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When it comes to keeping your vehicle rolling smoothly, your wheel bearings play a vital role. In fact, if they aren’t properly functioning, you could be in for a very bumpy ride. While they can be tricky to remove and replace, with a little elbow grease and know-how, you can repair your worn out wheel bearings.

How to diagnose a worn out wheel bearing

The wheel bearing’s two primary functions include ensuring the wheel rolls along the road and supporting the weight of the vehicle. If you’re lucky, wheel bearings can last up to 150,000 miles. However, once your car has over 75,000 miles, the wheel bearings could start acting up at any time.The hub that encapsulates and carries the bearing is connected to the spindle, which is attached to the rest of your car’s suspension. You may notice a hissing, grinding, or “whirring” noise before the bearing fails. If this happens, don’t delay repairs—when the wheel bearings “go” they may take other parts out with them.

The most noticeable sign of a busted wheel bearing is a violent shake or “death wobble” that gets worse and worse the faster you go. Do not attempt to drive your car if this symptom appears, as it can be quite dangerous.

How to be certain it's the wheel bearing

To be sure it’s the wheel bearing, try reaching in under the fender and grabbing the top of your wheel. Now shake it as violently as you can, using all of your body weight. If you doubt your ability to do this, don’t do it. Nobody wants to see you get hurt!

If you feel any movement at all, you’re going to need a new wheel bearing. If you don’t feel any movement, jack the corner of the car up and support it with a jack stand. Try the same maneuver. If the wheel wobbles, the bearing is likely at the end of its life.

When it's not just a wheel bearing

As the bearings wear, they begin to vibrate in a noticeable way. These vibrations may eventually get so bad that it feels as though the car’s wheels are trying to rip the steering wheel out of your hands. This is an unsettling thing to experience. It’s also dangerous, which is why you or a mechanic need to have a good look at your suspension as soon as you notice any vibration, wobbling, or shaking coming from the corners of your car. You may need more than just a wheel bearing—have a good look at the ball joints, tie-rod ends, and sway-bar end links as well.

Do you need a bearing or a wheel hub assembly?

In some cases, it’s possible to remove and replace just the bearing; however, this method is fraught with risk, so most professional mechanics avoid it when they can.

Servicable Hub Assemblies

This configuration is most common on older cars and 2WD trucks and vans. They are the easiest to remove and replace. The bearing comes out of the hub assembly and a new one goes in its place. This repair is not labor intensive under normal circumstances and the parts are fairly inexpensive.

Non-servicable Hub Assemblies

You’ll find these on many newer passenger cars. The bearings are not designed to be removed from the hub assembly. The entire hub assembly must be replaced. Though the repair is not labor intensive, the necessary hub assembly can be expensive for some makes and models.

Non-servicable Hub Assemblies with press in bearings

Consider this type the “worst of both worlds.” The parts AND labor are expensive. The hub assembly must be removed from the car or truck and set in a press, which is then used to press the bearing out of the assembly.
One wrong move with the press and you run the risk of damaging the hub assembly. If you’re not sure how to do this, get help from a professional mechanic.

Removing and replacing the necessary parts

If your car or truck has a non-serviceable wheel hub assembly with press in bearings, you will need a shop press to remove and replace the bearings. If your car or truck has non-serviceable wheel hubs, simply remove the old wheel hub and replace it with a new part. If your bearings are serviceable, you’re in for a great day under the shade tree. Removal and replacement is fairly straightforward.

If you’re new to working on cars, you may not know what type of hub assembly you have. Give your local Pep Boys a call and ask for help with identifying your hub assembly type.

Where the rubber meets the road

Your wheel is bolted to the wheel hub assembly, which is then bolted to a spindle, carrier, or axle. There’s a very large nut that secures the hub assembly to the spindle.

On some cars, this nut may be less than an inch (~24mm). On other cars and trucks, the nut may be much larger. Removing this nut is often the most difficult part of replacing the wheel hub assembly. You’re looking at a very large nut with a whole lot of torque on it, that spins freely as a part of its normal operation. The trick is to get the wheel bearing assembly “stuck” somehow. Fortunately, the brake rotor is fixed to the wheel bearing assembly. Have a friend or helper get in the car and stand on the brakes. That should be enough to pop the nut loose, even without any assistance from the power brakes. If the rotor slips, have your friend press harder on the pedal.

From here, you still need to remove your brake calipers and rotors. Brake calipers are typically held on with two large bolts. The calipers should swing out of the way once the bolts are removed. Watch for calipers that have hard brake lines; these are rigid, and you may damage them if you’re too rough. On most cars and trucks, the brake rotor slides off the lug nuts. On others, you may have to unbolt the rotor.

The rare and unusual

It’s appropriate to remove and replace the bearing by itself if you’re working on a rare, unusual, or expensive vehicle for which the hub assembly is rare, out of stock, or otherwise unavailable. Methods for removing the old bearing race include using a blind-hole bearing puller or, when it’s particularly stubborn, cutting the bearing race away with a torch or die-grinder. It’s best to leave these methods alone unless you’re a serious enthusiast or professional mechanic.

It’s risky to take a torch or a die-grinder to the hub assembly. That’s why many mechanics won’t bother attempting to remove the bearing. When possible, they simply replace the hub assembly, even when working on rare and unusual cars. An even more advanced technique involves machining the hub assembly to accept an oversized bearing. This technique should be left to the experts as well.

Wheel bearing wrap up

There are three different types of wheel hub assemblies. On some cars, you can just replace the bearing and call it a day. On others, the hub assembly must be removed and replaced. The most difficult type involves removing the hub assembly and setting it in a press.
If you’re not sure what type of wheel hub assembly you have, stop by or give your local Pep Boys store a call. We have the parts and information you need to get your car back on the road again.