Your car steering system is a critical part of your car. It obviously directs your car to go straight, left, or right, and when there is a problem, it can affect the enjoyment and safety of using your car.
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These are the 8 most common issues you will find with car steering systems and how to fix each one as you diagnose it.
#1 – You Feel A Vibration Or Shake When Driving
Feeling a vibration through your steering wheel is a common problem with automobiles. There are multiple reasons that can cause a vibration or a shake to occur while driving. Often, you’ll notice car vibration around 60-80 mph.
The vibrations can be slightly annoying to dangerous depending on the severity of occurrence.
How to Fix It
If you can feel it through the steering wheel, it means it is somewhere in the front suspension or steering system. Take note of when it occurs:
- is it when you are braking,
- when you drive slow,
- at higher speeds,
- or all the time?
Each of these occurrences can have different causes.
A vibration when the brakes are applied may indicate the brake rotors are slightly warped or the brake pads are wearing inconsistently. Each can cause a slight vibration that can be felt through the steering wheel. The rotors can be machined at an auto parts store or by a mechanic with the proper equipment.
The brake pads can be replaced if they are worn, and they should be paired with a set of new rotors or a set that has been machined.
Don’t mix worn parts with fresh parts as it can cause inconsistent wearing on the parts. Also, check all fasteners for tightness as you diagnose the problem.
Vibrations that occur at a low speed, then disappear for a period, and then occur again at a higher speed could indicate your tires and wheel assemblies are out of balance, your wheels are damaged, your tires are damaged, or the steering and suspension components are worn out.
The wheel and tire assemblies can be removed and balanced at a local tire store if they are indeed out of balance. You can also inspect them thoroughly for any damage that could cause a vibration or shake.
Check all components for loose fasteners and each connection for worn components in the suspension and steering systems.
#2 – You Find A Leak Dripping Fluid Under Your Car
Most steering systems use a hydraulic pump driven by a belt on the engine or an electric pump to offer power assistance for steering.
These systems use fluid to assist the movement of the steering system, which makes turning the wheels left or right easy to do. As components wear out, they can start to leak from connections sealed by O-rings, rubber seals, or crimp connections.
You may also find rubber lines that have cracked and begin to weep fluid.
How to Fix It
If the leak has occurred for a long time, pinpointing the source may be hard.
Clean the entire steering system with a spray-on degreaser. You can then drive your car or simply turn the wheels left and right to cause the leak to occur again. Once you find the source, you can replace the damaged or worn-out seal allowing fluid to slip by.
If the leak is caused by a seal in a component like the steering pump, it may be easier to replace the whole pump. Be sure to flush the entire system and add new power steering or brake fluid to the reservoir. Your car’s owner’s manual should identify the proper fluid type to add to the reservoir.
#3 – Your Steering Wheel Is Off-Center
Your steering wheel should be straight as you travel straight down the road. If it’s not, there is an alignment issue between the steering wheel and the steering system.
Worn or damaged components in the steering system can cause an alignment issue between the steering wheel and the front end.
How to Fix It
You will want to start with a visual inspection of your car to determine what is causing the steering wheel to be off-center. First, align the steering wheel straight, then check the wheels and tires for parallelism to your car.
One or both may be off-center and out of alignment with the steering wheel. This could indicate worn-out components, damage from a pothole, or hitting something while driving.
If you don’t recognize a problem with the wheels being off-center, it may be time to take your car to an alignment service station to verify alignment settings and find worn-out components not easily seen with your eyes.
#4 – Your Steering Pulls or Drifts To The Left Or Right When Driving
Driving with steering that constantly pulls or drifts to one side of the other can be tiresome. If it pulls to the left, it wants to drive into the opposing traffic lane.
If it pulls to the right, it wants to drive into the ditch. Neither is a good situation, so this is one issue you’ll want to fix sooner rather than later.
How to Fix it
This one could be an alignment issue, or simply uneven tire pressures. First, check that all tires are inflated to the manufacturer’s recommendation for your car. If that doesn’t fix it, the next step is to rotate your tires and be mindful if they are a directional tread pattern.
While you’re rotating the tires, check them for uneven wear patterns on each individual tire.
If inflation and rotating don’t solve the issue, it’s time to take your car to an alignment shop that can complete a four-wheel alignment. This will correct for a pulling condition from the front suspension and steering or a drifting condition from the rear suspension.
#5 – You Hear Squealing from The Steering System
If you hear squealing coming from the front of the car, it’s probably from the belts and pulleys on the engine rather than something in the steering system.
How to Fix It
The belts on your engine circle many different pulleys for power steering (most new cars have power steering), the alternator, a water pump, and possibly an emissions air injection pump.
A squealing sound could be a bearing on any of these pulleys, a belt slipping on one of the pulleys, or the belt tensioner not providing sufficient resistance to get the belt to turn on all pulleys.
You will want to remove the belt(s) from the pulleys and take note of the direction the belt wraps around the pulleys.
You may have a diagram at the front of the engine to help remember how to install it later. Spin each pulley by hand to check for issues such as the squealing noise, binding as it turns, or any free play allowing it to spin awkwardly.
Your belt tensioner should apply sufficient pressure to the belt, so check it to ensure it hasn’t failed.
If the pulleys are in good shape, next check the belts. They should not have cracks in them, they shouldn’t have a glazed or worn surface, and they shouldn’t be missing any pieces. If you find the belts are sufficiently worn, they should be replaced.
If one of the pulleys has been recently replaced, you can also check for alignment of the pulleys with a straight edge to ensure the belts is traveling in the same plane without walking on the edge of one of the pulleys. This can cause uneven pressure on that pulley and cause the bearing to wear out and fail (plus squeal).
#6 – Your Steering Is Stiff And Always Hard To Turn The Steering Wheel
Driving without power steering can be a workout your arms aren’t prepared for. It may be reported in the dashboard as “Steering Assist Reduced”.
It takes a lot of torque to turn a steering wheel without a functioning power steering system.
If you have slowly lost the steering system’s assistance, or it suddenly became very difficult to turn, you need to check it out quickly.
How to Fix It
If your steering system previously worked well, but now has lost the ability to assist in steering, you most likely have low fluid in the steering system.
Checking the fluid level in the power steering pump is easy to do, and it will give you an indication if that is the cause of the loss of steering assistance. If the reservoir is low, refill it to the fill line, and then look over the fluid lines for a leak. The fluid has been lost somewhere, and one of the connections or lines probably has a slow leak.
If the fluid level was full in the reservoir, you may have binding or damage in the steering system preventing it from operating smoothly.
You can inspect the complete system and turn the wheels left and right to find the issue. From there, a mechanic can repair the damage if you don’t have the tools or skills to do it at home.
#7 – Your Power Steering Only Works Part Of The Time
This issue is related to the last, but your power steering does work some of the time.
It may be related to the fluid level, but it could also have another cause that you don’t expect.
How to Fix It
Verifying the fluid level is the first step in diagnosing a steering system that only works part-time.
If it is low, you can refill it and check for leaks as you did with the last issue. If the fluid is full, it may have a blockage in the system or have an aerated condition with an air pocket in the system. You can remove the air by lifting the vehicle and turning the steering wheel left and right for a few minutes.
This will cycle the fluid in the system, and it should drive the air pocket to the reservoir to escape. It will also lower the fluid level, so be sure to fill it again when you are done.
Check the fluid for contaminants such as debris or little pieces of rubber seal that could allow air to enter the system.
If that is occurring, you will need to replace a seal or the components that have a sealing issue to prevent the air from entering the system.
#8 – Your Steering Will Not Return To Center After A Turn
Your steering wheel should return to the center after a turn, but sometimes it won’t return past a certain point.
That can cause a crash, so this is a potentially dangerous issue that needs to be corrected immediately.
How to Fix It
You need to inspect your steering components for a binding condition. Something is rubbing or contacting at some point in the return to the center.
Once you find the contact point, you can decide if something can be repaired or replaced.