Noisy Wheel Bearings: Signs And Symptoms of Bad Wheel Bearings

Noisy wheel bearings are one of the most common problems any used car owners find themselves dealing with. Wheel bearings are the true workhorses of any car out there. In their lifetime, which is approximately 110,000 miles or 180,000 kilometers, they complete over 100 million rotations. They are the reason why our wheels rotate as smoothly as they do. They are under immense pressure, both from the weight of the car and the power that is being sent to the wheels through driveshafts and axles. As you can imagine, this amount of rotations slowly takes a toll on the wheel bearing which is when you start hearing those noisy wheel bearings.

Replacing the wheel bearings is, as you can imagine, very important. This article will let you know just about everything you, as a car owner, need to know about wheel bearings. This includes how to diagnose bad, worn out and noisy wheel bearings, what exactly makes wheel bearings go bad, whether it is safe to drive with worn-out wheel bearings, and just how much it costs to have wheel bearings replaced. This knowledge is important so keep reading!

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Quick recap: What Are Wheel Bearings

Wheel bearings are the component of the car that allows the wheels to rotate. They are one of the most important components of the car, which is why it is crucial for them to be in working order. They are located in the one-piece hub assembly which includes the wheel bearings, ABS wheel speed sensors and the hub itself. This hub lies between the drive axle and the vehicle’s braking system. You can see this hub that “hides” the wheel bearing if you take down the wheel, but the wheel bearings themselves are not exposed as they are a tight shut lubricated unit.

Modern wheel bearings are able to last as long as they do because the friction inside the bearing is minimized by using metal balls or cylinders that roll between two smoothly finished soft metal surfaces. To keep this process as smooth and frictionless as it is, the wheel bearing must be perfectly sealed and lubricated. If, for any reason this seal fails, water, dirt and air enter the bearing causing it to fail prematurely.

Signs And Symptoms of Bad Wheel Bearings

Just like many other car components, wheel bearings do not just fail overnight. Bad and worn-out wheel bearings will slowly start showing symptoms of wear and tear. Your job and your mechanic’s job here is to recognize the signs of bad and worn-out wheel bearings as soon as they start appearing. Replacing them before they seize up and fail catastrophically is crucial. Here are the most common symptoms of worn-out wheel bearings:

Bad wheel bearings cause humming, grinding and whining noises when cornering

As most mechanics out there will tell you; humming, whining and other sounds coming from the wheels when making a turn is a clear indicator of worn-out noisy wheel bearings. The amount of noise varies depending on the steering angle and the amount of wear on the wheel bearings.

Noisy, worn out wheel bearings cause growling and clicking noises when speeding up and breaking

Worn-out and noisy wheel bearings will eventually start making deep growling or squeaking noises as you accelerate at low speeds. As the wheels start rotating at a faster pace, the noise usually disappears. The sound is usually coming from either the left or the right side so you should be able to locate it if you put down your windows.

Uneven tire wear due to worn out wheel bearings

Uneven tire wear could indicate problems with wheel bearings, especially when they are accompanied by noises that we described before. If your tires are properly inflated and your wheels are properly aligned, then uneven tire wear could be a result of worn out and bad wheel bearings. We talked about uneven tire wear on Life On Four before.

Steering wheel vibrates or feels loose

Another possible symptom of bad wheel bearings are any excessive steering wheel vibrations. While a vibrating or a loose steering wheel can be an indicator of a bad wheel alignment or suspension damage it is worth inspecting the wheel bearings as well when diagnosing the problem.

ABS Wheel Speed sensor failure

ABS wheel speed sensors are a part of the vehicle’s hub assembly. That is the same assembly that houses wheel bearings. Bad and worn out wheel bearings can cause overheating of the hub assembly which leads to ABS wheel speed sensor malfunction. A malfunctioning ABS wheel speed sensor should ignite the ABS warning light on the car’s dashboard.

Raise the car and inspect for any wheel wobble and grinding noises

When diagnosing bad wheel bearings, your mechanic should raise the vehicle and rotate the wheels. If there are any weird grinding noises or if he cannot freely rotate the wheel, then your wheel bearings are likely bad. You should also lookout for any wheel wobble and excessive play when you “shake” and move the wheel while the car is lifted. A healthy hub assembly should not allow for any wobble. Any wobble and excessive play can result in your wheel detaching while driving.

Your car pulls to the right or left side

As we said before, many of these symptoms can indicate bad wheel alignment, suspension problems and braking system problems. But any pulling to each side of the road might also indicate wheel bearing issues, especially when it is coupled with any kind of clicking, humming and growling noises when turning.

Bad fuel efficiency might indicate bad wheel bearings

While this might be almost impossible to notice at first, multiple worn-out wheel bearings can lead to a worse fuel economy. Healthy wheel bearings allow the wheels to rotate freely, without any resistance. When wheel bearings become worn out, they make it harder for the wheels to rotate which is why the engine has to work harder in order to make the car roll forward. This causes bigger fuel consumption.

To get a better feeling on how noisy wheel bearings sound like, see this video.

What Other Damage Can Cause The Same Symptoms As Bad Wheel Bearings

Some of the symptoms we described above can indicate a number of issues with your car’s wheels, suspension, braking system and other components. It is possible that the wheel bearing is not defective at all. For example, humming and grinding noises can be caused by worn-out brakes.

The wheel wobble could indicate problems such as worn ball joints, wishbones or a tie rod end. A worn-out steering gear, worn-out axial joints and incorrectly mounted wheels can also be the reason for this. These overlapping symptoms are the reason why your initial diagnosis of bad wheel bearings should always be confirmed by a professional.

What Makes a Wheel Bearing Go Bad

Wheel bearings fail and go bad for four reasons and four reasons only:

  • Wear and tear related to the amount of mileage passed
  • Bad installation of wheel bearings
  • Damaged wheel bearing seal
  • Accident related damage

If your mechanic or someone is trying to tell you that wheel bearings fail because your car’s shock absorbers, wheel alignment or suspension is bad, they have no idea what they are talking about. A popular myth circulating wheel bearings is that they can also fail if you rarely drive your car, which is also complete nonsense. Wheel bearings only go bad for the reasons we described above. In most cases, wheel bearings will last as long as the car does if not more. Wheel bearings are a completely sealed and finely manufactured and lubricated unit. Any damage to that seal will allow air and contaminants like dirt, water and dust to enter the bearing and cause damage over time.

How To Tell If Wheel Bearings Are Bad

Bad wheel bearings will become noisy sooner or later. As damage to the wheel bearings increases you can expect to experience more symptoms like noises when accelerating or braking, wheel wobble, uneven tire wear and other symptoms we listed above. Be on the lookout for any repetitive noises when making turns. That is the most reliable and common indicator of worn out wheel bearings.

The only way you can be sure that wheel bearings are bad is by visiting a mechanic and having him diagnose the issue. A lot of the symptoms of bad wheel bearings can also indicate problems with the suspension, wheel alignment, braking system, tires and other components of the wheel hub assembly.

What Is The Cost Of Replacing Bad Wheel Bearings

The cost of new wheel bearings varies between each car so the data that we can provide is only estimates and averages that we commonly see on the market.

The material costs for a new wheel bearing are between 50 and 150$. If you need an entirely new wheel hub, the material cost doubles. To get a full cost estimate you also need to include labor price. Most mechanics charge one hour of labor per wheel bearing. The cost of labor can be anywhere from 40 to 120$ per hour. 

The amount of damage to the wheel bearings is also a factor when calculating total costs. If you take too long to replace the noisy wheel bearing, the wheel bearing can seize and damage the wheel hub. The stuck wheel bearing must then be loosened and removed, which is time-consuming and complicated. In addition to the increased expenditure of time, this also leads to additional material requirements (a whole new wheel hub). Depending on the car, a single wheel bearing can usually be replaced in about 45 to 60 minutes. If the old, worn-out wheel bearing is stuck, labor time can be doubled. The sooner you replace the worn-out wheel bearing, the cheaper the repair will be.

Another cost factor is the quality of the bearing used. Do not buy cheap wheel bearings, please, it is not a good idea. Cheap wheel bearings of inferior quality only mean that the car will soon be back in the workshop with new wheel bearing problems.

bmw X3 X4 wheel bearing assembly
This is how a wheel bearing assembly looks for a BMW X3 SUV.

How Can You Tell Which Wheel Bearing Is Bad

Most of the time, you can only tell by opening the car’s side window and listening. Most of the time you can determine which wheel bearing is noisy pretty easily. Generally speaking, if you hear noisy wheel bearings when taking a left turn, that indicates that the right wheel bearing is bad and worn out. The opposite is true when you take a right turn.

Keep in mind that this is all just guesswork which is why a proper examination by a professional is needed to determine which wheel bearing is bad if any. In a lot of cases, certain braking systems or suspension components can be at fault for symptoms that resemble those of noisy wheel bearings.

Should You Replace Both Wheel Bearing At a Time

If the damage to the wheel bearing on one side is not related to an accident then yes, replacing both wheel bearings on the same axle (front or back) is a good idea. If both wheel bearings were subjected to approximately the same amount of stress then the failure of the second wheel bearing is to be expected.

By replacing both of the wheel bearings simultaneously, you can save time and money.

How To Avoid Damage To The Wheel Bearings

Generally speaking, wheel bearings are tough and durable. If they can last almost 200,000 kilometers or 120,000 miles on average, surely they have to be made to bear it all, potholes and curbs included. However, wheel bearings are prone to early failure if they are subjected to lots of road stress. Hitting deep potholes and driving up and down big curbs do cause damage to the sensitive interior of the wheel bearing.

Another way to avoid premature wear of wheel bearings is to only trust professionals with wheel bearing replacements. Wheel bearings are sensitive components that need to be properly installed in a clean and dirt-free environment. Some mechanics also advise against using pressure washers to clean your vehicle’s wheels. The high-pressure water stream can penetrate the seal of the wheel bearing which contributes to premature wear.

Other factors that damage your wheel bearings include:

  • Driving with a seized brakes or engaged handbrake (the generated heat from the constant braking leads to bearing damage)
  • Poorly balanced wheel that cause constant vibration of the wheel assembly
  • Incorrectly set bearing preload and other fitment errors
  • Excessive hammering when replacing the brake discs

Is It Safe To Drive With Bad And Noisy Wheel Bearings

No, it is not safe to drive with bad, worn out or noisy wheel bearings. It can be life-threatening for you and other drivers and pedestrians around you. If the wheel bearing is seized, your wheel can suddenly lock which makes your car steer to the side of the road or into opposite traffic.

It is also much cheaper to replace worn out wheel bearings compared to wheel bearings that fail completely and lodge themselves inside the wheel hub.

Do Custom Wheels And Tires Cause Wheel Bearing Damage

Yes, bigger tires, lower-profile tires and heavier wheels all contribute to faster wear of wheel bearings. The damage is done by mostly increasing the amount of vibration to the wheel bearing. Certain off-road vehicles are fitted with heavy-duty wheel bearings for this reason alone, to be able to withstand more vibrations, thumps and intrusion of dirt and water.

What Happens When Wheel Bearings Fail Completely

As we mentioned before, when wheel bearings fail completely, your wheel can lock up which can have catastrophic consequences. A locked wheel will make your car suddenly stop or steer into other drivers or a pedestrian. Do not wait on your wheel bearings to fail completely before you have them replaced.

Can You Replace Noisy Wheel Bearings At Home, By Yourself

While it is possible, we would advise against it if you do not have the necessary experience or if you own a modern vehicle with magnetic pulse generators integrated in the wheel bearing itself. Magnetic pulse generators are integrated into modern wheel bearings to generate the speed signal for the wheel speed sensor of the anti-lock braking system (ABS) and the electronic stability program (ESP). In some cases, the correct installation can only be carried out by determining the direction of the bearing with the help of detectors that reveal the position of the pulse generator. 

To change wheel bearings, you need the right tools and, above all, some experience in handling roller bearings. In principle, it is of course possible for you to change the wheel bearings in your car yourself. In addition to normal wrenches, you need special tools to change wheel bearings, with which you can pull off the old bearing and press on the new bearing. You should be able to use this tool in order not to damage the bearing and possibly other parts of your car. Another problem with changing the wheel bearing yourself is that, as with all other work on the chassis of your car, you have to re-measure the axle after changing the bearing and have it adjusted if necessary.

For these reasons, and of course also because wheel bearings are one of the safety-relevant components of a car, the change should only be carried out by appropriately trained and experienced mechanics.

Frequently asked questions

Where should I get new wheel bearings?

If you want to supply your mechanic with new wheel bearings with the best price and guaranteed fit, buy them on Amazon.com. You can find the right wheel bearings by filtering the search results based on your car.

Are bad wheel bearings loud?

Yes, one of the most common symptoms of a bad wheel bearing is a loud noise, especially when cornering.

Are spacers bad for wheel bearings?

Yes, wheel spacers do contribute to early wheel bearing failure. Wheel spacers affect your braking stability, turning radius and the effectiveness of your suspension.

Are worn wheel bearings dangerous?

Yes, driving with worn wheel bearings is considered highly dangerous and they can lead to a serious accident. When wheel bearings fail completely, the wheel can lock up which makes your car steer left or right and suddenly stop.

What can happen if my wheel bearings are bad?

Your wheel bearings can make your wheel lock up while driving. This can cause a serious accident. Do not drive with bad wheel bearings.

Can bad wheel bearings cause squeaking?

Yes, bad wheel bearings can cause squeaking noises when accelerating, turning or breaking.

Can bad wheel bearings affect fuel economy?

Yes, as wheel bearings get worn out, your wheels do not rotate freely as they once did. This rolling resistance caused by bad wheel bearings makes your engine work harder and increases fuel consumption.

Can bad wheel bearings cause vibration?

Yes, bad wheel bearings can cause steering wheel vibrations.

Can bad wheel bearings cause tire wear?

Yes, uneven tire wear to be more specific.

Can bad wheel bearings ruin tires?

Yes, bad wheel bearings can cause uneven tire wear.

Can bad wheel bearings cause warped rotors?

Very rarely but in theory it is possible, the most common reason for warped brake discs or rotors is brake calipers that are not retracting as you put your foot off the brake pedal.

How to check bad wheel bearings?

You can check for bad wheel bearings by listening to any weird noises coming from the wheels, you can observe if there is any excessive vibration on your steering wheel and lastly you can take your car to a mechanic which will determine if the noisy wheel bearings need replacing.

Can bad wheel bearings cause an accident?

Yes, bad wheel bearings can cause catastrophic bearing failure which locks the wheel while driving. Your car might steer into ongoing traffic or into a pedestrian. You can also cause a chain accident if you suddenly stop when a wheel bearing goes out.

Can you have bad wheel bearings without play?

Yes, while it is not common, bad wheel bearings can be seen without having any play when you try to shake the wheel.

Conclusion

Bad and noisy wheel bearings are often ignored and put on a servicing waitlist when in reality they represent one of the most important components of all cars on this planet. They are fairly inexpensive to replace when considering the importance for your safety and the safety of others on the road. If you do suspect that your wheel bearings are causing weird noises and other problems, get them inspected by a mechanic as soon as possible. Especially if you drive an older vehicle. Stay safe!

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