Wheel Bearing: How Do I Know If I Need a Replacement?

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Wheel Bearing Quick Facts

  • Wheel bearings allow a car’s wheels to turn with minimum friction
  • Bigger, wider tires can strain wheel bearings, causing accelerated wear and tear
  • If things like road salt or sand get past the seal and touch the bearings, it could eventually lead to premature failure
  • Wheel bearing replacement cost averages about $350 per wheel

Imagine driving on the freeway when suddenly the left front tire and wheel break off, sending your out-of-control vehicle skidding across several lanes of 65 mph traffic. This is reality, and this can happen if you fail to notice the signs the wheel bearings are deteriorating and need immediate repairs. This is not an exaggeration.

In this story, we’ll tell you quick facts to know, such as what causes a bad wheel bearing, how long you can drive on one, and the estimated replacement cost of a wheel bearing.

What Are Wheel Bearings?

Wheel bearings are important components of a vehicle’s braking, steering, and suspension systems. The one-piece hub assembly, located between the drive axle and the brake disc or drums, incorporates the hub, wheel bearings, ABS (anti-lock braking system) wheel speed sensor, and mounting flange.

It’s the component that allows a car’s wheel to turn with minimal friction.

The bearings are tightly packed in a grease-filled, waterproof, sealed metal ring. This housing, called a race, is located inside the hub, and each wheel has one. Wheel bearings have a Herculean responsibility: They are engineered to support the vehicle’s entire weight.

What’s the Life of a Wheel Bearing?

Wheel bearings are theoretically engineered to last the life of the vehicle. There is no maintenance schedule for replacing wheel bearings, and there is no constant source of lubrication. However, they can be damaged.

What Can Damage a Wheel Bearing?

Wheel bearings are especially vulnerable if you hit a pothole, a tall curb, or a speed bump at a brisk speed.

If water, mud, road salt, or sand gets past the seal and touches the bearings, it will contaminate the grease, causing the bearings to wear down, eventually leading to failure prematurely. Also, ignoring worn-out wheel bearings can damage the vehicle’s constant velocity joint (CV joint) or automatic transmission. The outer CV joint attaches the driveshaft to the wheels, and the inner CV joint connects to the transmission.

To determine what you need to do, find a reputable service technician for advice.

Custom Wheel and Tire Caution

Another thing, if you are planning to customize your vehicle, be careful what you do. The original equipment bearings on your vehicle are engineered for specific loads. Those bigger and wider tires look cool, as do tires with lower tread walls. But they place higher loads on the wheel bearings, possibly resulting in accelerated wear.

It’s best to stick with an automaker’s specifications when it comes to replacements.

How Much Does It Cost to Replace a Wheel Bearing?

The cost to replace one front-wheel hub assembly varies widely. Among the variables are the vehicle brand and model, the garage’s labor rate, and the cost of parts. The average out-the-door wheel bearing replacement cost without taxes is about $350 per wheel. However, luxury brands are more expensive to repair. If bearings go bad at one wheel, it is unnecessary to replace the bearings at the other wheel on the same axle. Don’t let someone talk you into work that is not needed. Get the price estimate for wheel bearing replacement for your make and model of car.

Bad Wheel Bearing Symptoms and When to Replace

1. Humming Noise

The most easily identifiable and common symptom of bad wheel bearings is audible. But it can be confusing. For example, the source of a humming noise can be linked to other issues, such as tires and the CV joint.

2. Squealing, Growling

The typical sounds of worn-out wheel bearings are squealing and/or growling. The sound intensifies as vehicle speed increases. Try to pinpoint the location of the noise because it will identify the location of the worn-out wheel bearings.

3. Clicking Sound

If you hear a clicking sound that increases in frequency as the vehicle accelerates, there could be a problem with the wheel hub assembly.

4. Wheel Wobble

Technicians can check for wheel wobble by putting the vehicle on a lift and manually checking for wheel movement. Typically, it would be impossible to shake the wheel and tire. However, if it moves, the hub assembly needs immediate attention. The tire and wheel can literally come off the vehicle at any time, at any speed, if you don’t get your vehicle repaired.

5. ABS Failure

The anti-lock warning light may illuminate. If the ring, tire, and wheel wobble, the wheel’s speed sensor are no longer operating properly, and the ABS may operate sporadically or not at all. See a professional for repair.

6. Uneven Tire Wear

If one tire is wearing out faster than the others, it could be a sign that the wheel bearings are worn. However, it also could be a sign the tire is improperly inflated (too much air pressure or not enough), the tires are improperly aligned, or the vehicle has damaged or worn suspension components.

7. Vehicle Pulls to One Side

Worn bearings may cause a vehicle to pull to the left or right when brakes are applied. The direction the vehicle pulls signals where the worn bearings are located, left or right side of the vehicle. However, this also can be a signal of brake rotor or brake caliper problems.

8. Steering Wheel Vibration

Bad wheel bearings can cause the steering wheel to vibrate. The intensity increases as the vehicle speed increases and the vehicle turns to the left or right. However, the vibration could be linked to an out-of-round tire (there could be a flat spot on the tire) or a tire that is no longer balanced. Another cause is damaged or worn suspension components.

9. Steering Feels Loose

If there is excessive play in the steering, meaning the steering seems less responsive or less precise than normal, worn bearings could be causing the problem. Also, this could be a sign the vehicle needs a wheel alignment. If you have any of the signs listed above, visit a dealer service or auto repair shop.

“The good news is most of the time, a vehicle will let you know way before a failure ever happens,” said Gary Hardesty, Kelley Blue Book’s in-house service and maintenance expert and an A.S.E. certified master technician. “The key is to listen to your car. Most times, a failing wheel bearing will exhibit a growling type of noise that changes with vehicle speed. The faster the car, the faster the frequency of the growl.”

He cautions that if you think something is wrong, don’t wait to get it diagnosed.

“The longer you wait, the more it will cost as other components may be damaged by a wheel bearing,” Hardesty added.

When you’re ready, use Kelley Blue Book to find a repair shop that will fix your wheel bearings.

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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published. Rick Kranz contributed to this report.

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