Power steering problems often announce themselves with a squeal and followed by increasing difficulty when turning the front wheels, or occasional stuttering while trying to do so. Those indicators are a sign that there’s probably something going on with your power steering system that needs attention. Fortunately, there are a few quick fixes you can try before it’s time to head to the shop for more comprehensive repairs.
Check the Belt
Although an increasing number of new cars feature electric power steering systems, most older models (five or more years old) come with hydraulic power assist, which means there’s a pump that circulates the fluid needed to help you turn the wheel. This pump is powered by an accessory belt, and if you hear squealing while trying to turn the wheel there’s a good chance that the accessory belt is slipping.
Fortunately, this is usually an easy fix (depending on how hard it is to access the accessory drive on your car). With the hood open, have someone turn your steering wheel while the car is idling and listen for a screech or a squeak coming from your belt. To adjust the tension on the belt, most pumps have a bolt or a special adjuster that can be loosened so you can pivot the pump, re-tighten it and add tension. If the belt is old and worn, you can replace the belt by adding slack to the system, slipping it off and sliding on the new belt and tightening it up again.
If the belt seems fine, the next step in diagnosing power steering problems is to check out the power steering pump’s fluid level. There is usually a cap located right on top of the power steering pump that features a level indicator, allowing you to see whether fluid is low. Refer to your owner’s manual for the proper procedure for checking the fluid level. If it is, add some manufacturer recommended power steering fluid to the fill line, and then start the car and turn the wheel a few times. Turn the car off again and verify the fluid level again, adding more if required.
If fluid was low, then this is indicative of a potential leak in your power steering system. To get to the bottom of where fluid might be leaking, you’ll need to put your car up on ramps — or jack it up in front and support it on jack stands — and get underneath the front of the vehicle where the steering rack is located. Using a flashlight, try to find wet spots on the hoses and connections that make up the rack.
One of the more common power steering problems is simply old fluid. If you notice that the fluid inside the power steering pump is black or dark brown, this indicates that it needs to be replaced; the heat of operation has reduced the effectiveness of the additives in the fluid, which can lead to the performance problems described above. Use a turkey baster to remove as much of the old fluid as you can — taking care not to splash it on your car’s paint — and then add new fluid to replace it. Refer to your owner’s manual for the correct fluid type for your car. Turn the car on, rotate the wheel back and forth a few times to circulate the new fluid. Repeat the process until the pump reservoir is no longer filled with the dark, older fluid.
Check out all the steering and suspension parts
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Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time. I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.