Although we can take it for granted at times, it’s fair to say that power steering is one of the most under-appreciated inventions in any car. Some of us have had the experience of doing intense workouts in older automobiles, just to make a simple turn. There’s no need for a gym when you have old-fashioned non-assisted steering to work with every single day. But for all its goodness, there is at least one key point of failure for this wonderful creation – power steering fluid.
As the hydraulic medium that is responsible for transmitting the power of your inputs into action, power steering fluid is a very important component. This is what allows you to turn your car effortlessly, and without needing to break a single sweat. This ease is afforded thanks not only to the power steering itself, but to its hydraulic fluids, too. But I’m sure it’s fair to say that at least a few people out there have experienced problems with their power steering fluid.
Have you ever thought of going out for a drive one day, and notice that your steering is just a bit too stiff? Or, perhaps you might’ve noticed that your steering is a bit jerky while driving. Maybe you’re noticing some very unpleasant noises every time you turn the wheel. Power steering fluid, just like everything else on a car, needs attention every now and then. In our guide today, we’re going to take a closer look at how this came to be, and how you can fix it.
What Is Power Steering, And Power Steering Fluid?
Before we can discuss more on power steering fluid, we’ll first need to understand how power steering works. For most vehicles today, power steering is often hydraulically assisted. This allows the car’s wheels to take your steering inputs with greater ease. It does this through a series of hydraulic actuators, to amplify your inputs through the steering wheel. The hydraulic pressure itself is exerted through a special pump that is connected to, and powered by the engine.
This is then connected to a hydraulic actuator or cylinder, which will then force that hydraulic pressure onto the steering gear. Doing so will then steer the wheels. The input is taken straight from your actions on the steering wheel. Through a hydraulically assisted power steering system, the steering wheel operates several valves that control flow to the cylinders or actuators. This is regarding the flow of power steering fluid, where hydraulic pressure is transmitted.
Therefore, power steering fluid is an important part of any hydraulic power steering system. Without it, the power steering would not function properly. There are two key benefits here. Firstly, your steering inputs are amplified, thus little movement can cause the car to turn more. Secondly, you are not required to exert a great deal of force to turn the car. Some newer cars have electric power steering. These use motorized actuators, and do not need any power steering fluid to work.
Do You Need To Change Power Steering Fluid?
Given how important power steering fluid is, you might wonder if it needs to be replaced. After all, we know that fluids within a car will require topping up, and a full flush after a while. This includes liquids such as engine oil, transmission fluid, coolant, and so on. So, do you need to bother ever needing to change your car’s power steering fluid? Simply put, the answer is a solid ‘Yes’. However, this can often be overlooked, and sometimes not even mentioned in your car’s regular servicing.
It will depend on your particular vehicle’s make and model, and be sure to consult the owner’s manual to find a more precise service interval for power steering fluid. Some manufacturers don’t even make mentions of power steering fluid, so you’ll need to be more attentive. As we’ll learn later on, old fluids can cause detrimental amounts of damage to your car’s steering rack. The average lifespan of power steering fluid is somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 miles.
Most technicians recommend a power steering fluid change every 50,000 miles. At which point, your power steering will need a good flush. The cost will also vary depending on what type and brand of power steering fluid you choose. You’ll need to discern whether it’ll work with your vehicle. You can find a bottle of the aforementioned fluids for less than $15. If you’re going in for a full flush and replacement at a garage, the cost will vary from $100 to $250 on average accounting for labor.
Things To Consider While Choosing The Right Power Steering Fluid.
It’s crucial to make sure that you don’t just use any power steering fluid that you grabbed from a shelf. You should consult your owner’s manual, a technician, or the container itself to know if it’ll work with your vehicle. Apart from compatibility, there are also a few added details to consider when picking out a new bottle of fluids. For instance, if the power steering fluid has corrosion protection that can prevent metallic components within your steering against rust.
Perhaps the best add-on feature that you’d want in your power steering fluid – as we’ll learn more later on – is a stop-leak functionality. Some power steering fluids have special formulas that use plasticizers which could help to extend the lifespan of your steering system’s rubber seals and tubing. They do this by strengthening the rubber compounds, and thus slowing down the process of wear and tear. As the name suggests, this feature will aid in stopping fluid leaks from happening.
How Do You Know If You Need To Replace Power Steering Fluid?
Aside from looking at your car’s mileage or service booklet, there could also be clear and unpleasant changes in your car’s behavior. If you notice any of these symptoms, it could be telling you that your car’s power steering fluid needs a replacement. Otherwise, it might also indicate faults within your car’s power steering itself. For our guide here, we’ll be taking a quick look at some of the most noticeable tell-tale signs that you’ll be needing to make a replacement of your power steering fluid.
1. Difficulty in turning the steering wheel
Naturally, a low level of power steering fluid can make it harder for your power steering system to function as intended. If the fluid itself is not in its most optimal amount, it will make the job of transmitting hydraulic pressure difficult. You can notice this by how stiff the steering wheel can be to rotate in any direction. Any discernible difficulty in turning your steering wheel can also indicate problems with your steering system as a whole, and should require immediate attention.
2. Odd noises while turning the wheel
Of all the various noises that you might hear while driving, the steering shouldn’t be one of them. As we’ve learned earlier, a power steering rack should have a pump. This works to circulate the flow of power steering fluid within the hydraulic system, and to provide pressure. If you have a low level of power steering fluid, it could result in there being more air in the pump than liquid. The effect of this is hearing odd noises while turning. Alternatively, it could point out to a faulty power steering pump.
3. Steering wheel jerks, vibrates, or locks while turning
Low levels of power steering fluid won’t just cause odd noises and stiffness while turning, but it could also cause the steering to jerk around. For instance, turning the wheel left might cause it to jerk towards the right or center. Oftentimes, this is more noticeable while at low speeds, or during maneuvers like parking. Another related symptom would be excessive vibrations through your steering wheel. Sometimes, the wheel could completely lock itself, and won’t even turn.
4. Leaking fluids underneath your car
So far, we’ve understood that low levels of fluids can cause a lot of problems. This can be felt most readily feedback through the steering wheel. However, there are also some easy visual cues to know when you might need to replace your power steering fluid. Most easily, your power steering rack itself might be leaking. Hence, this will cause the power steering fluids to reach below its most optimum level for use. Notice if the liquids leaking from your car is of a reddish color.
5. Darkened, sludgy, or ‘burnt’ fluids
This is a much harder symptom to notice, as you’ll need to be highly observant to spot them. Over time, power steering fluids can wear out from their use. When this happens, old power steering fluids can become darkened over time. From a reddish hue, it could turn brown or black if it hasn’t been replaced in a while. You might also notice that instead of a more watery liquid, it has turned vicious, and almost like sludge. Or, you might be able to sense a ‘burnt’ smell from the engine bay.
What Causing Your Car’s Power Steering Fluid To Need A Replacement?
Having acquainted ourselves with clear symptoms that you’ll be needing to replace your power steering fluids, you might be wondering what’s causing them to appear in the first place. Most of the time, a car’s power steering fluid is one of the aspects that doesn’t often require much maintenance. However, complete negligence can cause problems to appear sooner rather than later. Now, we’ll be taking a closer look at what’s causing you to have to replace your car’s fluids.
1. Parts wearing out
The power steering system in your car has a large number of parts that need to work with one another. Especially for electrically assisted steering, there are a number of pumps, hoses or tubing, seals, and more that can wear out over time. These are important in order to maintain the right pressure for your car’s power steering to work, as well as help circulate fluids. As such, these parts are subject to a lot of hydraulic pressure, and heat from the rest of the engine.
If not serviced after a while, parts such as the O-ring or the seals could lose mass and form. By not being able to maintain their integrity, it could result in your power steering fluid leaking. Small chunks from those parts could also fall off, and circulate within the power steering fluid itself. This will then cause some of the aforementioned symptoms to appear, as your fluid drops below its recommended level. The rubber hoses or tubing could also harden and crack if not cared for.
2. Over-exertion, or excessive force on steering system
Your driving style can also have an impact on the well-being of your power steering fluid. Overly aggressive driving styles, such as rapid changes in direction, can cause the overall steering rack to wear out quicker. This could also be caused by driving across rough terrains. For instance, driving at speed into potholes, speedbumps, or debris on the road. This relates to our previous cause; as power steering fluids cannot function at their best, as important parts like the pump wear out.
3. Contaminated power steering fluid
It is important to ensure not just the amount of fluid is kept in order, but also its condition. The hydraulic pressure can only work well if the fluid itself remains clean. When not changed after a long period of time, however, the power steering fluid can become contaminated. As we highlighted earlier, your car’s O-rings or seals can wear out, and decay small chunks into the fluid. Another important note, your car’s steering rack is made mostly out of aluminum.
As they are constantly at work with one another, it could start shedding fine aluminum powder into the flow of the fluids. This is often normal, and can cause the fluid to darken over time. More to that, water could be trapped within the power steering fluid reservoir. The water can then oxidize the fluid, and erode its hydraulic abilities. Contaminated power steering fluid won’t just cause friction and difficulty in steering, but it might even cause certain parts such as the pump to fail.
4. Natural degradation
Commonly, power steering fluid will necessitate needing a replacement following simple wear and tear. Your car’s fluids undergo an immense amount of strain while under use. This isn’t just from the intense hydraulic pressure exerted, but also the high and constant amount of heat from the engine. Thanks to the heat and pressure, the chemical compounds will naturally degrade over time. This will cause the fluid to darken in color, release a burning odor, or turn into sludge.
Can You Keep On Driving A Car With Low Or Contaminated Power Steering Fluid?
You might be reading this and think, “Okay, it’s serious, but I need to drive my car”. Despite knowing that your car has low amounts of fluid, or one that’s far too old since it was last changed, you still have places to be. So, should you drive a car that doesn’t have enough, or perhaps has power steering fluid that’s far too contaminated? Is it okay to just muscle it up this one time, drive it to work, and take care of this when you get home? To put it simply, absolutely not.
For a start, any problem within a car should be addressed immediately. The consequence of ignoring this can result in other working parts connected to it eventually failing prematurely. In the context of power steering, trying to constantly put even more pressure on hydraulically-assisted steering with low power steering fluids will cause damage over time. Parts such as the power steering pump will need to operate even harder than usual just to ensure that your car can turn.
Damaging To Your Car, and Even More Hazardous To You
We also know now that contaminated power steering fluid can clog up the system, and cause excess wear and tear over time, as well. Rather than paying $100 (general approximation) for a complete fluid replacement, you might need to cough up nearly $1,000 to replace parts of your steering as a whole. Moreover, driving with a car that has inadequate or subpar power steering fluid can also be hazardous. Your car might run, but it could very well be a death trap.
If your steering is acting up, and not responding well to your inputs, it will stratospherically increase the risks of an accident. If your car’s steering wheel becomes too stiff to turn, it will make it harder to avoid obstacles. Should the steering wheel lock up, vibrate excessively, or start jerking a lot while driving, it will also make changing directions incredibly unpredictable. Your car might swerve sideways, or you might not be able to turn at all. It highlights just how dangerous this can be.
How Do You Replace Your Car’s Power Steering Fluid?
Now that we’ve gone this far into our guide, you might be making serious considerations to have your car’s power steering fluid replaced. Naturally, you can skip the hassle, and have your car sent to a workshop to have it done there instead. However, a full fluid replacement is thankfully one of the easier things that you can do from home. The only serious equipment you’ll be needing is a car jack (and stands), as well as a receptacle of sorts such as a drip pan.
You’ll of course be needing a bottle or power steering fluid. In all, this is a process that could be accomplished in less than an hour, and can be done even by the not-so-savvy of car owners. Next up, we’re going to give you a general overview of what you need to do to replace your car’s old power steering fluid. But before we continue, it will help the flushing process if the car and its fluid have reached their operating temperature.
1. Jack up your car
Assuming you’ve already discerned that you’ll need to replace your power steering fluid, safely jack up the car to a sufficient height. This should allow you to easily slide underneath the car, for the following steps afterward. As you’ll be required to turn the wheel throughout this process, having a set of jack stands will help with that. It’ll also be an added bonus in terms of being able to work safely underneath your car.
2. Locate, and drain out the old power steering fluid
You can check your car’s owner’s manual to find a more detailed blueprint as to where the power steering reservoir is located underneath your car. Once you’ve found the drainage plug, clean the area around it with a cloth. This will prevent any dirt or debris to get into the power steering system while you’re working on it. Now, have your drip pan (or a bucket, if you don’t have one) at the ready, and remove the drainage plug. You might be required to use a socket wrench to loosen it.
Now, wait for the old liquids to flush out in their entirety. If you are knowledgeable enough, you might even want to detach the line that connects the reservoir to the power steering rack. This can help flush out the system a little bit better, although it is not necessary. As the power steering fluid is nearing the end of its drain, go back into the car with the engine off, and turn the wheels. Turn it from lock to lock both ways, in order to flush out any remaining fluids.
3. Top-up with new power steering fluid
Once the old power steering fluid has drained fully, reinstall the drain plug. Give it a good cleaning before you do so, just to remove any potential for contaminants to get into the system. Once you’ve done that, go to your engine bay, and locate the power steering reservoir. This should be marked with a label on the cap, such as “Power Steering Fluid Only”. With the engine still turned off, add about half of the recommended amount of fluid in.
You will notice some bubbling, but that’s normal. With 1/2 of the fluid inside the reservoir, go back into your car, and slowly turn the wheel from lock to lock, both ways once more. You may want to do this more than once. This is to make sure that we push out any air bubbles out of the reservoir. We must mention this, as air bubbles can cause damage to the power steering pump. Now, we can turn the engine on, and keep a close eye on the amount of fluid in the reservoir.
Now, add a bit more power steering fluid, and be sure that it stays at least more than half of the recommended amount. Start by slowly turning your steering wheel from lock to lock again, a few more times. Notice if there’s a buzzing sensation; a sign of air bubbles. Proceed to add more power steering fluid, until it has reached the maximum recommended amount. Make sure you don’t overfill it, as it will leak out while you’re driving. Keep turning from lock to lock for a few minutes.
4. Go for a short test drive
Once you’ve filled in the power steering fluid completely, and have made sure that no air bubbles remain, un-jack your car. With the engine running, turn the wheels from lock to lock once again. It might help to loosen the power steering reservoir cap slightly, but not too much. This would be just enough to remove any air bubbles that may remain trapped inside. Double-check the fluid level, and screw the cap back on.
Now, you can go for a short 5-minute test drive to make sure that you’ve done it properly. It’s important to test out the car’s steering with the vehicle’s weight full on the tires. Choose a path that involves a lot of turning, especially at lower speeds. But also remember not to overwork the system. Pay attention to make sure that the steering wheel is turning smoothly, as it normally is. Also, listen and feel out if there are any odd sensations or noises while you’re turning.
Power Steering Fluid Conclusion
Finally, we can end our little guide on power steering fluid, and we hope you’re now the owner of a car whose steering wheel turns with the smoothness of molten butter. It’s easy to overlook power steering fluid, amidst all the other things that your car demands attention. But as we’ve learned thus far, the importance of keeping this liquid in good shape is second to none. Besides, I’m sure we needn’t remind you that eventually, you’re going to have to turn the wheel.
The simple act of following along with your car’s routine maintenance schedule on time is good enough in keeping your power steering fluid in tip-top shape. And if your local mechanic does forget, be sure to remind them with a gentle knock on the head with a wrench. Ensuring the power steering fluid remains in its best state will also prevent other (more expensive) parts from damage. Or else, they could fail quite catastrophically, and leave you with a bigger hole burning through your pocket.
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