Wheel bearings make up an important part of your car’s wheels, helping them to turn quickly and with minimal friction. They generally consist of steel balls inside a metal ring, are located on a metal axle shaft, inside the hub at the center of the wheel. Although wheel bearings are hardwearing, due to their high-impact role, they can wear out, and you will probably need to change them at least once during your car’s life. You will often be alerted to this need by a grinding or humming noise coming from the wheel as you drive, which increases in volume over time – if this happens, you should investigate the problem straight away, as driving with bad or missing wheel bearings can be dangerous.
Providing you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, changing your wheel bearings yourself is a useful skill to know, and can save you a considerable amount of money compared to taking your car to a mechanic. However, it’s not the easiest of processes, as it involves removing several parts of the wheel to access the bearings, and we would only advise attempting it if you feel confident in doing so, and ideally have some prior mechanical knowledge and experience.
To help you decide whether to take on this tricky task, we’ve put together this step-by-step guide on how to replace wheel bearings, as well as some frequently asked questions. Please note that this is intended as a general guide – the exact procedure may vary from vehicle to vehicle. As wheel bearings are such an important part of your car’s wheels, and therefore the overall function of your vehicle, you should always seek professional help if you are in any doubt about changing them yourself.
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How to Change a Wheel Bearing
- Be prepared
Before you begin the process of changing your wheel bearings, park your car on level ground, and engage the parking brake. Make sure you’ve purchased the correct wheel bearings for your make and model of vehicle, and have them and all your tools close to hand. At the very least, you are likely to need a car jack, hammer, chisel, rubber mallet, screwdriver, socket wrench, rags – and probably more. It’s a good idea to wear gloves to protect your hands from grease.
- Secure the other wheels
Before you tackle the wheel with the bearings that need to be changed, you should secure the other wheels of your vehicle. Do this by placing wheel chocks against the rear wheels if you’re changing a front wheel, and vice versa. These wheel chocks will ensure the other wheels don’t move whilst you work.
- Jack up the wheel
The next step in changing your wheel bearings is to elevate the wheel in question off the ground. Do this using a jack, in the same way you would to change a tire. Most cars come with a jack, but if not, you can purchase one from an auto parts store (or borrow one from a friend). Make sure to position the jack on a sturdy metal part of your car’s undercarriage, to prevent damage to any flimsier plastic parts under the weight of the car.
- Remove the wheel
Once the wheel is elevated, remove it from the vehicle. Do this by first unscrewing and removing the wheel’s lug nuts, then lifting the wheel clear. Place the lug nuts in a safe place to ensure you don’t lose them.
- Remove the caliper
With the wheel removed, you will now be able to see the brake caliper. Use a ratchet and socket to remove the bolts which hold the caliper in place. Then, take the caliper off with a screwdriver. Make sure to hook the caliper onto the undercarriage of the vehicle, as letting it hang can cause damage to the brake hose.
- Expose the rotor
Now that the brake caliper is out of the way, the rotor will be exposed. Remove the plastic dust cover so that you can access the components that are holding the rotor in place – you will probably need a hammer for this. Once the dust cover is off, use pliers to take out the cotter pin, and unscrew and remove the castle nut and washer. Place all these parts somewhere safe, so you can easily locate them later.
- Remove the rotor
Once the above steps are complete, you should be able to remove the outer bearing of the wheel (you may need to apply some pressure to encourage this), and then lift the rotor clear of the vehicle. This can be a bit tricky, and you may need to tap it gently with a rubber mallet if it gets stuck – although try not to damage it.
- Remove the hub
Next, you’ll need to remove the hub (this is the part in which the wheel bearings are located). To do this, you should reach under the car to unscrew the bolts holding the hub in place. This part can also prove difficult, and you may need to use a slim socket wrench to help you reach and loosen the bolts. Once the bolts are off, remove the hub from the axle.
- Take the hub apart
If you’ve purchased a new wheel bearing hub assembly, you can simple place the new hub on at this point, and reassemble the wheel. If you’ve only purchased the bearings, you will need to dismantle the hub. Do this by using a hammer or wrench to take off the end piece, and a specialized tool to remove the bolt in the middle. Once this is done, it should come apart without too much trouble.
- Remove the races
You now need to remove the races from inside the bearing assembly. This is usually a little difficult, and may require some brute force to break them – try using a hammer and chisel to help. Once the old races are out, clean the area thoroughly with rags to remove old grease.
- Install the new wheel bearings
You’re now ready to install your new wheel bearings. Do this by greasing and installing your new bearing sets, setting the new races in place of the old ones you’ve just removed, and tapping them into place with a hammer. Check that your new bearings are inserted as far as they will go, and that they’re in proper alignment. Apply plenty of grease to keep everything running smoothly, and ensure your wheel can turn with minimal friction. Proper lubrication is essential to keeping your new wheel bearings in good condition.
- Put the wheel back together
Once your new wheel bearings are installed, it’s time to re-assemble the wheel. Carefully replace all the parts you’ve removed onto the wheel, in reverse order. It’s a good idea to lay everything out in order as you take it apart, so you can easily see what needs to go back on where. Once you’ve put it all back together, carefully lower the wheel back onto the ground, and remove the jack. Congratulate yourself on successfully changing your wheel bearings, all by yourself!
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Q: What are wheel bearings?
A: Wheel bearings are generally made up of small steel balls contained in a hardened steel ring, which is called a race. They are an internal part of the wheels on your car, located in the hub in the center of the wheel. Wheel bearings help your wheels to rotate quickly and smoothly, and with as little friction as possible, whilst the vehicle is in motion. As well as cars, wheel bearings are also found in many other types of vehicles, including motorcycles, bicycles and airplanes.
Q: How do I know when my wheel bearings need changing?
A: One of the most common signs that your wheel bearings need changing is if you notice a humming, flapping or grinding noise coming from the wheel whilst you are driving. This will generally start out as a quiet sound, and get louder as the problem worsens. Another sign might be your ABS light coming on, uneven tire wear, or even the steering wheel vibrating as you drive. If you’ve hit the curb whilst driving recently, it is also possible that that has damaged your wheel bearings. If you’re not sure what the problem is, it’s always best to take your vehicle to a qualified mechanic, who will be able to confirm whether you need a wheel bearing replacement.
Q: Can you drive a car with a bad wheel bearing?
A: The short answer to this is ‘no’, you should not drive a car with a bad wheel bearing – although many people do when the problem is in its infancy, prior to diagnosis. If you suspect your wheel bearing is damaged or missing, you should refrain from driving your car, and ask a mechanic to look at it to confirm the problem. Faulty wheel bearings can prevent you from steering properly and cause the wheel to lock. Meanwhile, missing wheel bearings can result in the wheel coming off entirely whilst the car is in motion – seriously endangering not only yourself and your passengers, but anyone else around you.
Q: Where can I buy wheel bearings?
A: Wheel bearings are generally not hard to find – you can purchase them from auto supply stores and online suppliers, and of course, they are available on Amazon. However, you do need to make sure you’re purchasing the correct size bearings for your make and model of vehicle, and that they’re suitable for either front or rear wheels. If you want to make the job easier for yourself, you can purchase a whole wheel bearing hub, meaning you just need to swap out the old hub for the new one, without taking the old one apart to replace the bearings. Note that this is a more expensive option though.
Q: How much does it cost to change a wheel bearing?
A: The cost of changing your wheel bearings will vary depending on the make and model of your vehicle, where you purchase them, and who fits them. Wheel bearings themselves can cost anything from $100 – $300+, with hub assemblies and more expensive models at the higher end of the price bracket. If you fit the wheel bearings yourself, and you have your own tools, this will be the extent of the cost. However, if you ask a mechanic to fit them, you will have to cover the cost of labor, which is likely to be around 2 hours and cost $150 – $200.
Q: How long does it take to change a wheel bearing?
A: Changing a wheel bearing can take a little time, as there are a lot of parts to remove before you can access the hub, and some may require hammering and chiseling to get them off. There can also be a considerable amount of cleaning up of old grease involved. It’s a good idea to take your time, especially if it’s your first experience with changing wheel bearings, to make sure you do everything correctly, and don’t misplace or damage any parts. As a general rule, you should allow at least 2 hours to change a wheel bearing, probably more if it’s your first time. If it’s a rear axle bearing on a 4WD drive vehicle, it will take considerably longer than a front wheel bearing replacement.
Q: Can you replace just one wheel bearing?
A: There’s no reason why you can’t replace just one wheel bearing, especially if you’re confident the other one is in good condition. Just because one wheel bearing has gone, does not mean the corresponding bearing on the other side is also about to fail. It can be quite expensive to change a wheel bearing, so you might not want to replace them until it’s absolutely necessary. If your brake pads and/or rotors are also worn, you might consider replacing these at the same time as a bad wheel bearing, as you are taking the wheel apart anyway, and combining the two jobs will save you time and effort overall.