Ceramic Bearings or Not
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  1. #1
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    Ceramic Bearings or Not

    Ok...I'd like the thoughts out there...

    I'm in the market for a new wheelset. I've done my research on factory vs hand built but I'm getting different opinions concerning ceramic bearings. My bias is that it makes intuitive sense that ceramic bearings make a difference....I feel c-bearings would be more precise and demonstrate less friction...especially when heat comes into play vs steel bearings...but...I have no data...so...

    I ask:

    a) DO they make a difference in wheel performance compared to steel? and...
    b) Are they more durable than steel bearings?

    Thoughts out there?

  2. #2
    More carbon fiber please!
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  3. #3
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    Ceramic bearings are a prime example of how well marketing works. Ceramic hybrid bearings tend to be less durable for several reasons. One, the ceramic balls are many times harder than the races they run on and there for increase the wear on the steel races because of the reduced contact patch the the ceramic ball has. This is why you are starting to see ceramic hybrid bearings with harder steels to try and combat this.Two, certain ceramics do not perform well when it comes to impacts. I have heard of plenty of cases were people have destroyed their ceramic balls for no apparent reason after a relatively short time. In terms of reduced rolling resistance, most calculations show a difference of a fraction of a watt. Most of the difference you feel when you spin a ceramic bearing by hand is the non-contact seals and low viscosity grease they use to enhance the feeling that these bearings really do have a performance advantage. If you like bling, go with ceramic. If you want to save money and inprove durability of your bearings, go with a good quality stainless bearing. (Phil wood bearings are a good example.)

  4. #4
    Online Wheel Builder
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    The only real difference between ceramic and steel bearings is placebo. There is no real difference between the two except for that ceramics have a much shorter wear lift. You would be much better off saving that extra money and putting it elsewhere in the build.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by tenacean
    I feel c-bearings would be more precise and demonstrate less friction...especially when heat comes into play vs steel bearings...but...I have no data...so..
    That is why they were designed for very high RPM applications. Bicycles don't run at high RPM.

    All else being equal, ceramic hybrids might save you 0.1W. Not worth it for most people. Just make sure your bearings are decent and properly adjusted and lubricated and you will be good.

  6. #6
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    Another thing to consider if you go ahead and install ceramic bearings is the service interval - they typically require grease replacement (or replacement in many applications) much sooner. Especially in wetter climates. I'm in central MO and we have a rider or two that decided to try them. We've replaced hub bearings and serviced BB bearings a lot sooner than the same customers needed it previously with the same wheel/original steel cartridges and cranks. Also, don't go with any but the best. The first set we installed in one customer's wheels were bargain basement and they lasted accordingly.

    Let me sign off by saying that I don't know any mechanic that uses them...

    Bob

  7. #7
    MCF
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    How many hubs used by custom builders do NOT have ceramic bearings? I am not saying I want ceramic bearings or think that bikes are a good application for ceramic bearings, but it seems like the majority of 'non-mass produced' hubs promote ceramic bearings as an advantage.

  8. #8
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    Great replies so far! Thank you...

    I don't mean to hijack my own thread but this thread is a result of frustration in spending quite a bit of money on a custom or factory wheelset and yet you can't get quality data to make an informed choice.

    I rode a factory Easton wheelset for 4 years that have been absolutely amazing and truly bulletproof. Now that I'm building out another bike for different purposes I'm looking at factory wheels AND custom wheels...and I find it daunting.

    I find it interesting that while the custom folks complain about factory wheels and their components and that "ceramics" is a function of "marketing"....they do the exact same type of "marketing" on these forums...you simply support what you understand and sell.

    If you have all the R&D of the mass companies...well...of course you'll tout what you've discovered and know and subsequently sell...I can't imagine that Campy or Shimano or even Easton will put out a product that will consistently fail and/or perform poorly...that's just poor business they can't afford...and they certainly are putting out ceramic products...CULT, USB, and so forth.

    The same goes for custom builders...they're no better than factory folks in the end with less or no marketing budget...ya promote what you sell...if they don't have the information from R&D then they're naturally trying to keep up..hence, they'll still sell stock that's probably behind the tech curve until they have more consistent access to the most current tech...it's human business/nature.

    This reminds me of the brawl over frames...carbon fiber vs. steel vs aluminum...in the past when it came to factories vs custom builders...all have merit but I can remember the custom folks putting down carbon fiber and still do...and for good business reasons that isn't any different than a factory...'it's because you promote what you know and/or have access to and sell.

    Look, high tech ceramics are in computers for a reason...precision + much less friction = much less heat = blazing speed. So, I have a hard time understanding how ceramics (no, it's not about flower vases)...wouldn't do the same thing in a bicycle.

    My issue is this as a high $$ spending consumer...nobody seems to have empirical evidence to prove the case one way or the other...yet...if you see reviews of reluctant riders...they are coming around to ceramic bearings more and more...but again...that's not empirical and it could be a placebo thing.

    Just sayin' that I'm a spending consumer that is frustrated by both camps...the custom folks and the mass folks.

    Keep on postin'...the more info. we get from people who have these products the better until we can get real quantitative data.

  9. #9
    MCF
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    Ceramic bearings on bicycles is a waste. They are NOT high RPM or high temperature. If you have one or the other or both, then yes, ceramics may make sense. They are not necessary and have less durability when compared to less expensive and more durable steel bearings. If you want ceramic so you can tell people you have ceramic, then get them, but don't expect them to help you ride any harder, faster, or further. Saying that, if there was a hub that you must have and it happens to have ceramic, I would not necessarily not get it because it has ceramic bearings.

  10. #10
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    To compare bearings, compare their ABEC Ratings. High-quality bearing races have high ABEC ratings. Quality balls are also graded (did I just write that? ). For example, Zipp's current standard for their 88/108 hubs is ABEC 5 races, with Grade 10 balls. That's extremely high for a hub.

    IMO, ceramic bearings are a total waste of money. Comparing a high-quality ceramic bearing to a high-quality steel one (each with the same ratings) will show zero difference in friction. As others have said, grease and particularly seals are what make the friction numbers different. One of the reasons ceramic bearings need to be repacked with grease frequently is because their seals tend more towards the 'dust cover' variety.

    This is not like the aluminum vs carbon frame argument. Both of those materials are appropriately used in frame building by many different manufacturers. Ceramic races and/or balls in a bicycle hub = inappropriate application.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by tenacean
    r...nobody seems to have empirical evidence to prove the case one way or the other...yet...
    I have.

    I ran a test measuring the power consumption of the various styles of bearing used in jockey wheels in loaded and unloaded conditions.

    There is no measureable advantage to ceramic bearings in this application. I tested jockey wheels becaue IMO it's the bearing location which was most likely to make a difference (highest rotation speed).

    The result probably also applies to wheel bearings: although they run slower and with higher overall load, the load bearing capacity of the larger bearings is higher.

  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Kelly
    I have.

    I ran a test measuring the power consumption of the various styles of bearing used in jockey wheels in loaded and unloaded conditions.

    There is no measureable advantage to ceramic bearings in this application. I tested jockey wheels becaue IMO it's the bearing location which was most likely to make a difference (highest rotation speed).

    The result probably also applies to wheel bearings: although they run slower and with higher overall load, the load bearing capacity of the larger bearings is higher.
    Mark,

    How did you measure the power consumption of the individual bearings? I am very interested to know how such a small variation can be accurately determined.

    Thanks!

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zen Cyclery
    The only real difference between ceramic and steel bearings is placebo. There is no real difference between the two except for that ceramics have a much shorter wear lift. You would be much better off saving that extra money and putting it elsewhere in the build.

  14. #14
    wheelbuilder
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    Quote Originally Posted by tenacean

    I find it interesting that while the custom folks complain about factory wheels and their components and that "ceramics" is a function of "marketing"....they do the exact same type of "marketing" on these forums...you simply support what you understand and sell.
    Sorry, but I'm calling bullshit.

    Who says that wheelbuilders don't have access to ceramics? I routinely recommend that people skip DT 190 hubs in favor of their 240s. I've put ceramic bearings in hubs before. I have access to the best bearing on the market. I still think that they are not a smart monetary investment. As mentioned above the tolerances of the balls and races (bearing bores on cartridge bearing hubs) are far more important.

    If you don't think I "understand" what I'm talking about with regards to bearings or the many wheel options out there (the ones I can make or the ones I can buy with a SKU) that's your problem. I know my **** and I'm telling you that ceramic bearings are a waste of money.

    -Eric

  15. #15
    More carbon fiber please!
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Kelly
    I have.

    I ran a test measuring the power consumption of the various styles of bearing used in jockey wheels in loaded and unloaded conditions.

    There is no measureable advantage to ceramic bearings in this application. I tested jockey wheels becaue IMO it's the bearing location which was most likely to make a difference (highest rotation speed).

    The result probably also applies to wheel bearings: although they run slower and with higher overall load, the load bearing capacity of the larger bearings is higher.
    For real? How in the world can you even really measure this? Let alone come to any accurate conclusion that of all things jockey wheels/bearings are a high-load component compared to anything else on the bike? IMO if anything is a high-load bearing area it's the bb first and foremost. OMG....
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  17. #17
    eRacer
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    Costly and hi-maintenance for no improvement in performance.
    John Lapoint / San Diego
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  18. #18
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    aLl hYpE

  19. #19
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    [QUOTE=tenacean]Great replies so far! Thank you...
    Look, high tech ceramics are in computers for a reason...precision + much less friction = much less heat = blazing speed. So, I have a hard time understanding how ceramics (no, it's not about flower vases)...wouldn't do the same thing in a bicycle.



    Remember, your ceramic bearings in computers are full ceramic bearings. The races and balls are ceramic. The ceramic bearings used for bicycles are generally hybrid ceramic since the races can still compress a little to allow for a press fit into the hub. There is definitely an advantage to full ceramic bearings as you pointed.out. Plus they are not subject to corrosion. If you could put a full ceramic into a bike hub and have it run smoothly and not crack or shift in the hub shell then ceramics might be worth considering. Most people that have tried to put full ceramic bearings into a bike hub either crack the bearing trying to get it in or the bearing feels very gritty from the compression of the outer race.

  20. #20
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    Quote Originally Posted by tenacean
    If you have all the R&D of the mass companies...well...of course you'll tout what you've discovered and know and subsequently sell...I can't imagine that Campy or Shimano or even Easton will put out a product that will consistently fail and/or perform poorly...that's just poor business they can't afford...and they certainly are putting out ceramic products...CULT, USB, and so forth.
    I think you underestimate the motive of large companies to tout all sorts of stuff. Not because it is really better... just new and different. Often it is different and inferior. This is marketing 101.

    If you can convince the public that ceramics are desirable, then you have something new to sell. Unless they are significantly worse, no one will notice.

    There ~1W of power loss in set of good steel wheel bearings... and most of this is seal and grease friction. There just isn't much to gain with better balls.

  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by ergott
    Who says that wheelbuilders don't have access to ceramics?
    Thanks... I forgot to mention that. I could be up-selling people to ceramics all the time, but when they ask I tell them to save their money.

  22. #22
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    Quote Originally Posted by dave2pvd
    Mark,

    How did you measure the power consumption of the individual bearings? I am very interested to know how such a small variation can be accurately determined.

    Thanks!
    By running the bearings on a small DC motor (a high precision unit from Maxon in Switzerland) and measuring the electrical characteristics of the motor. I did this for the various bearings in loaded and unloaded conditions. I posted the raw figures on BikeTechReview a few months ago.

    I design specialist motor drives for turntables so I am quite familiar with the techniques required, with one of my drives I can get better than 0.1% speed accuracy. For this experiment the error bars (mostly due to commutation noise) are about 5%.

    In the interest of scientific accuracy, I guess I should modify "no measureable difference" to "less than 5% difference". For the price involved, I'd want more than 5%.

  23. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Kelly
    By running the bearings on a small DC motor (a high precision unit from Maxon in Switzerland) and measuring the electrical characteristics of the motor. I did this for the various bearings in loaded and unloaded conditions. I posted the raw figures on BikeTechReview a few months ago.

    I design specialist motor drives for turntables so I am quite familiar with the techniques required, with one of my drives I can get better than 0.1% speed accuracy. For this experiment the error bars (mostly due to commutation noise) are about 5%.

    In the interest of scientific accuracy, I guess I should modify "no measureable difference" to "less than 5% difference". For the price involved, I'd want more than 5%.
    Gotcha. Were you measuring motor current to deduce torque?

    So the results showed a variation that was less than the estimated error?

    Were all the samples new? I.e. new grease?

    Thanks for the response.

  24. #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by dave2pvd
    Gotcha. Were you measuring motor current to deduce torque?

    So the results showed a variation that was less than the estimated error?

    Were all the samples new? I.e. new grease?

    Thanks for the response.
    Yes, yes and yes.

    Edit to the above: both the steel ball bearing jockey wheels (Tacx) and the ceramic bal bearing jockey wheel (Token) were brand new, but I ran them on the measurement rig for long enough to check whether running them in made a difference and it didn't. The plain bearing jockey wheels (Campagnolo) were well used but newly serviced and greased with high quality synthetic grease.
    Last edited by Mark Kelly; 07-01-2010 at 12:33 PM.

  25. #25
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    Yep ceramic bearings are pretty much all hype... however, Zipp's ceramic bearing is the exception with it's patented aero design boasting new dimple technology that actually pushes the wheel as it turns. Hype tunnel tests have shown these specially engineered bearings to shave off 40 seconds during a typical 40km time trial!*

    *Tests were done with abnormally high cadence values of 52,000. Results will vary. Hopefully you're not reading this.

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