What Should You Know About Your Failing Wheel Bearings?
Your wheels and tires take a surprising amount of abuse. Even if you live in an area with perfectly smooth roads, they still need to absorb all the little bumps that come with traveling over asphalt at high speed. This wear and tear will eventually cause parts to fail, resulting in drivability issues ranging from mildly annoying to completely catastrophic.
Your wheel bearings are one part of this system that you may not think much about. Unfortunately, these crucial components can cause some nasty situations if they fail. This guide will help get you up to speed with your bearings to recognize when they're on their way out and address the problem before it leads to catastrophe.
What Are Wheel Bearings?
Your wheel assembly doesn't rotate as a single piece. Instead, your suspension and braking components must remain stationary while the wheel, tire, and axle turn freely. The wheel bearing allows this rotation to occur while smoothly constraining your wheel's freedom of movement. Without a bearing to keep your wheel in place, it would be free to move laterally to the car's direction of travel.
Modern vehicles use sealed designs that protect the inner bearings and lubrication from moisture and contamination. Unfortunately, these seals can break down over time, often due to abuse or poor maintenance. Unbalanced tires, severe pothole hits, and even traveling through deep water can allow your wheel bearings to become contaminated and fail.
How Do You Know If Yours Are Failing?
If a wheel bearing fails, you'll usually hear it before noticing other driveability issues. Failed bearings can make numerous unpleasant sounds, including rumbling, clicking, and higher-pitched moaning or grinding. These noises are usually rotational, which means they'll increase or change in frequency as you change your speed.
Wheel-bearing noises will inevitably become louder and more severe as time goes on. The increased friction and heat will cause the bearings to continue breaking down internally, making the problem worse. Eventually, the failed bearing will no longer contain the wheel's lateral movement effectively, and you may begin to notice a shaking or vibration.
In a worst-case scenario, a bearing may lock up entirely, which can cause the wheel to break free. This situation can be hazardous if it happens at speed and may even cause you to lose control of the vehicle. While these situations are rare, they can occur if you ignore the warning signs of bearing failure for long enough.
What Can You Do?
You should never ignore any unusual sounds from your wheels. Even if the problem isn't your bearings, it may still be an issue with your tires, suspension, steering, or braking system. If you're noticing a grinding, clicking, or rumbling sound, the best option is to get your car into a car repair service center as soon as you can to find and fix the problem.