Wheel Bearing Failure Symptoms: The Sounds and Vibrationsby Mike SchoonveldUpdated July 11, 2023
Your car’s wheels run on a pair of roller bearings, and roller bearings occasionally fail. If this happens while at highway speeds, the results can be catastrophic. Wheel bearings play a critical role in the smooth operation of a vehicle's wheels. However, like any mechanical component, they can experience wear and eventually fail. Recognizing the symptoms of a failing wheel bearing is essential to prevent potential hazards on the road.
Rumbling and Vibrations
One of the first signs of a wheel bearing problem is a low rumbling sound emanating from one of the wheels. This rumbling noise can be felt through the steering wheel or the vehicle's body. In some cases, the rumbling sound intensifies when turning. Additionally, vibrations may accompany the rumbling sensation, further indicating bearing issues.
Wobble and Vibrations
One of the primary indicators of a failing wheel bearing is a noticeable wobbling sensation in your car's wheel. If you feel an abnormal side-to-side movement while driving, it may be a sign of a compromised wheel bearing. Vibrations can accompany the wobbling sensation, making it more noticeable at higher speeds.
Lack of Lubrication
Proper lubrication is essential for the smooth operation of wheel bearings. However, over time, lubricants can degrade or become contaminated. Insufficient lubrication can result in increased friction and heat generation within the bearing, leading to accelerated wear and potential failure. Regular maintenance and ensuring adequate lubrication are important in preventing bearing issues.
Effects of Potholes
Navigating potholes or other road hazards can take a toll on your wheel bearings. The impact of hitting a pothole can cause stress and damage to the bearings, leading to premature wear. If you notice any changes in the vehicle's handling or unusual noises after encountering potholes, it's important to have your wheel bearings inspected for potential damage.
Clicking or Scraping Sounds
At lower speeds, a failing wheel bearing may produce clicking or scraping sounds with each rotation of the wheel. These sounds can be more noticeable when the vehicle is turning. Pay attention to any unusual noises during driving, especially during cornering maneuvers.
Wheel Play Inspection
To check for potential wheel bearing problems, safely jack up the vehicle so that the suspect wheel is off the ground. Grasp the wheel and attempt to move it up and down or back and forth. If there is excessive play or movement, indicating a loose connection between the wheel and axle, it may be a sign of a bad wheel bearing. In such cases, immediate repair or towing to a professional repair shop is necessary.
Smoke and Heat
As a wheel bearing nears catastrophic failure, excessive friction can generate intense heat. This can cause the wheel hub to smoke and emit a burning smell. If you notice smoke coming from the wheel, it is crucial to stop the vehicle immediately and address the issue to prevent further damage and potential safety hazards.
Wheel Separation and Steering Impairment
Failure to recognize the initial warning signs can lead to severe consequences. If left unaddressed, a failed wheel bearing can cause the wheel to crumble, resulting in metal-on-metal contact and the melting of certain parts. Eventually, the wheel may become completely loose on the axle or even detach from the vehicle. In the case of a front wheel bearing failure, steering control will be significantly compromised, posing a serious safety risk.
To ensure the safety and performance of your vehicle, promptly address any signs of a failing wheel bearing. Consulting an auto repair professional is recommended for an accurate diagnosis and proper wheel bearing replacement. Timely replacement can prevent further damage to suspension components, wheel alignment issues, and excessive tire wear.
Remember, symptoms of a bad wheel bearing may include grinding noises, squealing sounds, uneven tire wear, excessive play and squeaking. Damaged wheel bearings can affect the lifespan of other components such as CV joints, differential, and the anti-lock brake system. Replacement costs may vary depending on the specific vehicle and the extent of the bearing issues.
By staying vigilant and attentive to the symptoms of wheel bearing failure, you can address these issues promptly and maintain the safety and reliability of your vehicle on the road.
Mike Schoonveld has been writing since 1989 with magazine credits including "Outdoor Life," "Fur-Fish-Game," "The Rotarian" and numerous regional publications. Schoonveld earned a Master Captain License from the Coast Guard. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife science from Purdue University.