will tear your hands to shreds and pester your eyes if things go wrong.
Tools You’ll Need
Take note that this is a general guide. The tools and materials you’ll need are heavily dependent on the application, as not all wheel bearing service jobs are the same. That said, you can expect to break out the following tools:
- A good-sized hammer (small sledge, at least)
- Chisel and punch set
- Bearing press and/or a bearing puller for wheel bearings
- Your socket and ratchet set
- Wheel bearing grease (spindle-type assemblies)
- Brake caliper service set (for disc brakes)
- Ball joint separators (If steering knuckle needs to be removed)
The Job: How To Replace Wheel Bearings
Follow these steps.
1. Free the axle nut (hub-type knuckles).
On vehicles with a hub-type knuckle and CV axles, you will need to remove the axle nut. If you don’t have an impact, pop off the center cap of your wheel with the vehicle on the ground. You can access the nut through the opening and use a breaker bar to get it free. Keep in mind that these axle nuts are often crimped with a punch to keep them from backing off. You may need to take the wheel off, undo this crimp and reinstall the wheel to proceed.
2. Remove the wheel.
To get to the wheel bearing, the wheel will need to be removed. So, jack the car up, set it on jack stands, and get ready to tear into things.
3. Remove the caliper and rotor.
If you’re working with a spindle-type assembly, you must remove the spindle nut to remove the rotors or brake drum as well. Your brake caliper will need to be removed, as well, so be ready to break that free. Reinstalling it is why you’ll want either a c-clamp or brake installation kit for this job.
4. Remove the hardware securing hub assembly (hub-type knuckles).
A few bolts secure the hub assembly on hub-type knuckles, and you will need to remove them. You can generally expect these bits to give you a hard time, so a little bit of penetrating oil and a torch might be necessary.
5. Knock the old bearing(s) free.
With a spindle-type assembly, the outer bearing should fall out of place or at least slide free with relative ease. The inner bearing may require a punch to get moving. Hub-type assemblies typically take a little more work. If the hub and bearing are being replaced together, you may be able to knock the assembly free with a hammer. If you’re only replacing the bearings, you will need to use a bearing puller or press to remove the bearing. If you’re working with a spindle, make sure to break out the punches and bust those old races free from inside the drums or hub assembly as they do wear with the bearings and will need to be replaced.
(Note: Be mindful of your ABS sensors on modern vehicles. They are present in the opening that your hub sits in, and you can easily damage them if you work carelessly.)
6. Clean the mating surfaces.
You want to clean all of the mating surfaces. Ensure that there are no signs of corrosion on the bearing surfaces and take the time to clean any of the threads.
7. Pack your tapered bearings (spindle-type assemblies).
Packing bearings is a terrible job, so be patient. Throw on your nitrile gloves, pick up a handful of grease and get packing.
8. Install everything in the reverse order.
You are now ready to start installing things. For the most part, everything goes on in reverse order. Spindle assemblies are rather simple because you simply need to install the races with the same punches you used before (being careful not to mar the surface), then sliding the new bearings in place, which might drive in place. Some assemblies may require a press for this as well, though.
The Thing Is Stuck. What Now?
The minute you get to the wheel bearing, you’re going to realize that the world lied to you. This isn’t an easy job. That wheel bearing is practically welded into place. You’re angry. You’re confused. You’re scared. You need that car on the road tomorrow and you’re in for the fight of your life.
I’ve been there, and I’ll tell you that you need to prepare for the worst-case scenario before you get going.
Maybe you’ll be lucky and have the wheel bearing pop right out of a hub-type knuckle with a couple of love taps from your hammer. I’ve only heard of this happening, but it is possible. In my experience, that thing never wants to come free, and it’s almost guaranteed you’ll need to press it out of place with specialty equipment, or spend a good amount of time clubbing it free.
Specialty bearing puller kits are great for wheel bearings, but if you have the option, a bearing press is your best friend. It’s my personal opinion that it’s best to prepare to remove the steering knuckle with the hub assembly in place and take it to a hydraulic press. You can buy a cheap press from the local freight company, and that will save you so much time and frustration.
In a bind, you can opt to clamp the knuckle into a bench vise and smash it out with a hammer. I’ve done it on several occasions, but it’s not the best practice and I won’t recommend doing so. You can easily damage the steering knuckle, and you’re likely to break the head right off your hammer or blow your bench vise to smithereens.
If you’re working with a spindle assembly, stuck bearings are a little easier to deal with. Often, you can use a punch and some ginger taps to inspire movement. If that doesn’t work, some heat from a torch should do the trick.
Some Tips for Installation
Once the bearing is off, you’re pretty much home free. They often go on much easier than they were to remove, and you just need to motivate yourself to get everything back together. However, you need to think about your future self if you’re pressing bearings back in place.
Do yourself the favor of trying to prevent the wheel bearings from seizing into place again. It’s a good idea to clean up the surfaces they sit in, so take some steel wool and deal with any signs of corrosion and knock down any burrs that might be present. After that, load the thing up with some anti-seize. You might turn into the silver surfer with just one touch, but it really will help keep you sane. The same idea applies to spindle-type steering knuckles.
If you’re dealing with tapered roller bearings, make sure you pack them with as much grease as they can handle. It’s also a messy job but rushing through this step or skipping it altogether ensures that you’ll be replacing those bearings in just a few miles.
Don’t forget your hardware either. Take the time to clean it up or even replace it if necessary. Otherwise, it’s likely that they too will lock up and even snap off, making for an even bigger nightmare. Trust me, nothing will ruin your weekend like busted hardware and a wheel bearing that’s frozen in place.
The Wheel Bearings Glossary
Welcome to Autance School!
A component that aids an object in rotation. The bearing features rollers that both support load and reduce friction. This makes for smooth operation and minimizes wear.
The point at which the wheel is mounted to the vehicle. This is the area where your lug nuts are found. It either rides on the spindle or is held in place by some hardware, riding on the wheel bearing in either configuration.
The pivot point of your steering system. It also serves as the mounting location for your wheel and braking system. Steering knuckles can be broken into two main groups: spindle-types and hub types. Spindle types feature a spindle that the hub assembly rides on, hub types have a large opening for the hub and wheel bearing assembly to fit into.
The Wheel Bearings Questionnaire
You have the questions, Car Autance has the answers.
Q. Can you drive a car with a bad wheel bearing?
A. You can, but you shouldn’t. Bad wheel bearings can be dangerous, and as such,you need to take them seriously. Whenever a mechanical component is on its way out, you need to address it as soon as possible.
Q. How much does it cost to fix wheel bearings?
A. Replacing wheel bearings can cost as little as $30 to well over $200. It really depends on the application. Older vehicles with spindle-type knuckles are generally less costly to service, while newer vehicles with hub-type knuckles usually have higher price tags attached to the bearings.
Q. How long do wheel bearings last?
A. The paper tells us that wheel bearing will last about 85,000-100,000 miles before needing replacement. That is accurate for the most part. However, you can expect to replace them more frequently if you live in an area with poor road conditions or are hard on your vehicles.
Q. Is a noisy wheel bearing dangerous?
A. Yes, a noisy wheel bearing can be dangerous. You might be able to drive on it for a little bit, but it should be replaced immediately. If the wheel bearing suddenly stops making noise, though, that’s when you really need to start freaking out.
Q. What happens when a wheel bearing fails while driving?
A. A couple of things could happen if the wheel bearing fails while you’re driving. Perhaps the most frightening thing is that it can actually come apart. If it does, the wheel can come right off, causing a ton of damage. It can also lock up on you, which is also a pretty terrible thing to have happen out of nowhere. That’s why it’s important to service your wheel bearings whenever they are shaking and making noises.
Video on Wheel Bearings
As much as we pride ourselves on supplying good imagery, there’s nothing like a good video for some folks. That’s why we wanted to make sure we hook you up with a good clip discussing wheel bearings. This particular video does a great job at highlighting much of what we discussed, as well as gives a good look at how to troubleshoot bad wheel bearings!
Car Autance’s Favorite Wheel Bearing Related Products
We have no way of knowing what you’ve got in your shop. So, we can only make some give some tips on what will make life easier as if you’re just starting out. For tackling wheel bearings, I think it’s worth taking a look at the BIG RED T51201 Torin Steel H-Frame Hydraulic Garage/Shop Floor Press, ABN Bearing Race and Seal Bush Driver Set with Carrying Case, Orion Motor Tech Blind Hole Collet Bearing Race and Seal Puller, Astro Pneumatic Tool 1600 16-Piece Punch and Chisel Set, and Permatex 80071 Anti-Seize Lubricant with Brush Top Bottle. Yes. You can order all of these through Amazon!.
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