Before you drive off in your car on your next trip – whether it’s around the block or across the country – have you made sure all is right with the bearings? Bearings work hard for your car, supporting both a large radial load from the car’s weight AND a large thrust load from cornering forces as you make a turn. Most car manufacturers recommend a wheel bearing clean, inspection, and repack every 30,000 miles.
Your SUV or truck’s steering system depends on ball bearings to keep the system working smoothly. Ball bearings recirculating through the gear as it turns reduce friction and wear ‘n’ tear. They also reduce what is known as “slop.” Slop would cause the steering wheel to feel loose while you’re turning – because without bearings in the gear, the teeth briefly come out of contact with each other.
It’s not difficult to check your vehicle’s bearings to see if they need to be repacked. You want to be sure the grease surrounding the bearings hasn’t become inundated with abrasive dust, dirt and small particles of metal. These abrasive bits can wear away at the gear and you’ll end up with a noisy, grinding ride. Or worse. You could eventually lose a wheel.
Consult your owner’s manual to know whether your vehicle has sealed front bearings. Some do; some don’t. If your car’s are sealed, they can’t be repacked. If you own a four-wheel drive vehicle, it’s complicated and should be handled professionally.
To get a general idea without taking wheels off, put the car up on jack stands. Then, without getting underneath, grasp the top and bottom of the wheel and try to “rock” it. There should be little movement – if you’re able to joggle the wheel, it could be a sign the bearing is worn.
Next, put an automatic transmission car in “neutral” or a take a manual car out of gear. Rotate the wheel while listening for unusual sounds or any roughness as it turns. These are also signs of damaged bearings.
If you need guidance and/or assistance on how to change bearings, there are several great online resources that can guide you through the process. If you are not inclined to make these repairs yourself, your local auto mechanic can change these for you. Remember, faulty wheel bearings compromise your safety and those that are in the vehicle with you.