Your car is what gets you where you need to go on time and in one piece, so when it starts making strange noises or pulling from side to side, it can feel very unsafe. Your vehicle’s wheel bearings play a pretty significant role in how your car functions, so it’s worth knowing what they are and how they work.
How are Fidget Spinners and Wheel Bearings Alike?
Do you remember a few years ago when “fidget spinners” were all the rage? Those neat little toys seemed to spin endlessly and effortlessly between your fingers, making them fun to move around and do tricks with. You may not realize it, but fidget spinners and the wheel bearings in your car have a lot in common.
It all boils down to basic physics. Balls generate less friction when they roll across a surface (as evidenced when you give a book and a ball a push on the same surface – the ball will definitely go farther because there is less friction). In a fidget spinner, you hold the center ball bearing between your fingers to keep it still, and then you spin the outer ring (called a bearing race) either by flicking your wrist or the little protruding knobs.
The tiny little balls in between the center bearing and the outer bearing race reduce a lot of the friction that would normally be generated with that kind of motion, so the fidget spinner spins on and on and on…and on (much to every parent and elementary teacher’s chagrin).
The wheel bearings in your car work a lot in the same way. Sure, they’re not quite as fun to play with, but they serve a valuable function keeping your vehicle safe and on the road.
What is a Wheel Bearing?
Wheel bearings come in two basic configurations: angular and conrad. The angular type has ball bearings nestled between an angular holding piece and another piece – all situated inside of a collar. As a general rule, angular wheel bearings can handle bigger thrusts or shocks than conrad-styles because the bearings function on an angle. The conrad type has an inner circle with ball bearings sitting in between an outer circle, so it handles situations better than those that only have vertical shocks. Both types are sealed to maintain lubrication and keep out dust and other debris.
What Do Wheel Bearings Do?
Wheel bearings connect your vehicle’s wheels to the axle and reduce friction when the wheel turns so that you can drive smoothly. Your vehicle’s entire weight rests on the wheel bearings, so it’s safe to say that they take a lot of abuse – especially if you are prone to hitting potholes and curbs.
Why It’s Tricky to Diagnose Worn Wheel Bearings
Since wheel bearings are not something people talk about very much, it can be hard to diagnose them as the cause of your vehicle’s problems. Not only that, but given the location of the wheel bearings, sometimes the grinding noise can travel and sound like it’s coming out of the engine. Additionally, once your vehicle is up on a lift, the damaged part of the wheel bearing will often move to the top, so you don’t hear the noise unless you make it do several fast rotations.
Like those at any of our Utah auto repair shops, seasoned mechanics know to look for several different indicators that wheel bearings are the issue. One tell-tale sign is a whirring or grinding noise coming from the wheel area. That grinding sound comes when the ball bearings move over tiny pits or divots in the bearing race. The baffling part of listening for this sound is that sometimes you can only hear it at certain speeds or in particular conditions. One thing to note, though, is if it sounds like a “click” instead of a “whirr,” it’s likely a problem with something other than the wheel bearing.
As mentioned above, the way sound travels can make it difficult to pinpoint which wheel has a damaged bearing, so many technicians will suggest replacing multiple wheel bearings at once. This may seem like an unnecessary expense, but it is a way to ensure that the technician is completely correcting the problem.
Another sign of a damaged wheel bearing is feeling like your wheels have a mind of their own. Your vehicle shouldn’t pull one way over another, and they shouldn’t feel wobbly at all, so if you feel like you’re fighting to keep your wheels on center, the wheel bearing could be the issue. This looseness can also cause uneven wear on your tires, which any of our Utah tire stores can help diagnose.
Additionally, your steering wheel may also vibrate, which is always unnerving. Damaged wheel bearings can also mess with your braking system, making it imperative that you take your vehicle into a mechanic when you first suspect a problem.
Things to Keep in Mind
Invest in high-quality aftermarket parts if you need to replace the wheel bearing. Poor quality wheel bearings are likely to break or negatively impact your wheels, brakes, or general drivability. Wheel bearings work well for an average of 100,000 miles.
There are a lot of moving parts in between you at the wheel bearings, so it isn’t easy to replace yourself. Unless you have a lift and a lot of know-how, you’re probably best off taking it to a mechanic. If you suspect that wheel bearings may be a problem for you, bring your vehicle into our Bountiful tire shop or any of our shops along the Wasatch Front to have one of our skilled mechanics take a look.