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What to Do When Your Power Steering Goes Out

By Mia Bevacqua, March 22, 2018

Power steering was a luxury back when it debuted in 1951 — but it’s standard equipment these days. If your power steering goes out, you’ll have to put a lot of muscle into even the simplest turns, especially at low speeds. 

This can be a dangerous situation, and one you’ll likely need a mechanic to resolve. Here’s what you need to know if the power steering has gone out on your car.

How your car's power steering works

Power steering helps the driver turn the steering wheel, especially during difficult or low-speed maneuvers, such as parking. There are two basic types of power steering systems currently in use: hydraulic and electric.

Hydraulic: Hydraulic power steering was installed on most cars up until about 10 years ago. In this system, a power steering pump is run by the drive belt and sends pressurized fluid through lines to the power steering gear — either a rack-and-pinion system or a recirculating ball. The gear uses this pressurized fluid to help turn the steering linkage — and thus your wheels — in the desired direction. 

Electric: Most vehicles built within the last decade or so have electric power steering. These systems include a steering gear, similar to the one in a hydraulic system, except that it’s driven by an electric motor controlled by a power steering control module — a type of computer. The module makes its decisions based on input from sensors, such as the torque sensor or steering angle sensor. There’s no fluid in this system, and it’s not belt-driven.

If you’re not sure which type of system your car has, check your owner’s manual.

Get it diagnosed by a professional
 

Signs you have a power steering problem

Lack of power steering: This is the most obvious symptom, and when it happens, you’ll notice the steering wheel becomes very hard to turn. The problem is especially apparent when you’re stopped or at very low speeds.

Noise: Often, a faulty power steering pump will make a whining or groaning noise. This sound typically increases with engine RPMs, since the pump is driven by a belt. The noise will usually get louder when the wheel is turned.

Leaks: Power steering pumps, lines, hoses and steering gears can develop leaks. These leaks can originate at the pump seals or from a crack in the pump housing or reservoir. If you notice a red or reddish-brown puddle under your car, this could be your power steering fluid.

Steering wheel vibration: In a hydraulic system, if your drive belt doesn’t have the right amount of tension or is beginning to fail, it can affect your steering. Your steering might feel jumpy or choppy, or you might feel excess vibration through the wheel when you sit at idle. 

Reasons why your hydraulic power steering is out

Problems in hydraulic power steering systems can be caused by the drive belt, pump, lines or steering gear. It’s a good idea to have a certified mechanic tackle your power steering problems, as they’re not always simple to identify or repair, and can require a fair amount of labor.

Power steering fluid leaks: Unlike engine oil, power steering fluid doesn’t “burn up.” A low fluid level indicates a leak somewhere. Some common leak sources include the rack, pump and lines.

Solution: The leak will need to be found and repaired, and the fluid level should be topped off. 

Loose power steering pump belt: A loose or missing belt will prevent the power steering pump from working right.

Solution: Some vehicles have adjustable drive belts. In this case, simply tightening the belt may fix the problem. On vehicles with an automatic tensioner, the belt or tensioner will need to be replaced.

Internal power steering pump failure: When it’s starting to die, the power steering pump usually will make a whining or grinding noise. This is most evident when you turn the steering wheel. Eventually, the pump will fail completely, resulting in lack of steering assist.

Solution: You’ll need a new power steering pump. If the failed pump has contaminated the system with metal, a power steering fluid flush should also be performed.

Clogged or leaking lines: Restricted or leaking lines can inhibit hydraulic fluid circulation throughout the system. This can affect fluid pressure, resulting in a lack of steering assist.

Solution: Replace any affected power steering lines. If the lines were clogged, a power steering fluid flush should also be performed.

Power steering gear failure: In some cases, the power steering may struggle for a while after the vehicle has sat overnight, but eventually returns after the car has been driven for a while. This is an indication of an internal steering gear failure. The steering gear may also bind internally, inhibiting power assist.

Solution: Replace the steering gear. A front-end alignment will also need to be performed after the replacement. If the failed steering gear has contaminated the system with metal, a power steering fluid flush should also be performed.

» MORE: Why is my car pulling to one side?

Reasons why your electric power steering is out

Before we get into causes, it’s important to note that in some cases, the electric power steering system components are integrated into one assembly that can’t be serviced. As a result, a failure with one or more of the following parts may mean you'll have to replace the entire unit.

Power steering control module issues: A problem with the control module or its circuit can affect power steering operation.

Solution: Your mechanic will first make sure the control module is working properly, and will check for any technical service bulletins. If there aren’t any, the control module will need to be replaced and programmed correctly.

Power steering motor failure: A motor with a short circuit or other problem won’t work properly, resulting in a lack of power steering.

Solution: Replace the motor. In some cases, the power steering control module may need to be recalibrated after motor replacement. 

Failed sensor: An internal sensor problem, or a problem with the sensor’s circuit, can affect power steering operation.

Solution: Replace the sensor and recalibrate the control module as needed.

Wiring issues: Open, shorted or high-resistance wiring can keep the power steering system from working.

Solution: Pinpoint the problem and repair the wiring.

Internal steering gear failure: In an electric power steering system, the steering gear can bind internally, inhibiting power assist.

Solution: Replace the steering gear. 

 

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