Wheel bearings play a very important role in the operation of a vehicle. Hence driving with bad wheel bearing is obviously an unfavorable situation. But how dangerous is it? How far can you travel if your wheel bearing has given up?
Driving with bad wheel bearing is not a recommended stunt. Though it is a mechanical part that wears out as the car ages, very less is known about it. Key details about wheel bearings, including what they do, when they wear out, and driving with bad wheel bearing is not necessarily common knowledge.
In this story, we try to shed some light on these less-spoken matters. We will talk about wheel bearings and their function in a car. Then we can progress on to how often we should replace them, as well as the procedure for replacing them. Ultimately, we will discuss driving with bad wheel bearing, and the effect it may have on the vehicle’s life as well as the driving experience.
So, without any further ado, let’s head straight into this world of wheel bearings.
- What Are Wheel Bearings?
- When Do You Have To Change Them?
- Driving With Bad Wheel Bearing
- Replacing Bad Wheel Bearing
What Are Wheel Bearings
Before we learn about driving with bad wheel bearing, we should be familiar with the wheel bearings. Learning more about their construction and function will arm us with important knowledge that will let us connect the dots when we learn about driving with bad wheel bearing.
We know the wheels, and we know the axles. Some of us will be familiar with the upper and lower control arms that hold these components in place. These components play a key role in transmitting the power from the transmission through the differential onto the wheels and finally laying it down on the road. But a mostly overlooked, yet equally critical bit of this chain is the wheel bearings.
They play as a link between the wheel and the axle. Construction-wise, the wheel bearings may have spherical metal balls or tapered cones that freely roll within a metallic casing. This free movement reduces friction and provides an uninhibited movement for the wheels.
Driving with bad wheel bearing is an important subject to talk about, just because of the key role they play. Any fault in their operation will severely affect not only the smooth forward or backward movement of the vehicle but also the balance, and life of the other connected components.
Wheel bearings are an important load-bearing member of the wheel assembly. The toughest part of their job is to cancel out the vibrations from the road. In addition to this already daunting task, the wheel bearings will have to take the brunt of the gravitational and cornering forces. To rub more salt into their wounds, the acceleration and braking forces jump into the picture as well.
How Do Wheel Bearings Work
A commuter car, like a Honda Civic or a Toyota Corolla, uses wheel bearings just like other cars. But the acceleration, braking, and cornering forces are lesser in these cars. This is attributed to the usual light-duty applications these cars take care of. But this is not the case in all cars. The forces on a wheel bearing change from car to car.
The magnitude of these forces can vary from one vehicle to the other. If it is a sports car, the cornering, acceleration, and braking forces can be quite high. In comparison to that, a commuter vehicle will need tougher wheel bearings.
On the other end of the spectrum, off-road vehicles also need strong wheel bearings but for a different purpose. These cars and trucks are usually heavier hence the forces are amplified despite the reduction in speed. Also, the shocks of off-road conditions inflict on them do not help either.
But this does not mean that driving with bad wheel bearing is okay in economical or light-duty machines. Manufacturers make every single part of a vehicle with the performance envelope of the vehicle in mind. Hence, if the bearing goes wonky, it can be bad news, no matter what the car is.
How Long Do Wheel Bearings Last
Many manufacturers claim that wheel bearings are made for life which is not exactly true. Like all mechanical components, they also come with a certain lifespan. This should not be surprising as wheel bearings go through an awful lot of wear and tear during normal application. But what is this limit? And how far can you go driving with bad wheel bearing?
Typically wheel bearings last anywhere from 85,000 miles to 100,000 miles. For readers who follow the metric system, this translates to, 136,000 kilometers to 160,000 kilometers. Of course, this is a very dynamic number. Numerous variables affect this heavily. These include the make and model of the car, the make of the bearing itself, your driving style, and the roads the car has been used on.
As a thumb rule, if you are planning to buy a used car with more than 80,000 miles on the odometer, you should make sure that you are not driving with bad wheel bearing. You can do this by checking the wheel bearing using some simple steps.
Even if the vehicle has not done anywhere close to 80,000 miles, you will still need to have your eyes, and ears, open. But if it generates some stupid noises, you may be driving with bad wheel bearing. We will discuss these noises in a later section.
Most importantly, it is important to not fall for the lifetime usage guarantee given by manufacturers. This “lifetime” calculation comes with its own limits and they mostly hover around the 100,000-mile mark. So, if your vehicle is going towards that age, it is a good measure to check your bearings.
Diagnosing Bad Wheel Bearings
Unlike some other defects under the skin of a car, driving with bad wheel bearing is not very inconspicuous. If your wheel bearing has gone bad, it announces its departure, with quite a lot of flair. How does the driver understand that the wheel bearing is starting to give up? How do you know when it is time to stop driving with bad wheel bearing?
Well, as we said, wheel bearings usually announce their defects with a set of obvious symptoms. You can feel most of it very easily while driving. For some others, you will have to stop the vehicle and conduct some simple checks.
So let us look at these symptoms that let you know that you are driving with bad wheel bearing. To make matters easier, let us group them into three phases while driving, after parking, and while using an OBD II scanner.
Bad Wheel Bearing Symptoms
As we know, the wheel bearing is made to reduce the rolling friction of wheels. So, the very first symptom can be an easy guess but there are a few more that we have to focus on. Let us dig in.
1. Higher Rolling Resistance
Well, you can see this coming from a mile ago. When the wheel bearing fails to do the one job it is entrusted with, higher resistance is what the wheel gets. And of course, all problems that come along with increased rolling resistance apply here. The added resistance can reduce the smoothness, hamper the progress, and make the vehicle drink more fuel. Let us look at these issues in detail.
a. Lower Fuel Efficiency
An increase in friction is always a counter-acting force against fuel efficiency. Driving with bad wheel bearing has the same effect as the wheels now have more friction to fight. To oppose this friction and maintain momentum, it needs to work more.
If we have paid attention to elementary physics, we should know that more work takes more energy. And where will this energy come from, in this case? The fuel of course. To maintain the speed, the engine drinks more fuel, reducing the efficiency.
b. Weaker Acceleration
This is also another obvious symptom. If the frictional forces increase on a wheel, the acceleration is definitely going to be impacted. Because of the stronger opposition, the wheels will not be able to roll as freely as before. This means that you will not get the same rate of acceleration as before for the same throttle input.
Hence, you will have to press the pedal more into the footwell to extract the same performance. This rolls us back to the previous symptom, lower fuel efficiency.
c. Increased Wear And Tear
Any increase in friction is accompanied by increased wear and tear. It is no surprise. In this case, too, driving with bad wheel bearing can eat into the metal of the components around it.
You may be looking at an early replacement of parts if the wheel bearing has gone wrong. This will also affect the tire life as well. The tires though take this impact in a different way as well which we will look into in the upcoming section.
2. Effect On Dynamics
As the wheel bearing connects the wheel to the axle, a defect in its operation can affect the vehicle’s dynamics. The vehicle may not respond to steering inputs like it used to. It may also add some undesired effects to the mix. Let us look at what these are.
a. Excessive Vibrations And Wheel Wobble
Vibrations can arise due to different reasons in a car. Driving with bad wheel bearing is a prime example of this. Drivers can easily feel the vibrations created by driving with bad wheel bearing. This becomes especially evident during cornering, acceleration, or deceleration.
The wheel wobble also seeps in at this stage. This can be quite dangerous as the driver can lose control of the vehicle at higher speeds.
b. Excessive Noise
The added friction brought in by driving with bad wheel bearing can create a lot of noise. The driver can easily pick up this audible warning, helping him or her understand the problem with the bad wheel bearing. These noises can be of different types.
Driving with bad wheel bearing can create a lot of noise when turning the steering wheel. This noise is helpful in determining the exact wheel bearing that has given up. If the vehicle makes more noise when the steering is turned right, the right wheel bearing must have given up. The vice versa is also correct, as expected.
When the vehicle is in motion, a bad wheel bearing can produce a loud whining and grinding noise. This is also a direct indicator of a failing wheel bearing. This noise will also increase when you accelerate.
Clunky noises may also come while driving with bad wheel bearing on uneven roads. When the wheels are presented with the uneven surface of a bad road, the wheel bearing can clunk and clack, the sounds of which can seep right into the cabin. This is slightly more dangerous as the broken surface can destroy the wheel bearing.
c. Vague Steering
As expected, the vibrations and wobble induced by driving with bad wheel bearing can also affect the steering. The driver may not get the same feedback from the steering as he or she is used to. Taking corners can be excessively difficult with such wrong feedback.
d. ABS Malfunction
The Anti-lock Braking System sensors are integrated into the wheel bearing in most cars. Vibrations induced by driving with bad wheel bearing can throw the readings of this sensor off. Braking can get especially difficult in this case, as the ABS may not function properly. In the worst cases, it may not function at all.
3. Symptoms Noticed When Parking
These symptoms as you might have already guessed comes to light after we park the vehicle. More than a symptom, these can be used for troubleshooting. These symptoms can be tested by some small tests to detect bad wheel bearings. Let us see what these are.
a. Wheel Wobble
After parking the vehicle, this is a simple test you can conduct to confirm if you were driving with bad wheel bearing. Once the vehicle is stationary, jack up the wheel, and wobble the tire from left to right with your hands.
If the tire wobbles, you may be having a bad wheel bearing. To confirm this, shake the tire from top to bottom as well. If the wheel bearing is wonky, the tire should wobble in all directions.
But before you do this test, it is important to ensure that the vehicle is stable on the jack. Else, shaking the wheels can upset the balance of the vehicle and let it fall on your hands.
b. Grinding Noise When Rotating Wheels
When the wheels are rotated by hand, if they create a grinding noise, you should suspect a bad wheel bearing. This test can also be performed with the vehicle jacked up. Even if there is no wheel wobble, a grinding noise is enough to confirm that you were driving with bad wheel bearing.
c. Wheel Does Not Rotate At All
This is an extreme situation and you do not want to end up here. This happens only when you completely ignore the other signs and your wheel bearing finally gives up. This can be especially dangerous as the wheel can fall off your vehicle. We do not think that no one needs any further explanation on how dangerous it can be.
d. Other Symptoms
Apart from the mechanical noises and vibrations that can be felt while driving or when parked, there are other symptoms. These can help you confirm that the wheel bearing has gone bad.
The first of these is the warning lights on your dashboard. Most wheel bearings come integrated with the ABS module in them (for context, check out our guide on the ABS system repair cost). So, if you are driving with bad wheel bearing, it is very likely that the ABS light on your dashboard will light up. Of course, the ABS light can mean other things as well. Like a bad ABS sensor. But it also gives us an opportunity to confirm that you are driving with bad wheel bearing.
The final symptom comes to light only when you connect an OBD II reader to the vehicle. If the wheel bearing has an ABS sensor integrated into it, the vehicle will throw some codes. These can be read using an OBD II reader which will tell us if we were driving with bad wheel bearing.
Bad Wheel Bearing Replacement
We have seen that driving with bad wheel bearing can be harmful to your vehicle. But how do you replace a wheel bearing? This is not a procedure that you will have to carry out very often as the wheel bearings can last for a long time. But when it is time to replace it, how long does it take? How big a hole can it create in your wallet? Let us look at these aspects in detail here.
How To Replace Wheel Bearings
The changing of wheel bearing is not a rookie’s job. But someone with a decent grasp on vehicle maintenance procedures may be able to pull it off with basic tools. But if you are not even remotely associated with these kinds of procedures, it will be safer to let some experienced hands do it. Here are the steps involved in changing a bad wheel bearing.
- Choke the wheels and loosen the lug nuts.
- Lift up the vehicle on a jack and remove the wheels.
- Unscrew the bolts holding the brake caliper in place, and remove them. Do not let it dangle freely. Instead, find a way to rest it so that the brake lines are not pulled tight.
- Remove the dust cover, and loosen the castle nut that holds the rotor.
- Use your hands, and a rubber mallet if needed, to loosen and remove the rotor. Do not hit it too hard as it can damage the rotor completely.
- Unscrew hub bolts to remove the wheel hub (as you would with a wheel hub replacement). These bolts may be hidden behind the hub assembly so you will need to access it using breaker bars and different wrenches.
- Take apart the hub to access the bearings. Use a specialized puller tool to remove the central bolt, and access the bearings.
- Install new wheel bearings and races. Clean everything and put the hub back together.
- Re-install the hub, and the rotor (it is recommended to replace this as well)
- Re-attach the calipers, and fit the wheels back. You are now good too. You do not have to drive with bad wheel bearing anymore.
Wheel Bearing Replacement Cost
According to Kelley Blue Book, a national average of $350 applies to a wheel bearing change job. Of course, it varies greatly with the brand, garage, and make and model of your car. You could even save some money by learning how to replace the wheel bearing. But there is some good news as well.
First off, driving with bad wheel bearing does not happen very often. The part is made to last a lot of miles, and it does. You are not looking at crazy close replacement intervals. Also, it does not mean that you must change wheel bearings on both sides if one of them goes wrong. These can reduce expenses.
But, driving with bad wheel bearing is not favorable at all. If your vehicle exhibits any of the symptoms we previously talked about, get it checked. You may be saving yourself, and your family, not only from a frustrating breakdown but also from facing a scary bill.
Driving With Bad Wheel Bearing: In Conclusion…
Driving with bad wheel bearing is not a life-threatening move. Nor is it going to completely render your car useless. But it is a pain to face if it finally gives up. To keep your vehicle happy, and to save you some money and time, regular maintenance is necessary.
For a vehicle nearing the 80,000 to 100,000 miles mark, it is a good idea to look at the wheel bearing. If not, you will be driving with bad wheel bearing and that is not going to end well.