Car Diagnosis By Sound: Certain Sounds and What They Could Mean

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Whirring, rattling, clanking, screeching, squealing, and grinding—All are sounds you might hear as the mileage adds up on your car. Chances are, you know your car’s noises well enough to know when it’s got a new one.

Sounds can mean there’s a broken or worn part that needs replacing, or that a part is starting to wear. They can also mean nothing, and may be a harmless peep that innocently comes with time and age. Part of doing your own repairs means knowing how to diagnose issues. Of course, there is no guarantee a certain sound will point to a specific part, but it can narrow it down to some possibilities. From there, it may take some additional troubleshooting to find the cause.

Here’s some common sounds and what they can mean depending on their location.

Location: The Wheel

Whirring, Humming, or Grinding

If you hear a whirring or grinding sound from the wheel that amplifies as the car accelerates or as the car turns, chances are it’s a worn wheel bearing. This can be tested by checking for any excess play in the wheel. If the problem is ignored, dirt and debris will likely sneak into the bearing, producing sloppy steering and decreasing the lifespan of the wheel bearing. You’ll want to complete this repair as soon as possible.

Squeaking, Squealing, Screeching, Grinding, or Rattling

If you hear a squeak or squeal while pressing the brake pedal, it’s likely the metal wear tab on the brake pad is pressing into the brake rotor. Many brake pads have this design to warn you that the brake pad material is wearing thin and that it’s time to change them.

A screeching sound can also mean the brake shoes are wearing down. If braking has excessively worn down the material on a brake pad or brake shoe, the brake pedal is likely to pulsate when pressed. You might also hear a grinding sound from the wheels when you brake. A general rattling sound may indicate the brake pads are loose. The fix could be as simple as replacing the brake pad clips.

Clicking or Humming

A humming noise that happens during acceleration can be a sign of a worn wheel bearing, but it can also be a sign of a worn axle. Clicking is also a common sound of a worn axle, and this problem can be identified by inspecting the rubber boot on the end of the axle shaft. Grease can leak from a worn or torn axle boot. This means there is less lubrication on the axle’s joints, causing wear and the clicking or humming noise.

Clunking

If you hear clunking from the wheel area or underneath the floorboards each time you drive over a bump or pothole, it’s most likely your tie rod or stabilizer link. The clunking sound develops with time, use, or rough roads. The problem can usually be confirmed if there is play in the steering and tie rod bushings. Lift and support the car on jack stands and try to move the tie rods and stabilizer links by hand to c heck for play.

Popping or Creaking

If there is a popping or creaking sound each time the wheel bounces from potholes or bumps in the road, there’s a chance it’s the control arm bushings or ball joint. Accompanying symptoms include excessive tire wear, extra play in the steering, or a sound coming from the suspension system.

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Location: Under the Hood

Ticking

If after start-up you hear a ticking sound from the engine that doesn’t fade, it’s possible your engine needs oil. You can check this by warming up the engine to operating temperature. Then, with the engine off, check the oil level with a dipstick.

Squealing or Screeching

If a squealing sound occurs at start-up or every time you take a hard turn, especially if the steering feels stiff, it could be the serpentine belt or a worn pulley. Inspect the belt for wear, tear, and cracks and replace it if necessary. If you need to replace the belt often, it could be a pulley.

Clicking

If the car doesn’t start, but makes a clicking sound, it could be the battery. The clicking is the sound the starter makes when it doesn’t get enough power from the battery to start the engine. You can confirm this by hooking up a voltmeter to the positive and negative terminal. Then check to see if the battery registers the correct voltage.

Location: Rear

Roaring or Groaning

If your vehicle suddenly sounds like a race car and there’s a roaring sound from the rear when you accelerate, it did not suddenly become track-worthy with magical performance upgrades. It is likely you have holes or leaks in the exhaust system and probably the muffler, specifically. If so, you want this problem fixed soon, as harmful gases can sneak into the cabin area.

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