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Wheel Bearing Noise: What’s Causing It?

by Kelvin Yates

You’re not supposed to hear anything other than the engine, exhaust, and wind noise when you’re driving. A bit of tire drone on the motorway may be normal in some instances, but a wheel-bearing noise is definitely not normal. Noise coming from your wheel bearing indicates that there’s something wrong, and this is something you will need to address.

We’ll explain how a wheel bearing works and why you’re hearing that wheel bearing noise. Afterward, we’ll let you know the costs to fix your wheel bearing.

What Is A Wheel Bearing?

The wheel bearing is part of your car’s wheel hub assembly. It’s a set of lubricated steel balls or rollers in a metal ring and it sits at the center of your car’s wheel hub. But to explain further, first, we’ll need to explain the car’s wheel hub assembly.

Your car’s wheel attaches to a hub, usually made from steel or aluminum and this hub rotates along with the wheel. At the center of the hub, there’s a hole that allows the axle shaft to pass through. The shaft delivers power for the driven wheels, and for the non-driven wheel, it connects the wheel on the opposing side.

The wheel bearing sits at the middle of the hub and rides your car’s axle shaft, and it’s there to reduce friction. Without wheel bearings, your car’s wheel hub will rub directly against the shaft. This isn’t ideal since there’s a lot of friction and will wear out both components very quickly. This also means that the wheel bearings support your car’s weight while you’re driving, so they have a pretty tough job.

Just like almost any other car part, wheel bearings will wear out over time. They will wear out quicker if you drive on rough and bumpy roads with lots of potholes since this is very tough on them. Other driving conditions such as excessive water and mud can also cause the wheel bearing to excessively erode over time.

Types Of Wheel Bearings

There are four types of wheel bearings: ball bearings on a car, precision ball bearings, roller bearings, and tapered roller bearings. The two most common types are ball bearings and tapered roller bearings. Ball bearings mean that’s there’s a bunch of steel balls that sits inside the metal ring. They cope very well with the car’s load as well as cornering pressure.

Meanwhile, tapered roller bearings have steel rollers instead inside the metal ring. But they are tapered to handle cornering forces better. You’ll find them in many cars as well as large trucks.

Meanwhile, precision ball bearings have a higher rotation speed than the other types. They’re generally higher quality and can also reduce friction and heat, allowing them to cope with larger amounts of load and pressure compared to standard ball bearings car. You’ll find this mostly in performance cars, race cars, and even airplanes.

And finally, there are the roller bearings. They do the job just fine, but their cylindrical shape means they don’t handle cornering forces very well. This is why you’ll typically find them in shopping carts or hand trucks, and they don’t have any motorized vehicle application.

Wheel Bearing Noise: How To Distinguish

Since there are a lot of components in your car’s wheel hub assembly, the noise you’ve been hearing might not even be from the wheel bearings after all. You may be hearing a noise from an entirely different component. So, how do you tell it apart? Well, if you’re hearing a humming noise, this a pretty good indication that you’re wheel bearing is making that noise.

Keep in mind that a bad CV joint can also produce a humming noise. However, a bad CV joint will usually make a knocking or popping noise as well, especially when you’re cornering. So if you hear a popping or knocking noise, you’re likely looking at a CV joint problem rather than a wheel bearing problem.

You might also hear squealing and growling noises when the wheel bearing has gone bad. If the sound changes in proportion to the speed – for example, it gets worse as you accelerate – then you likely have bad wheel bearings. Additionally, grinding noises may also be a sign of bad wheel bearings. However, other things may also cause grinding noises.

For example, if the noise appears when you’re braking, then it’s a sign that either your brake calipers or rotors have gone bad. Or if the noise appears while you’re driving and it feels like there’s resistance from the car, it’s also possible that your brake calipers haven’t retracted fully and are still grinding against the rotors. This is usually a brake line problem.

What’s Causing That Wheel Bearing Noise?

So, now you know what a wheel bearing is, what it’s for, and how it works. But what is causing that wheel-bearing noise you hear? Here are some possibilities:

1. Improper Installation

If your car is still new or you just had new wheel bearings installed and you’re hearing noises from the wheel bearings, it’s probably because of a bad installation. It’s possible the bearings were badly installed and they’re not sitting correctly inside the wheel hub. This then leads to noise and the wheel bearings not working properly.

Or it’s also possible that your mechanic forgot to rub grease on the wheel bearings. Remember, wheel bearings experience a lot of friction and they need lubrication. Improper lubrication will lead to excess friction, which in turn will result in a lot of noise. So, bear that in mind when you replace wheel bearings.

2. Driving On Rough Roads

As mentioned, the wheel bearings have to support the load of the car. This means when you’re driving on rough roads, they will experience a lot of pressure, especially when you go over a pothole. Rough roads and potholes can force the ball or roller bearings into its race, that’s the groove where the bearing sits. This can damage the bearings, which results in small imperfections in them.

Imperfect bearings mean they will experience more friction since they no longer have their optimal shape. And as mentioned, excess friction can lead to noise coming from the bearing. Additionally, those pieces that fall off the bearings can pollute the wheel bearing’s lubricant. This means yet more friction and heat, and damaging your wheel bearings much quicker.

If you drive on rough roads often, you run the risk of damaging your wheel bearings much quicker. Try to avoid it if you can, or at least avoid those potholes.

3. Driving Through Water

Wheel bearings are generally very durable, they can last anywhere between 85,000 to 100,000 miles. However, they’re not great at stopping massive amounts of water from getting into them. So, if you’ve driven through deep water lately, this might be why your wheel bearings are making a noise.

That’s because there’s a good chance that water may have seeped into the wheel-bearing assembly. When they have a lot of moisture or water, it will mix with the lubricant. This causes the lubricant to break down, making it inefficient in lubricating the wheel hub. And of course, this leads to excess friction, causing the wheel bearing noise and damaging it in the process.

4. Unbalanced Tires

Tire balancing is the process of, well, balancing the mass and load on the tires. New tires will usually have small metal attachments clamped to the rim. These attachments act like a ballast, it will be strategically placed to make sure that the tires have the correct distribution.

During tire balancing, the tire is mounted on a spinning machine to check for vibrations. The small metal plates are moved along the rim until the spin is steady and there are no vibrations. Over time, as the tires wear down and tread become uneven, the tires will lose their balance; some tires may be handling more load than the other. This causes vibration during driving, and tire balancing is needed.

Wheel Bearing Noise

The excess vibration may damage other components, including the wheel bearing. This is why you should balance your tires every 5,000 to 7,500 miles, or about every 2 years. The most obvious sign of unbalanced tires is a vibrating steering wheel, especially when you go at high speeds. If the problem is bad enough, your steering wheel may vibrate at speeds as low as 40mph.

If you notice this steering wheel vibration before the wheel hub noise, this may be why you’re wheel bearings are making noises. Be sure to balance your tires when needed, as driving with unbalanced tires can be dangerous.

Other Signs Of Bad Wheel Bearings

So, other than a squealing and grinding noise, what are the other signs of a bad wheel bearing? Here are the signs to verify if you actually have a wheel bearing problem:

1. Uneven Tire Wear

A bad wheel bearing can cause excess vibration on the wheel during driving. This vibration will then affect the tires, and cause uneven tire wear. Tires with a bad wheel bearing in particular will have excessive wear. During tire rotations, always check your tires and see if there’s uneven wear between them. You should rotate your tires every 6,000 to 8,000 miles.

Keep in mind that bad wheel bearing is not the sole cause for uneven tire wear. A bad wheel alignment can also cause uneven tire wear. Additionally, your tires may have been under or over-inflated. This can also cause uneven tire wear. Check your tire pressure regularly, they should have somewhere around 32 – 35PSI of air inside them. But check your owner’s manual and see your car’s manufacturer’s recommendation.

2. Steering Wheel Vibration

If the damage on the wheel bearings is bad enough, the vibration may affect the steering wheel as well. It often appears at low speeds but gets worse as you go faster. However, as mentioned, unbalanced tires can also induce steering wheel vibration. So if you haven’t had your tires balanced in the last two years, try balancing them and see if the problem persists. Tire balancing should cost no more than $75, but the price will vary depending on your car and the tires you use.

If the steering wheel vibration persists after a tire balancing, you likely have a wheel bearing problem. Another way to tell whether it’s unbalanced tires or a wheel bearing problem is the feel of the steering wheel itself. If the steering wheel feels loose, that is, it feels like the handling isn’t quite as precise, it’s more likely to be a wheel bearing problem. This is because bad wheel bearings will cause an excess wobble in the wheels. This segues us nicely into the next bad wheel bearing sign:

3. Excess Play Or Wobble In The Wheels

If you suspect you have bad wheel bearings, you can try rocking your car’s wheels. To do this, you will need to lift your car and have all four wheels up in the air. Once the car is up, try rocking each wheel backward and forward. The wheels should remain steady in place, with only very little movement when you rock it.

However, if the wheel wobbles while being rocked, then you have a serious problem at your hand. Wheel wobble is very dangerous since it can affect the stability of the car. This may cause you to lose control in an emergency situation, putting you at significant risk.

There are a few things that can cause excess wheel wobble. A bad suspension and unbalanced wheels can cause this problem. But if you see this problem accompanied by squealing or grinding noises, you likely have a wheel bearing problem.

4. Your ABS Light Is On

In some cars, the ABS sensor is integrated into the wheel bearing. ABS or Anti-lock Braking System is a sensor that prevents your car from locking up while braking. It does this by monitoring the vehicle’s speed and the brakes. If the ABS detects that a wheel is locking up, it will retract and reapply the brakes to prevent the lock-up. Basically, it automatically pumps your brakes hundreds of times a second.

This is why in the old days, or with old cars that don’t have ABS, drivers have to pump the brakes when braking hard. This prevents lock-up, and there’s no ABS to do this automatically for the driver in old cars. If the wheels lock up, it will take longer for the car to stop, and the car may also skid as well which is very dangerous.

Wheel Bearing Noise

Anyway, in some cars, the ABS sensor sits inside either the wheel bearing or the wheel hub. If the bearing or hub gets damaged, this will also damage the sensor. When the sensor is damaged, it won’t operate properly and it may register an anomaly in the sensor’s readings. And when it does, it will often send an error code to the car’s ECU which triggers the ABS light on. This light is there to tell the driver that there is something wrong with the system.

If the ABS light in your car is on, we urge you to diagnose and fix the problem immediately. The ABS light indicates a malfunction with the braking system, and ignoring it can put you at significant risk.

If you’re still not sure whether your wheel bearings are bad or not, check out this video from ChrisFix to help you diagnose the problem:

Types Of Wheel Bearing Assembly

If you see the signs above, you likely have a wheel bearing problem. So how much is it going to cost you to repair or replace them? Before we get into that, you will need to understand that there are several types of wheel-bearing assemblies. The type of assembly will affect the cost, as some types are easier to repair. Meanwhile, some assembly types are non-repairable and you will need to replace them entirely.

Here are the types of wheel bearing assembly your car may have:

Serviceable Hub Assembly

A serviceable hub assembly means that the wheel bearing can be separated from the wheel hub. This means you can replace a bad wheel bearing, without having to swap out the entire wheel hub. As you can imagine, this is the cheapest assembly type of all to replace.

The replacement process entails removing the wheel hub from the car. And then your mechanic will take out the old wheel bearing and replace it with a new one. As you’ll learn later on, this is the least labor-intensive, which costs a lot less in labor.

Non-Serviceable Hub Assembly

Meanwhile, a non-serviceable hub assembly means that the wheel bearings are packed into the wheel hub. This means they are one unit and cannot be separated. As a result, you’ll have to replace the entire wheel hub rather than just the wheel bearing. This is the type of wheel hub assembly you’ll find in most modern cars.

The process is largely the same as the serviceable hub assembly: your mechanic will remove the wheel hub from the car. But rather than replacing the wheel bearing, they will fit in an entirely new wheel hub instead. This means that this will be more expensive since there are more parts to replace, but labor won’t be expensive.

Press-In Assembly

This assembly requires the most labor to replace. To replace this type of bearing, your mechanic will need to remove the wheel hub from the assembly. Meanwhile, the new wheel bearings come greased and sealed, meaning your mechanic won’t need to adjust the bearing when installing it. However, this type of assembly requires a press machine to install the bearings.

Wheel Bearing Noise

Your mechanic will also often need to take off the car’s steering knuckle. They will then use the press machine to install the wheel bearings onto the wheel hub and steering knuckle. Due to the labor-intensive nature of this process, as well as the specialized tool needed, this tends to be the most expensive to replace.

Because this type of assembly requires special tools and it’s easy to get it wrong, we recommend a replacement of this type of wheel bearings is done by professionals. Best not to mess around to avoid improper installation of the wheel bearings. Remember, improper installation can cause premature wear and damage to the wheel bearings.

Wheel Bearing Replacement Cost

So, how much will you have to pay for a wheel bearing replacement? As mentioned, it will depend heavily on what type of wheel bearing you have in your car (which is crucial to understand if you want to learn how to replace the wheel bearing). So, the cost will vary depending on your car’s make and model. If your car has a serviceable type, the wheel bearing alone is somewhere around $60 – $150 each.

Meanwhile, if you have a non-serviceable assembly, this means you will need to replace the wheel bearing along with the hub. This usually costs around $200 – $400 a pair. As for the labor, expect to pay somewhere between $70 – $280 in labor costs depending on the type of hub assembly you have. On average, expect to pay somewhere around $400 – $800 for a wheel bearing replacement in most cars.

Keep in mind that luxury and performance cars will easily cost more than that. As an example, a new pair of new front wheel hubs and bearing assembly for a Toyota Camry will cost you $363. Meanwhile, the Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG is a performance car with 603 horsepower, and its wheel hubs and bearing assembly will set you back $970. Ouch.

Questions & Answers

Can I Drive With A Bad Wheel Bearing?

Technically, yes. To be honest, this is the wrong question to ask, the question you should be asking is: is it safe to drive with a bad wheel bearing? And the answer to that is a hard no. You could probably drive up to about 1,000 miles with a bad wheel bearing IF the damage is minimal. But since you can’t know how bad the damage is unless you inspect the wheel bearings, we don’t recommend this.

As soon as you see the signs of a bad wheel bearing, we recommend that you diagnose it and replace the necessary parts immediately. The wheel bearing is an important part of the wheel hub, and with a bad wheel bearing your car may become difficult to control and it will be very dangerous for you to continue driving.

How Do I Maintain My New Wheel Bearings?

The wheel bearings themselves don’t require any maintenance. However, some things that you can do to prolong their life include balancing your tires, regular wheel alignment (around every 6,000 miles), and don’t use mix-matched tires, and make sure they have the right amount of air in them. All of this will help reduce uneven tire wear, which reduces excessive vibration which can prolong the wheel bearing’s lifespan.

Additionally, avoid driving on rough roads and through standing water. As mentioned, these can damage the wheel bearings prematurely, so be sure to drive carefully.

What If I Can’t Afford To Replace The Wheel Bearings?

Wheel bearing replacement isn’t the most expensive replacement job to do in a car, but it can still be quite expensive for many drivers. Especially if you have to replace all four wheel bearings, the total cost can take a toll on your bank account. The first thing you can do to reduce wheel bearing replacement costs is to use aftermarket parts rather than OEMs such as MOOG.

Aftermarket parts are made by a third-party manufacturer and are often cheaper than OEM parts. Be sure to read reviews from customers, and get an aftermarket product that has a warranty. Finally, if the cost is still too expensive, consider scrapping your car or selling it as-is. This is especially true if your car’s resale value isn’t that much more than the repair bill.

Wheel Bearing Noise: In Conclusion

If the wheel bearings in your car have gone bad, you’ll typically hear a squealing and growling noise. The noise tends to appear at low speeds, and will often get worse as you accelerate. Additionally, steering vibrations and issues will appear as well if the wheel bearing damage is severe.

If you suspect your car has bad wheel bearings, don’t postpone the repairs. Wheel bearings affect the car’s stability, and a car with bad wheel bearings can become difficult to control in an emergency.

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