What is a wheel bearing?
In order to recognize a failing wheel bearing and correctly diagnose it, you have to know what a wheel bearing actually is. The wheel bearing is one of the most critical yet overlooked components of the drive-axle and or steering assembly. Each wheel on your vehicle is connected to a hub which houses a set of lubricated wheel bearings. These wheel bearings are what allow your tyres and wheels to spin freely. Although they’re relatively durable and robust, as with any other mechanical component on a car, they will eventually wear & fail. When this happens, they will need to be replaced. If a wheel bearing breaks completely it can cause the entire wheel/tyre assembly to fall off the car, so replacing one as soon as it starts to fail is crucial.
How to spot a bad wheel wearing
Recognizing a failing wheel bearing is actually easier than you think. The issue is accompanied by several different symptoms, and rarely can you confuse a failing wheel bearing with something else. Here are the most common and obvious worn out wheel bearing symptoms.
1. Grinding and/or roaring noise coming from the tyre area
This is the easiest and most obvious symptom to spot. When a wheel bearing starts to fail, it will, in most cases, generate quite a lot of noise. Because it’s worn out and has no lubrication properties left, it will start to create a grinding noise. If you can hear a grinding/roaring metal-to-metal sound coming from one of the wheels, it’s probably a failing wheel bearing. In most cases you’ll hear it from a single, specific wheel, rather than the entire front or rear axle. Although this symptom can be easily confused with a worn-out brake pad, there’s a way to distinguish both. A brake pad will generate noise when you’re braking, and the noise is usually drowned out at speed by the engine/tyres. A bad wheel bearing gets louder as the speed increases.
2. Abnormal tyre wear
Although an unusual tyre wear pattern can be the consequence of several different issues (CV joints, under/over inflated tyres, struts, shocks), when accompanied by the grinding noise we talked about earlier, it’s almost always a failing wheel bearing in question. Wheel bearings almost never wear out evenly or simultaneously. If you notice that one tyre is wearing out quicker than the rest, the wheel bearing is probably on its way out. If one of the wheel bearings is failing, you can be sure the one on the other side is following it closely. It’s why when you replace a wheel bearing you don’t replace just one, but two opposite wheel bearings on the same axle.
3. Vibration in the steering wheel
A vibration in the steering wheel doesn’t necessarily mean you have a worn out wheel bearing on your hands, but there’s a good chance for that. A tyre balance problem will show up at higher road speeds, whereas a bad wheel bearing will cause vibration at any speeds. The dead giveaway is a progressively worse vibration as the car accelerates.
4. Play in the wheels
This is probably the hardest symptom for normal car owners to identify. If you have a jack however, it’s something you can do in a matter of minutes. With the car safely jacked up, grab the wheel which you think has a bad wheel bearing and attempt to rock it back and forth. If there are no issues, the wheel won’t have any play/wobble. If however, the wheel/wheel assembly rocks back and forth, you’re probably dealing with a worn out wheel bearing.
Is it safe to drive on a worn wheel bearing?
Replacing a worn-out wheel bearing as soon as possible is crucial. People usually overlook this issue without considering the major consequences it brings with it. It creates unwanted heat, friction, and worst-case scenario is that you can lose an entire wheel travelling on the highway. It’s imperative that you take your car to the local mechanic/dealer and get that failing wheel bearing replaced as soon as you notice these symptoms.
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