Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Houston, we've had a problem

We are at the Wal-Mart in Lumberton, North Carolina (map). We limped in here off US-301 after discovering that we have a bad wheel bearing on the left front wheel while coming south on I-95. We are licking our wounds and contemplating our next move.

We first noticed an issue while heading towards Goldsboro on US-70. We were hearing a noise that sounded a lot like road noise from either rough pavement or a bad tire tread, and for a long time, maybe 20 miles or so, we chalked it up to the pavement texture on the highway. We both remarked, though, that it sounded louder than when we were heading the other way on the same highway -- not all that unusual, since the two sides of a divided highway are often repaved at different times.

After we went across a couple bridges, though, with completely different pavement textures, and the sound did not disappear, we knew it was something more insidious. We spent the next couple dozen miles trying to isolate the sound -- these sorts of low-frequency humming noises are incredibly hard to pinpoint. We had a vague sense it was the tires, and maybe even the front tires, but Louise reported similar noise from all six wheel positions when she walked around the bus under way trying to identify it.

We stopped in Goldsboro to do laundry, and I carefully inspected all the tires. There were a couple of flat spots on the left tag, and I thought that might be the cause. We've had an unusual wear pattern on the steers for a while, which we noted at rotation time, but that pattern did not appear to have changed at all.

After we left Goldsboro south on US-13, Louise tried even harder to pinpoint the sound both inside the coach and by opening various windows. I varied road speeds to see what impact it would have. After another couple dozen miles, we had pretty much isolated it to the left front wheel, which I knew to be somewhat scalloped. At this point we were starting to think that the irregular tread wear had finally caught up with us.

As we made the transition to I-95 south and brought the speed up to 65, though, the noise got so loud we had to suspect something else. I slowed to 55 and we nursed it to a rest area near Fayetteville. A quick check with the IR thermometer confirmed my worst suspicions, with the left front hub reading 152° while the other three identical hubs all read 96°-98°.

I dragged out the bottle jack and raised the wheel off the ground. Fortunately, I did not detect any play when I tried to wiggle the wheel perpendicular to its plane of rotation. But I could definitely feel flat spots when I rotated the wheel through 360°. If I gave it a good spin it only went around 30°-60° before hitting a flat spot and stopping, whereas the right wheel, which we jacked up later as a test, made a full revolution on one shove.

Now, for most people in most vehicles, including most modern RVs, buses, and trucks, a bad wheel bearing is no big deal. A couple hours to pull the wheel and bearing, pack and press in new bearings and seals, and put it all back together. But long-time readers will know that parts like wheel bearings and seals for our hubs are just not available in the US.

I made a few phone calls to try to determine what, if anything, we could do about the situation. Our friend Russ, who owned a Neoplan for a while, was particularly helpful. By this time, though, it was after 5pm, and there was no way I was going to get a shop on the horn who could deal with this. Moreover, without pulling the bearings, they'd have no idea even what they would be looking for.

When we had the bearings repacked a couple years ago, we had to order the seals from Europe, and I strongly suspect we'll have to order the bearings that way, too. If I order them tomorrow, the earliest I could have them would be next week. So there we were, at an Interstate rest area facing the prospect of spending the next week or so in Fayetteville waiting on parts and trying to find a shop to do the work.

This, too, is non-trivial, as most truck shops will not work on buses and most bus shops will not work on Neoplans. We last had the bearings repacked at a Freightliner dealer, at enormous expense, because they really can't refuse to work on our Mercedes hubs, as they are the arm of Daimler-Benz in the US charged with such duties.

Eventually we decided that, having already come perhaps 120 miles since the problem first manifested itself, coming another 20 miles or so here for a more comfortable place to spend the night would be fine. We did, however, bail off I-95 at the first opportunity, traveling instead on the parallel US-301.

There are a half dozen restaurants here, but it was raining so hard when we pulled in that we just ate in. We used up the last of a couple things while doing so, plus we are out of milk, so we will need to go into the store tonight once it dries out a bit. I've had a glass of wine, so the rough edges of the day are a bit smoother.

I'm not certain what we will do in the morning. In part, it will depend on what I hear back after posting this saga on the bus forums. My inclination, though, is to try to nurse it to Chattanooga on secondary highways. That's nearly 500 miles from here if I first stop in Atlanta to drop Louise off, but it's only 35 fewer miles to go "direct." I had to put that last word in quotes, because there is no good route from here to there, reminiscent of "Which way to Millinocket."

Honestly, I have no idea if the bearing has another 500 miles in it. With no sign of play, though, and checking the temps every hour or so with the IR gun, I think we have a shot if we keep the speed under 50. But that will put me at a shop that I know will take on the work, where I can stay as long as needed to get the parts, and I will also be able make my commitment to teach the post-rally workshops that start there next week.

I probably will not post here again in the morning, as we will have a long day ahead of us. If we do decide to press on, the back roads, reduced speeds, and frequent hub checks will mean a lot more hours on the road each day. The non-freeway route involves US-301 and US-76 to Columbia, then US-378 to Athens, so we would be somewhere along 378 near the Georgia state line tomorrow evening. Stay tuned.


  1. I hate to hear you are having problems. I know the feeling very well. It sounds as if you have a good plan though. I will be looking forward to your next update.

  2. Not good to hear your problems but sounds like you and the glass of wine have come up with a reasonable solution. Good luck and safe travels.

  3. Eeeps. So sorry to hear this guys! No fun at all to have to deal with problems of this caliber with so many things on the calendar to try to make.

    We are at Choo Choo now, and will be here tomorrow as well having work done on our bus before the rally. If there is anything at all that we can do on this end to assist - please please please let us know.

    We will be following the thread closely, and wishing you guys the safest journey possible. And there will be hugs and wine awaiting you when you arrive.

    Please rest well, take it easy and make the best decision for yourselves in this.

  4. I have had great success for seals and bearings with Various times all I had were dimensions and no application for items like odd pumps, heavy agricultural equipment, and the like. Each time I have been overwhelmingly pleased with our Lynchburg Virginia branch. Best regards, Chris

  5. A few further thoughts; I have found that although you are hearing the noise of flat spots currently, the damage likely occurred much earlier from heat either by mis-adjustment or lack/breakdown of grease. Hairline fissures and the resulting delamination of the bearing cone cause the noise but it is good that you observe no radial axis runout. I've seen some people look for the source of "road rumble" for months without a catastrophic failure; personally I would continue to my destination while keeping an eye on it. Good luck.

  6. I know well the problem of having to get "There" from "here", 'cause "Here" is not a place that can fix it... and "There" is many, many miles away.

    Running across Wyoming at 45 mph a couple weeks ago, dragging a fiver with a cracked pinbox, in which the absolutely horrendous welding "Repair" was as unnerving as the original damage, makes Wyoming a realllly wide state!

    Hoping your next post will relate your safe arrival!

  7. Sorry to hear about your problem. We'd sure try to give you some help, but we are in Portland, Oregon at the time, so I guess that's out. Hopefully you come up with a US supplier that can help. Steve


Share your comments on this post! We currently allow anyone to comment without registering. If you choose to use the "anonymous" option, please add your name or nickname to the bottom of your comment, within the main comment box. Getting feedback signed simply "anonymous" is kind of like having strangers shout things at us on the street: a bit disconcerting. Thanks!