Power steering issues

Written by chris stevenson
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Power steering issues
The power steering pump aids in turning the steering wheel effortlessly. (ford mustang's steering wheel image by Lario Tus from Fotolia.com)

Power steering allows you to manoeuvre you vehicle effortlessly in and out of traffic. Without power steering, the chore of turning the steering wheel would be immense, since the pressure required to turn the rack and pinion and suspension would tax the beefiest of truck drivers. In fact, you'd find steering a conventional vehicle nearly impossible without power steering. Luckily, power steering units will give out warning signs that they have issues and will send out noises like a cry or a scream, unlike any other component.

Power Steering Noises

When power steering units begin to fail, they can give out a high-pitched squeal, screech or scream. A bad powering steering unit at idle can make the steering wheel jump or slip in your hands and emit loud chirping noises. Pay attention to these telltale noises---they will alert you immediately to a problem with the power steering pump.

Belt Problems

If the power steering belt slips, the warning sign will consist of a chatter felt up through the steering wheel while you attempt to turn the vehicle, accompanied by the familiar screeching sound. Power steering belts can look fine on the exterior or even appear tight while wear or cracking has occurred on the inside surface where they ride in the power steering or crankshaft pulley groove. Replace cracked or dry belts. Missing belts will cause zero power assist and can make it impossible to turn the vehicle. Oil-soaked belts can slip and burn, giving off an acrid, tar-like smell and causing the steering wheel to slip.

Low and Contaminated Power Steering Fluid

Low or no power steering fluid in the reservoir will keep the power steering pump from sending high-pressure fluid to the rack and pinion. Noises will accompany the absence of fluid, or a low level, by sounding like a constant hum, accompanied by hard turning and steering wheel slippage. Top off the fluid level at the prescribed "Full" mark that appears on the small dipstick.

Dirty power steering fluid will look like mud, or sometimes resemble a frothy milkshake filled with brown or yellow foam. Contaminated power steering fluid has lost its ability to travel smoothly through the hoses and lines. The most common symptom will be a whine or hum coming from the power steering pump. The remedy involves a complete fluid flush of the pump and lines.

Line Leaks

The high-pressure line that connects the pump to the steering box characteristically fails first at its connections, or the hose could split somewhere along its length. Because of high temperatures in the engine compartment, the rubber hoses can dry out and crack, spilling fluid. Inspect all lines for any signs of leaks, whether they appear minor or not. A greasy feeling or a wet appearance points to a possible leak.

Pump Leaks

The power steering pump will routinely leak at the front seal just behind the pulley. It can cause power steering fluid to drip on the belt, which will cause it to slip and burn. You can replace power steering pump seals, but this project usually involves a complete pump rebuild. Sometimes the addition of a conditioner and a new fluid change can soften up the seal so it seals again, but this remedy only serves as a temporary solution to a problem that will resurface.

Pump Mechanical Failure

Any wobbling of the power steering pump pulley will indicate bad shaft bearings. Bad bearings in the pump will announce themselves with a growling noise, or a continuous low-pitched knocking, usually accompanied by an obvious leak, since the seals will have become distorted from such excessive free play.

A dirty or failing pressure regulator inside the pump will reduce the high pressure needed to operate the power steering system. You may find this failure more difficult to diagnose, but you can find it through a process of elimination after checking all other possible symptoms.

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