Ball joints play an important role in your car’s suspension system. Though they’re meant to be long-lasting, ball joints can and will eventually wear out and require replacement. It’s important to spot bad ball joint symptoms early on before they pose dangerous driving conditions for yourself and others. Early detection can help drivers address this problem and get back on the road in good time.
What Are Ball Joints?
Ball joints in your car are ball-and-socket type joints, similar to human hips and shoulders. This enables movement in all directions and a tight connection between components. In a vehicle, ball joints connect steering knuckles to the control arms, creating the union between the wheel assembly and the suspension system. Depending on the manufacturer and configuration, vehicles may have one or two (upper and lower) ball joints and can either be independent parts or integrated into suspension elements.
All ball joints require constant lubrication and are kept in place by a rubber boot that also helps to keep dust and impurities out. Depending on their design, ball joints may be sealed, which means they cannot be serviced.
Boots Were Made for Blockin’
As part of the suspension system, ball joints are built to take a hit, but if your typical commute or extra-curricular activities have you driving on uneven terrain, they’re going to wear out faster. Big hits, such as bad encounters with potholes, can do a number on them as well. Over time, the joints can wear and become loose or — in very bad scenarios — pop out or break off altogether.
Often the boot is compromised, which allows dirt and grime to find their way in and grease to find its way out. This can leave the joint dry, exposed to the elements and quick to heat up from friction, which can quickly lead to it becoming worn and damaged. The best way to ensure the longevity of ball joints is to service them if you are able. Check your owner’s manual for the proper type of grease (not all are compatible) and service intervals.
Signs of Bad Ball Joints
Defective ball joints can show up in a number of ways. Some have actual wear indicators built in, but others will require you to figure out that there’s an issue on your own. As with other suspension issues, you may notice uneven tire wear and pulling to one side as you drive. You may also notice loose and shaky steering, other suspension component wear or a popping noise when you take slow or sharp turns.
Speaking of noises, listen for squeaking as you go over bumps and make turns. When wear is caught early, ball joints typically don’t require emergency or costly repairs. The job can be scheduled in advance and should only require your vehicle to be out of commission for a day.
Concretely diagnosing a bad ball joint isn’t too difficult, but it must be done safely and with properly placed supports. Replacing ball joints is straightforward, but it requires special tools and is often difficult because the components can be notoriously stubborn and rusted. Since a fully disconnected ball joint could mean losing your wheel, it’s worth enlisting the help of a professional to get the issue diagnosed and the parts repaired before the situation becomes dangerous.
Check out all the steering and suspension products available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on bad ball joint symptoms, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
Photos courtesy of Blair Lampe.
Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.