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What Is a Wheel Bearing? Diagnosing a Wheel Bearing Noise

A bearing in its race.

A bearing in its race.

Your mechanic says you need a wheel bearing, but you wonder "What is that?" I will make this as easy as possible to understand, with pictures, video, and my own interpretation. I'll tell you what a wheel bearing is, its job, where it's located, and what it sounds like when it's damaged.

What Is a Wheel Bearing?

A wheel bearing is a set of steel balls held together by a metal ring called a race. They help wheels spin fast with as little friction as possible. They are used on all kinds of vehicles, from bicycles to aircraft and cars. On a car, a wheel bearing rides on a metal axle shaft and fits tightly inside the hub, which is a hollow chunk of metal at the center of the wheel. The hub holds the lug bolts that you use to bolt the tire onto the wheel. The wheel bearing is pressed into the hub from the back.

What Does a Bad Wheel Bearing Sound Like?

When bearings are damaged and making noise, it's hard to diagnose because you have to drive the vehicle in order to reproduce the sound. Here are tips to help you find the source of the problem:

  • When the seal on the wheel bearing is broken or damaged, the noise starts out very faint and becomes louder over time. It sounds like the noise that your tires make when hitting a rumble strip on the highway, just not quite as loud, something like the sound of playing cards flapping against bicycle spokes.
  • While driving down the road at about 40 mph, sway the car side to side slowly, shifting the weight of the vehicle from one side to the other. Do not drive crazy or cause the car to spin out, just sway it gently. Notice whether the noise gets louder or softer. If the noise is a little less if you turn right, the damaged bearing may be on the right side, or vice versa.
  • Note that tires that are "chopped" or "scalloped" (worn in patches) also make a rhythmic noise that increases in speed. This sounds very similar to a bad wheel bearing. Look at your tires as well if you hear this kind of noise.
A bearing inside a hub.

A bearing inside a hub.

Why Do Wheel Bearings Make Noise?

Most wheel bearings are hardened steel and can withstand a lot of abuse. Its two worst enemies are heat and water. Heat caused by lack of lubrication can destroy a wheel bearing. Water that penetrates a sealed bearing will also destroy it.

Most wheel bearings manufactured today are sealed. They come from the factory pressed together as an assembly: front race, bearing set, center race, bearing set, and outer race, with seals on both the front and rear. Seals protect bearings from the elements, water, and debris, and they also seal in the high-temperature grease the bearing needs. When a seal is broken or damaged, the wheel bearing will fail and start making noise.

Damaged wheel bearing race

Damaged wheel bearing race

Pinpointing the Source of Bearing Noise

As explained in the video below, if you really want to know whether your noise is a bearing noise and you can get the car up on a lift, you can use an improvised stethoscope (actually a big screwdriver) to listen to the sound and find out where it's coming from. Have someone in the vehicle start it and run it at about 40 mph. Using a long screwdriver or stethoscope, rest it on the hub near each wheel bearing. Careful! Don't let the tool touch a moving part, or it could fly up and hit you. Listen through the handle of the screwdriver (or through the stethoscope) for the noise, and I guarantee you will be able to determine which bearing is bad.

Replacing Your Wheel Bearing

Wheel bearings do not fail immediately, and usually give you some time before you need to have them replaced. I suppose if a wheel bearing failed completely it could lock up and prevent the car from moving. Then again, my daughter drove on a noisy bearing for six months and nothing happened except that it got louder and louder.

You shouldn't necessarily have the bearings on both sides replaced. Just because one fails is no reason to think the others are about to; bearings should last a long time.

Replacing one is a bit expensive because of the labor involved. There are a lot of parts to remove and get out of the way before you can get to the wheel bearing, especially on a four-wheel-drive or front-wheel-drive vehicle. It's a difficult job to do yourself without a press because it's a tight fit getting the bearing in and out of the hub. It's less work (though more expense for parts) to replace the whole hub and bearing as a unit.

Please Ask Questions or Comment Below!

I hope this article helped you. If you have a question, please feel free to leave it in the comments box, I will answer it as soon as possible. Your questions are welcome and help other readers.

More by Eddie Carrara on Car Noises

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: How much will it cost to replace the wheel bearing?

Answer: This all depends on the vehicle and where it's located on the vehicle. There is a big difference in labor between a Honda Civic rear wheel bearing and a Ford F250 rear wheel bearing. The average cost is about 2 hours labor for a front wheel bearing.

Question: What should I get done first: wheel bearings, or brake pads and rotors?

Answer: There is some overlap in labor and you could save a few bucks doing them at the same time, so if you can borrow the money to do both jobs together it would be ideal. I don't know how bad the wheel bearing is, so I can't say which is more important.

Question: I hear a grinding noise in the front wheel area, do you think its a wheel bearing?

Answer: A wheel bearing noise is similar to a hum and is usually heard above 25 mph. If this is what you are hearing it's a good possibility a worn wheel bearing is what you are hearing.

Question: My car only has 12,000 miles on it. It was stuttering and not responding on and off when I would push the gas pedal. The dealership has had it for four weeks and is now thinking that my wheel bearing needs replaced. Is this unusual? Should I be concerned that I will have further problems?

Answer: The problem you're having has nothing to do with wheel bearings; it sounds more like you have an issue with the throttle position sensor or mass airflow sensor.

Question: I have a 2007 Pontiac Grand Prix GT, and I hear a rattling noise when driving over rough areas in streets. I replaced the passenger side sway bar link and tire rod, but it still drives rough. I was thinking my passenger side wheel bearing. What do you think it could be?

Answer: Try replacing the sway bar bushings first, they are what soften the noise from the sway bar to the frame, and they wear out over time and cause a knocking noise over bumps. Wheel bearings will not cause a knocking noise.

Question: My truck is making a vibrating/humming noise only when I'm driving 60 mph or 80 mph. Is this the wheel bearing?

Answer: It sounds like either your wheel bearings or uneven tire wear, I recommend checking the tire wear first.

Question: I have a 2005 Honda Pilot and there is a humming sound coming from the rear of my car. The mechanics changed the two rear wheel bearings and it was still making the same sound. Now he changed the two front wheel bearings and it is still making the same sound! Can you help me by suggesting what you think is wrong?

Answer: If your Pilot is a AWD most likely the noise is coming from the center carrier bearing mounted on the driveshaft in the middle of the vehicle.

Question: If the wheel bearings are making a loud noise when going straight, as well as when turning right, is that a bad sign? Should I stop driving the car until I can get it fixed?

Answer: Yes, bearings will make noise driving straight as well as when turning. I recommend having a mechanic take a drive with you to get their opinion on how bad they are just to be safe.

Question: I'm a 1000 miles from home, and I think my wheel bearing needs repair. Is it dangerous to drive at high speeds?

Answer: You need to stop and have it checked. I'm not sure what the actual problem is, so it's better to have it checked just in case.

Question: If a wheel bearing is replaced would it need to be replaced again within one week?

Answer: Are you asking if a wheel bearing can go bad in one week? If so, the person who installed it may have damaged it or instead it wrong, some wheel bearings last the life of a car.

Question: When the mechanic says there was play on the wheels and the wheel bearings need to be replaced, how bad is that?

Answer: It means either the locking wheel bearing nut was loose or the wheel bearing is worn enough to have some clearance. Usually if the wheel bearing is noisy it because of damage, but if the wheel bearing was loose because the nut backed off and there was no noise, the nut may have just needed to be tightened.

Question: A sound comes from my driver's side front tire area when I turn to pull out of the driveway or do a slow turn at a stop sign. The noise sounds more like a creaking noise, and it just started to also sound like a disc spinning. My front tires are winter tires and are cupped and I know I need new struts. Could these two be the reasons for this noise or is it something else?

Answer: It's very possible your struts are the issue if they are leaking oil or gas. Sometimes calipers can make creaking noises too when there is a lack of lubrication.

Question: My mechanic says wheel bearing seal is leaking and it is drying in there. No noise yet. How urgent is the repair?

Answer: If there is no noise and the wheel bearing doesn't have any play there isn't a problem yet and it may take years for there to be a problem depending on driving habits, condition, and miles driven.

Question: There is a humming noise coming from front wheel area of my car, and it gets louder when I drive faster, could this be wheel bearing?

Answer: Yes, that absolutely sounds like a wheel bearing.

Question: I bumped into the curb. As a result, I had the lower arm changed. However, when driving above 20 mph., any steering towards the right side results in a rumbling noise. Could this be the wheel bearing or the drive shaft?

Answer: Yes and yes. Most likely you damaged the wheel bearing, and now you have a humming noise; an axle would be more of vibration on acceleration or clicking on acceleration while turning from a stop.

Question: I had my oil changed, and the mechanic looked over my car & said my wheel bearings needed to be replaced, and that my tires should be balanced. I took my car back to where I purchased all new tires because they would balance them for free, but they didn’t tell me I needed bearings, so who am I to believe? I don’t hear the noise you have demonstrated.

Answer: Did the mechanic say why they needed to be changed? Usually if a bearing is not noisy, it doesn't have a problem, it could have some play in it, but some bearings can be adjusted by tightening the axle nut.

Question: Why are my wheels screeching on bends and corners?

Answer: Most likely, the rotor backing plate is to close to the rotor and needs to be adjusted.

Question: When buying a wheel hub, do the bearings come with it as a whole unit?

Answer: It depends on the manufacturer. Some manufacturers sell the components separately so you'll need to ask before you buy.

Question: Do you have to remove the brake pads and rotors to get to the wheel bearings?

Answer: Yes, the wheel bering is usually either bolted or pressed into the knuckle and the caliper and rotor will need to be removed.

Question: Why does my car make a tire rubbing sound but not all the time?

Answer: Your tire may be close to something and only rubs when parts are moving and flexing. I had a customer once who had oversized tires and the tire would rub on the mudflap when she turned a corner. I recommend checking all your tire clearances.

Question: Sometimes there is a noise that reminds me of a kids Power Wheel vehicle, like when it's driven on grass. The big problem is a loud pounding rumble when turning left. I don't think it impairs driving, but it's so loud it makes you think your wheel might fall off if you cut it too deep. Do you think it's the bearing? There are also open recalls on the male model 2010 cx7. Could it be the axel?

Answer: Wheel bearings make a humming noise, so if you have an open recall on the axle, this would be a great place to start because the noise you're describing sounds like you shouldn't be driving this vehicle until it's fixed.

Question: I own a 06 Civic Si. It sounds like something is hitting the brake shield. Rolling by parked cars with my passenger window down, I can hear it softly reflecting back to me. It's almost like softly rubbing on metal; light squeaking. It seems to get louder when I turn to the right. This has been happening for about a year, and has lately become more severe. Should I replace the front axle?

Answer: No, your axle wouldn't make this type of noise. I recommend having the rotor backing plates check for a clearance issue or debris stuck between the two.

Question: I think my wheel bearing just went out. Now my 1999 Chevy Blazer keeps locking the tires and won't let me go anywhere. Do you think it is the wheel bearing? If so what brand of bearings should I buy?

Answer: A wheel bearing would have to make an awful lot of noise before it Locks up, your problem sounds more like your brakes have an issue. I recommend taking off the wheel first to check out what has caused the wheel to lock up.

Question: When I start my Jeep Liberty, why do I hear a ticking noise on the right side?

Answer: There are a lot of electronic components that turn on and off quickly, so maybe that's what you're hearing.

Question: I bought new wheels for my Hyundai accent 2005. Last night I installed the wheels myself. As soon as I started driving, I started hearing this weird noise. I don't know if I damaged the axles. All I remember is that when I put the rims on, I tightened them very hard. That's all I did. Then the noise started up right away. What could it be?

Answer: Either your rims are hitting the calipers, or your wheels are not tight enough. If you didn't install the centering rims, assuming that they came with the wheels, that could also be the source of the noise.

Question: I have a Honda Jazz, and the rear wheel bearing inner race is stuck on the shaft. How do I get it off without damaging the shaft?

Answer: You need to cut it off without damaging the shaft. We usually use a diamond cutting wheel to slice halfway through the race, then use a cold chisel to crack the race inside the cut. It should slide off the shaft after that. If you end up cutting the shaft slightly, it shouldn't affect the installation or the operation of the new bearing.

Question: What makes a noise like a metal bat dragging on cement?

Answer: Worn out brake pads would make a sound like that, or if a small rock is caught between the rotor and backing plate.

© 2011 Eddie Carrara