What Is a Wheel Bearing (& When Should You Replace It)?

by Max Johnston - Gearhead

Wheel bearings play a critical role in making sure your vehicle handles safely and effectively—but many people know very little about them. Understanding how wheel bearings work can help you recognize problems with the ones in your car or truck and replace them with high-quality aftermarket bearings before they can cause widespread damage to other components.

Below, we’ll teach you all about wheel bearings—what they are, where they’re located, why they wear down over time, and what activities or movements you can avoid to help your wheel bearings last longer. Let’s roll.

Wheel Bearings 101: What Are They & Where Are They Found?

Wheel bearings are steel balls or tapered rollers housed inside a ring made of metal. This ring sits inside the hub on each of your vehicle’s wheels, which connects them to the axles. The hub cap (containing a cotter pin, nut, and washer) sits on the outside of the tires to hold the whole system in place.

Most hubs contain an inner bearing and an outer bearing, which are held in place by a seal. This seal prevents dust and other debris from entering the bearings and spoiling their lubricant as you drive. The following diagram shows where all of these parts are located:

breakdown of all the parts in a wheel bearing

The point of wheel bearings is to reduce friction as your vehicle’s wheels turn. This helps the wheels turn more easily, reducing the strain placed on your driveshaft and transmission system. When wheel bearings wear out, the friction on these components increases and they become susceptible to damage as you drive.

Wheel bearings require lubricant (i.e. grease) to function properly. Bearings that are not properly lubricated are likely to rust or grind against each other during use, reducing their lifespan considerably.

Ball Bearings vs. Roller Bearings

As you can see below, ball bearings are much less exposed than roller bearings. This has important implications for how long each type will last and how easy they are to service.

ball vs. roller bearingsVia waykenrm.com

Ball bearings and roller bearings each have their own pros and cons. Ball bearings tend to last longer, since the ring in which they are housed is sealed, which makes it harder for contaminants like dirt and dust to enter the chamber and ruin the lubricant inside. Since the ring housing roller bearings is normally not sealed, their lubricant is more easily contaminated—but they are also easier to access and service.

ford escape driving through mudVia Pexels

Wheel Bearings for Intermediates: Why Do They Wear Down?

We’ve already touched on one common reason why wheel bearings fail: improper lubrication. But there are plenty of other things that can put strain on your bearings as well.

Poor Installation

It’s no surprise that sometimes, mechanics cut corners. But using the wrong tool to install your wheel bearings can damage the hub assembly and increase the friction placed on the bearings, causing them to wear out faster. The same can happen if supporting components like nuts and seals aren’t replaced along with the bearings themselves.

Uneven Surfaces

Repeatedly driving on broken pavement, over potholes, or off-road puts different levels of stress on different sides of your vehicle—and unless your suspension is specifically designed for off-roading, that’s going to make the bearings on one side of your vehicle fail faster than the others.

Harsh Environments

It’s no problem to drive your car in wind or rain—but if you’re constantly driving through deep puddles of water or mud, your bearings are likely to rust much faster. These substances can gradually erode the metal on and around your hub assemblies, weaken the seals, and eventually dirty the grease lubricating your bearings.

Bad-Quality Parts

Some wheel bearings just don’t last as long as others. Most factory bearings last between 85,000 and 100,000 miles (~136,000 to ~161,000 kilometres) before needing to be replaced. Our high-quality aftermarket wheel bearings may last even longer, which is why it’s important not to cut corners and buy cheap parts from unvetted sellers. Lower-quality bearings are often not constructed of materials that can handle heat as resiliently, which causes them to fail sooner and ultimately costs you more money in the long run.

Vehicle Mods

Customising your vehicle’s springs, shock absorbers, tires, and rims can be a lot of fun—but if you go outside the parts and sizes recommended by your manufacturer, it can also put extra strain on your bearings and cause them to wear out more quickly.

Wheel Bearings Masterclass: How to Make Them Last Longer & Replace Them Effectively

The way you treat your vehicle has a major bearing on how long your wheel bearings will last—and replacing them with quality aftermarket components on a regular schedule will reduce the likelihood of comfort and safety issues while you drive. Here’s what to do:

Making Your Bearings Last

  • Avoid driving your vehicle too frequently in inclement weather or over broken pavement.
  • Have your bearings serviced and replaced by a licensed mechanic, or make sure to use appropriate tools when replacing them yourself.
  • Replace your bearings every 85,000 to 100,000 miles or as stated in your owner’s manual—whichever comes sooner.
  • Always purchase high-quality replacement bearings.
  • Avoid oversize rims, lower sidewalls on your tires, springs with more suspension than your vehicle is built for, and stiffer shock absorbers.

mechanic putting a wheel on an suvVia Pexels

Replacing Your Wheel Bearings

While it’s certainly possible to replace wheel bearings on your own, we don’t recommend it for beginners. You’ll need your own wheel chocks, a floor jack, ratchets and sockets in various sizes, a torque wrench, and more. You’ll also need to be comfortable removing the wheels, brake callipers, rotors, and wheel hubs from your vehicle—and putting them all back on securely again.

Most vehicle owners will have better luck purchasing aftermarket wheel bearings from us and having a trusted mechanic perform the installation. Going this route will still save you money on parts, and you’ll be able to rest easy knowing the labour was properly performed.

Get Your Bearings on Vehicle Maintenance

Understanding how wheel bearings and other small parts help your vehicle function can seem confusing at first—but it ultimately pays off. Now that you know how important your wheel bearings are and how to take better care of them, you can avoid placing them under unnecessary stress and replace them on time with better parts.

Next, Check our our part replacement guides or learn more about the main components of wheel bearings or the differences between failing brakes and failing bearings. And as always, drive safe!