Cleaning Behind the Ears

Steve Cassano — 4 October 2018

As well-travelled and enthusiastic four-wheel drivers who routinely embark on both long epic expeditions and short weekend trips, we all know the importance of having our rigs set up to better handle the varied challenges that Australian roads present.

A common topic often discussed is the importance of having the right suspension to handle extra loads, differing road conditions or towing requirements. Obviously this is vitally important for ensuring maximum performance, dependability, comfort and safety.

When it comes to suspension, instinctively I think about things like springs/coils or leaves, shock absorbers, control arms and a myriad of other geometry additions to ensure the vehicle handles as well, or better, than when it left the factory floor. By most accounts, many owners often regard these modifications as fit-and-forget features that typically get ignored until some unforeseen squeak, rattle or change in the vehicle’s characteristics prompts them to investigate the source of the irritation.

To add to this, once exploring expected offroad conditions, the undercarriage of the 4WD and trailer can be subjected to plenty of abuse from varied topography such as sand, gravel, gibbers, rocky climbs and muddy tracks. Of course, many of these expected and also unexpected annoyances can be avoided with a simple regular maintenance and a cleaning regime.
The majority of 4WDs and offroad trailers have a higher stance and clearance than their on-road cousins, and in most cases, their undercarriages can easily be inspected and accessed to address any potential problems and to clean debris, dirt and mud that can accumulate over time.

What we don’t see

One area that I have found is often neglected during cleaning and maintenance, and which is often subjected to the most torture, is in around the wheels, brake pads, callipers and wheel sensors. This is because these components are tucked inside the wheel rims or attached to the axle hubs and are not easily seen without removing the wheel and having a poke around (more on this later).

Even though they're tucked inside the rim, you’d be surprised by how much dirt, sand and especially sticky mud finds its way in there. Over time, all these organic minerals have a corrosive and grinding effect, which can cause excessive wear to brake components, hub-bearing decline, failing hub studs (see below), irregular engine light activation due to false ABS sensor readings, and incorrect wheel balance due to accumulation of mud inside the wheel rim. And don’t forget the worst — an annoying brake squeal.

What’s needed

The only real way to check this area of your 4WD or trailer is to remove the wheels to gain easy access. As part of the 4WD training course I conduct, I get everyone to perform an off-road tyre change. I’d say that 90 per cent of the time the drive has never even done a wheel change, and if they have, they still aren't sure of the proper procedure, or whether they have the proper tools.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably installed a suspension lift to your vehicle to improve clearance and fitted after-market wheels/tyres, which is great for improved performance and aesthetics. But have you considered whether your vehicle’s jack can still raise the vehicle enough to suit the need? Does the supplied wheel brace fit your aftermarket wheels? Often these wheels have deeper set lug holes.

To overcome these issues, I recommend investing in a heavy-duty hydraulic trolley jack with, for the most part, a maximum lift of 500mm. The benefits are: it has a stronger construction, better stability and an increased raised height. It also has the safer option to easily manoeuvre it under the vehicle without the need for placing any body parts in harm’s way. For around $100 it’s a worthwhile tool to have in your shed. Of course this won't work when you're away, so when I'm on the road I pair my existing jack with a Hi-lift jack plate, which will set you back around $30. This raises my jack’s reach by about two inches, as well as providing a more secure footing to support the jack, making it easier and safer to remove a wheel.

When it comes to wheel braces, the stock brace is a poor performer when the going gets tough. They’re usually short and, at times, require a lot of force to budge stubborn wheel lugs, especially if the wheel hasn’t been removed for a long time. For around $30, invest in a telescopic wheel brace. This style of brace can extend to improve leverage, and it takes up little room. While they usually come packaged with a few different sockets, I recommend getting a hold of a stronger half-inch six-point socket once you know your size (don't' forget your trailer). They cost about $15, and the six-point tends to grip better than the 12-point. Ensure it is a thin-walled deep socket for ease of access to after-market wheels
Suffice to say, I’m not going to go through all the steps to remove a wheel. That can all be covered by reading your user manual, as the instructions can differ from one model of 4WD to the next. In all cases though, you should ensure safety is your priority and that you follow the manufacturer’s proper techniques.

Snapped Wheel Stud: what to do

On the topic of removing wheels, as mentioned earlier, the wheel stud's integrity can be diminished by corrosion, previously improper insertion methods or incorrect torque settings. If a wheel hasn’t been removed for a while, the wheel lug can be very stubborn. If you place enough leverage on it, you can snap the wheel stud clean off, leaving you with a worthless lug nut and a stud that needs replacing. Thankfully, replacing a stud is an easy task that can be performed with simple tools and steps (as I found out very recently).

Firstly, I needed a replacement stud. The only place I was able to source one that I knew would fit perfectly was directly from the dealer. The replacement studs cost $15 each, so I bought two. I did have some spare wheel lugs and I suggest that you always carry a handful of wheel lugs in your tool box for such an event.

Once the wheel was removed, I detached the brake calliper which was held in place by two large bolts, and supported it to avoid over-stretching the brake line. If working on the rear wheel you’ll need to release the handbrake and then slide the rotor/disk (or, in some cases, the drum) off, leaving the internals exposed, as well as the axle hub with the wheel studs attached. These wheel studs are usually just pressed on from behind. At this point you should inspect the area thoroughly for anything unusual. There are differing opinions on the best way to clean this area. Some use specific brake-cleaning fluid – you can usually pick this up for a few dollars. Others use soap, a brush and/or water pressure. Personally I used pressured water and a brush, as it removes built-up dirt more easily.

My next task was to remove the broken stud. Using everyone’s favourite tool, I utilised a two-pound hammer to slowly hit the stud end and push it out through the hole. After a few whacks it fell to the floor. I then cleaned up the hole and placed a little grease to aid the insertion of the new stud. Next I poked the new stud through, placed some thick washers to act as a temporary spacer and wound on an old lug nut by hand. Always start with your hand to ensure you don’t cross thread and ruin another component. I then used my impact drill (you can use a socket and breaker bar, but an impact drill is quicker and more fun) until the base of the stud was flush with the rear of the hub face.

Once you’re satisfied, check the other studs for clear and clean threads by winding on a lug nut for its entire length several times. There should be minimal resistance or else you’ll need to take further action such as clearing any burrs or winding and rewinding a lug nut and inspecting the threads each time until you’re happy with each stud’s integrity. You may end up having to replace more studs.

Putting it back together

Once you’re satisfied that all the studs are in good condition, and you’ve cleaned and dried the whole area, it’s time to place the rotor/drum back on. At this point, it’s wise take the opportunity to inspect your brake system and douse it with brake cleaner. After giving the brakes a good clean, I reinstalled the calliper and used medium thread locker on the calliper bolts and tightened to torque specs. A mandatory tool to have in your shed is a torque wrench, which I was able to secure for around $80. Like all bolts and nuts on my vehicle, once torqued to specifications I used a white permanent marker, which you can obtain from any hardware store, for easy future visual inspection.

Before reinstalling the wheel, I wiped some $12 copper based anti-freeze on the wheel studs. This will prevent corrosion and aid with future wheel removal, something my tyre shop had obviously neglected to do in the past.

Once again, initially hand tighten each lug then tighten all lugs to moderate torque. After lowering the jack, torque each lug nut to the manufacturer’s specifications. In my case it’s around 100PSI.

Good to go

Once the area was all cleaned up, I went for a drive to ensure everything was working as expected. Once my 4WD had travelled a few hours, I recheck the torque settings.
In conclusion, if you’re not confident in performing these tasks, I highly recommend you call in an expert as we all want your family to be safe and your vehicle working at its best.


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