A wheel bearing is the name given to a set of steel bearings that allow the wheels on your vehicle to spin with the least amount of friction possible. The wheel bearing assembly, made up of many small steel balls or rollers, is housed inside of the wheel hub to which the wheel attaches. Depending on the type of drive system included on your vehicle, the drive axle might also protrude through the center of the hub and bearing.
Wheel bearings reduce friction and allow your vehicle to roll by offering smooth balls or rollers to ride against the smooth metal walls of the inner and outer rings, or “races” of the bearing assembly. These metal balls or rollers bear the weight of your vehicle. The arrangement is similar to the ball bearings in a roller skate or skateboard.
Older vehicles relied on a set of “tapered” roller bearings installed in the wheel hub and seated on a spindle. This type of wheel bearing has the advantage of better lubrication and smooth operation, but requires more maintenance and can be tricky to install. While some heavy duty trucks still come with tapered wheel bearings, most modern vehicles feature sealed wheel bearings, some of which must be pressed into the wheel hub, and others that come as a permanent part of the hub assembly.
Wheel bearings are filled with grease for lubrication. When this lubricant leaks from the wheel bearing, metal on metal contact can damage the wheel bearing. So can the introduction of dirt, sand, or other contaminants. If allowed to deteriorate for too long, significant changes to vehicle handling are likely. Ultimately, complete failure of the wheel hub (where the wheel falls off of the vehicle) can occur.
You might notice one or more of the following signs if a wheel bearing is going bad:
Wheel bearing replacement procedures depend on the vehicle make, model, drive type (front-wheel, rear-wheel, all-wheel, or four-wheel-drive) and other factors, including whether the vehicle comes with tapered bearings or sealed bearings. The most common type of wheel bearing found on passenger vehicles today is the sealed bearing. To replace this component, a technician will take the following general steps:
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