Your car is comprised of various parts, most of which are not easily visible. Wheel bearings are examples of such critical parts in your vehicle. A mechanical component that is hidden within, but is completely integral in keeping your car going.
What exactly are wheel bearings, and what purpose do they serve?
Bearings have been around since ancient times. Some even say that bearings were already in use when the ancient Egyptians were constructing pyramids.
Who would have thought of materializing a perfect prism without the use of proper equipment and a good brain before its inception? During the ancient times, instead of using metal balls, the Egyptians used logs to move stones, instead of simply dragging these. The concept behind bearings is relatively simple: Rolling two surfaces over each other substantially reduces friction. This makes things easier to function without exerting much effort or energy.
What are wheel bearings?
A wheel bearing is comprised of a metal ring which is called a race and a set of steel balls. Now, if you look at the center of a wheel, you will notice a hollow piece of metal. This hollow piece of metal is called the hub. Wheel bearings fit into the hub where these ride on the axle shaft. When the wheel spins, friction is substantially reduced.
Wheel bearings are considered an essential component of a vehicle’s drivetrain because these act as one of the connections between a car’s moving and non-moving parts. By reducing friction, wheel bearings provide efficiency to rotating parts.
Bearings achieve this through the rolling of the metal balls along the rings of metal. The addition of grease to the bearings ensures that the wheel hub rotates freely when the steel balls roll in motion as this allows the elements to move with less friction.
The hub assembly houses the wheel bearings and is connected to the hub carrier through the racer. A rotational partnership is created when the driveshaft travels and passes from the transmission toward the wheel bearing’s center and inner ring.
How do wheel bearings go bad?
Like other car parts, wheel bearings can become damaged as these are subjected to regular wear and tear. The wheel bearings in your car are designed to last thousands of miles. However, the lifespan of wheel bearings can be substantially cut short due to three reasons. These include inward collision resulting from a side impact, improper alignment because of improper installation, and a damaged bearing seal.
Among these three, the most common reason why wheel bearings go bad is a damaged bearing seal. When there is damage to the seal, the grease that lubricates the steel balls leaks out. The damage in the seal also allows water, dirt and debris to find their way inside the wheel bearing, which results in contamination and later on would produce more significant problems.
The entry of water and debris into the housing of the wheel bearing facilitates the breaking of specks of metal from the bearing balls. The leaking out of the lubricant, on the other hand, creates additional friction and generates heat.
Why shouldn’t you ignore bad bearings?
When ball bearings go bad, you will notice that your ride is not as smooth as it typically is. Additionally, bearing damage has a direct correlation to the lifespan of your vehicle’s tires.
More importantly, when wheel bearings go bad, your riding safety is compromised.
It is not advisable to drive a car with worn-out bearings as wheels can stop while driving. Furthermore, damaged bearings can put undue stress on other vehicle parts, including the CV joint and the transmission.
Signs that your car’s wheel bearings have gone bad
There are different types of wheel bearings used in today’s vehicles. Among these, the most commonly used are ball bearings. But regardless of the type of wheel bearing used in your car, the signs to watch out are generally the same.
- One of the first things that you will immediately notice and watch out for is a grating or grinding noise from the wheels or tires. Typically, the noise gets louder when you accelerate the car.
What sounds do you need to listen to? A humming noise can be a sign of different car troubles if you have ruled out other possible reasons; zero in on the wall bearings and the CV joint. Cars with bad bearings may also squeal or growl, especially when changing speeds.
Bad wheel bearings may also cause a car to create howling and rumbling noises when turning. This means that the wheel bearings are not giving the gears proper support.
- Another symptom of bad bearings is looseness. Notice how your car steers. If it feels loose and less responsive than usual, bad wheel bearings may be the culprit. The bearings have either become worn or have loosened inside the wheel assembly. However, loose steering does not necessarily mean that the wheel bearings have gone bad. It can be a symptom of other issues.
- Cars that have bad wheel bearings also have a tendency to pull toward a different direction. Like loose steering, pulling may be a sign of another issue not related to bad wheel bearings.
- Finally, check your tires. Regular rotation of the tires is part of proper car maintenance. However, in cars with bad wheel bearings, you will see that the tires wear unevenly.
Replace or repair?
Even seasoned mechanics have a difficult time pinpointing the actual cause of the noises you hear from your vehicle. The same thing applies to correctly identifying which wheel bearings are faulty.
As such, many mechanics recommend changing all the wheel bearings to prevent total failure and the problems associated with bad wheel bearings.
In replacing wheel bearings, it is highly recommended that a hydraulic press be used to remove these from the hub assembly. This ensures accuracy in the alignment of the new wheel bearings during installation. When wheel bearings are improperly installed, these can wear down faster and cause further troubles later on.
The new bearings should not be hammered into the hub assembly as this can lead to improper rotation and can cause eventual wear and damage.
A serious cause for concern
Do not ignore the signs of bad wheel bearings. Apart from the potential high cost of repairs, ignoring these warning signs can compromise your passengers’ safety as well as your own. What’s more, you may be putting other road users in harm’s way. It’s always better to consult your trusted technical service provider or mechanic for a regular check-up to ensure that your bearings are still in good shape to accommodate your trips. As what they always say, prevention is better than cure. Identify and have it fixed as early as you can rather than delaying it and watch it grow and create more problems in the future. Never compromise your safety by neglecting what you can fix now.
Hassanein Alwan is the Managing Director of Mineral Circles Bearings with more than 10 years’ experience in the bearing industry’s technical support division, sales and marketing, plus strategic business development consultancy.