How To Diagnose & Fix Wheel Bearings

Can You Drive With A Bad Wheel Bearing?

While you can drive with a broken wheel bearing, you really shouldn’t be. The wheel bearing comes in many different types but all serve the same function; to allow the wheel to rotate about a stationary spindle held via the suspension system. The wheel bearing is part of the wheel hub which is directly splined with the CV shaft for the driven wheels and is simply held onto the spindle for non-driven wheels. 

Wheel bearings generally last a long time but with constant use, they can lose their lubricity causing rapid wear and deterioration and will eventually start to show various signs of failure. These indications must not be ignored and you should always inspect and replace the hub assemblies if you start to notice the symptoms of bad wheel bearings.

It isn’t advised to drive a vehicle with a broken wheel bearing as you can face many different problems, which can develop into bigger, more pressing concerns and will require more expensive repairs if the signs are neglected. Let us get an idea of what safety concerns a broken wheel bearing poses to understand the proper answer to the above question.

What Happens When A Wheel Bearing Fails?

What Happens When A Wheel Bearing Fails?

The following conditions can occur with prolonged use of extremely worn out wheel bearings:

  • The Wheel Can Get Dislodged: Now this may seem extreme but when the vehicle is moving at high speeds with a broken wheel bearing, the only thing holding the hub in place is a single nut against very high lateral and longitudinal stresses that can cause it to break and let the wheel free putting the vehicle in a very dire situation. This issue is imminent if the vehicle is constantly driven at high speeds with a broken wheel bearing for prolonged periods of time. 
  • Excessive Vibrations: Since the wheel is attached via the bearing to the spindle, a broken bearing can produce a play in the wheel which induces vibrations as the vehicle is moving. This vibration can worsen when taking turns and at higher speeds.
  • Loss Of Steerability: A broken wheel bearing in the front wheels means there is a play present at the turning wheels which causes reduced steering response. This play hinders while rotating the wheels and can, therefore, produce looseness in the steering wheel and cause a loss in steerability. 
  • Rapid And Uneven Tire Wear: Loose bearings in the wheel hub can cause the tire to rest at an undesirable angle which causes the tire to wear unevenly and produces increased tire deterioration which can result in complete tire replacement.

These factors confirm that driving with a broken wheel bearing is serious and you must replace your bearings as soon as you notice the below-mentioned symptoms to avoid any unnecessary situations. 

However, it is crucial to note that the vehicle can be driven with a broken wheel bearing if in a situation where a replacement cannot be carried out immediately, like for example in the middle of a deserted road. If so then drive slowly and just get to the nearest mechanic or your home and only drive the vehicle when the bearing is fixed.

What Are The Symptoms Of Worn Out Wheel Bearings?

What Are The Symptoms Of Worn Out Wheel Bearings?

Wheel bearing failure is evident from many signs that can signal you to carry out the necessary maintenance. Here are simple signs to look out for bearing failure:

  1. Grinding, Clicking And Tapping Sounds: Once the wheel bearing fails, the contact between two surfaces isn’t lubricated and causes metal on metal contact which can create grinding, clicking, or roaring sounds. These sounds are isolated to a single tire or wheel indicating that the bearing is the issue. Continued driving in such a condition can harm the CV shaft and create yet more sounds like tapping noise, from improper shaft attachment. 
  2. Vehicle And Steering Wheel Vibration: Broken wheel bearings can create a tire imbalance and induce play in the wheel causing the steering system to vibrate as the vehicle starts moving. This can worsen as the speed progresses and is felt at the steering wheel along with noticeable vehicle vibration when at higher speeds. You may also feel excessive vibrations when turning. 
  3. Uneven Tire Wear: Bad bearings cause the tire imbalance which means the tire rests in an undesirable angle which can cause the tire to wear unevenly and also require premature tire replacement. 
  4. Loose Tire: The tires are mounted to the hub which is attached via the wheel bearing to the rest of the vehicle. One way to verify wheel bearing failure is to check for play in the tires. Jack up the car on a lift or stand and attempt to rock the tire back and forth. If you notice the wheel along with the brake disc and hub is moving or wobbling, then you certainly have worn out bearings in need of replacement. 
  5. ABS Warning Light: In modern cars, the ABS sensor is part of the wheel hub assembly and a broken bearing will trigger an ABS and sometimes even traction control warning lights to light up in the dash. 

Figuring out the issue is just one step, fixing it is another, so let’s get you acquainted with the procedure of replacing your wheel bearings. 

How To Replace Wheel Bearings?

The replacement job of the wheel bearing is a little involved but if you have tackled brake rotor replacement before then this is just a few extra steps. There are two types of wheel bearing mounts, bolt-on and pressed-in. We will showcase the replacement job for each of these. 

Make sure to use the following tools while replacing wheel bearing and hub to considerably reduce the effort required to do it:

The Procedure For Bolt-On Type-Wheel Bearing Hub Assembly:

  1. Jack the car up on floor jacks and support them using jack stands. For driven wheels, you need to free the axle nut. To do that start by removing any hub cap to gain access to the axle nut. 
  2. Remove any cotter pin ahead of the axle nut. There may also be an indentation where the nut is pinched into. Using a hammer and straight head screwdriver, remove the pinched edge.  
  3. Now with the tire in place and secured with the lug nuts, break the axle nut using an impact wrench or a breaker bar. Note that this will require a lot of effort so consider using air tools to make the job easier. 
  4. With the axle nut loose, remove all the lug nuts and then remove the tire. 
  5. Proceed to remove the brake caliper by undoing the mounting bracket bolts. 
  6. Once removed, secure the brake caliper to the strut using a bungee cord or cable ties to avoid putting stress on the brake hose and wiring. 
  7. Now remove the brake disc from the hub. If there is resistance then use a hammer to pry it off, making sure to remove any holding screws first. 
  8. This exposes the hub which contains the bad wheel bearing. Before you proceed, you must push the axle inwards to free the splined section of the axle to the bearing. To do this take a hammer and gently hit the axle towards the vehicle to push it in. Also, remove the ABS connection and/or speed sensor connections found behind the spindle 
  9. To free the hub from the spindle, remove all the bolts holding the hub in place. 
  10. These bolts can be accessed from behind the spindle. Turn the wheel inwards to gain more access to these nuts. You may need to use a breaker bar to set them loose. 
  11. Once the bolts holding the hub are off, the hub is ready to come off. Proceed to remove the hub from the spindle. This may require a little work as the hub can be stuck to the spindle due to corrosion in between the contact surfaces. 
  12. After the hub assembly is removed from the spindle, compare it with the new part. 
  13. Before you place the new hub assembly in, you must clean the contact surfaces between the hub and spindle. 
  14. Using a wire brush rid the surface of any rust and debris accumulated and apply some brake cleaner to clean it. 
  15. Once the surface is clean, place the new hub assembly in place and secure it using the bolts. Proceed to reinstall all the components in the reverse order of removal and torque down all components to their respective torque setting for proper fitment. Refer to the car manual for more information.

Note that in case of non-driven wheels (which is usually the rear wheels in most cars) the axle will not be present and hence you can completely skip the steps related to the axle nut and axle.

The Procedure For Pressed-In Wheel Bearing:

  1. Follow the above steps for Bolt-On type bearing until step 8, after which you need to remove the steering knuckle or spindle assembly from the suspension system. 
  2. Start by removing the tie rod end from the knuckle. To do this first remove the cotter pin from the castle nut and then undo the nut itself. Tap using a hammer on the knuckle where the tie rod end attaches to free it. 
  3. You then need to undo the bolts holding the lower ball joint to the control arm. Use an impact wrench to make your job much easier.
  4. Now remove the bolts holding the spindle and strut together. And knock the strut bolts out using a hammer and screwdriver. Support the knuckle when removing the last bolt.
  5. Always make sure to remove all electrical connections like the ABS sensor and wheel speed sensor from the spindle prior to any other components to avoid damaging the wires. 
  6. Once the spindle is off from the car you can examine the wheel bearing. Now since these bearing need to be pressed in, replacing the bearing cannot be done without a press. You can get a new bearing and go to your local mechanic to have the old bearing removed and the new bearing placed in the hub. Alternatively, you can replace the hub as well that comes with the wheel bearing.  
  7. Once the new bearing is installed in the knuckle, proceed to reinstall all the components in the reverse order of removal and torque down all components to their respective torque setting for proper fitment. Refer to the car manual for more information.

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