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Putting the Power Back in Power Steering
By Mike Bumbeck/
Printable version
Degree of DifficultyModerate
Estimated Time120 minutes
120 minutes
Power steering was first used on a vehicle way back in the 1920s. While systems have grown more refined, the operating principle remains largely unchanged. The power steering system brings together the strength and power of hydraulic pressure with the mechanical miracle of steering linkages. The power steering pump pressurizes the power steering hydraulic system. The power steering fluid runs through hoses and by way of valves, plungers, or pistons moves the mechanics of the steering back and forth as you turn the wheel. When the pump stops pumping, the pressure drops and the power steering system loses its hydraulic power. Worse yet is that small bits of the rapidly disintegrating pump may lodge themselves in the dark reaches of the system and cause even more potentially expensive problems.
Power Steering System Maintenance and Troubleshooting
Pressure Required
While there are more than a few different types of power steering systems, they all require the hydraulic pressure of the power steering fluid to give you the seemingly superhuman strength to effortlessly turn the wheels with one finger. Be it rack-and-pinion, recalculating ball, or some fancier, more space-aged setup, the power steering system will fail if the pump cannot generate the pressure required to push the steering parts of the suspension back and forth.

Since the power steering fluid is constantly getting mashed around by pump and piston alike, it requires regular attention. Checking the fluid level and changing and flushing at intervals recommended by the manufacturer will bring long life to the hoses, pistons, valves, seals, and power steering pump itself. Sight and smell are your allies when it comes to determining the condition of power steering fluid. The fluid should be clear, not cloudy, and should not smell burnt or toasted. Hearing is the other sense that comes into play when it comes to power steering pumps and wear. A power steering pump on its way out will growl and groan like a grumpy cat as you turn the steering wheel back and forth.

Moan and Groan
This growling will get worse as the pump wears. These low groaning noises are particularly noticeable when the system is under heavy load, such as parallel parking. While a small amount of noise at the very end of the steering travel is normal, continual complaining is not. Moderate howling could merely be a sign of low power steering fluid level. When checking and topping off the power steering fluid, be sure to consult the vehicle owner's or service manual. Pouring in the wrong fluid or overfilling the system can cause expensive damage. If the fluid is low, check the hoses, fittings, clamps, and the like for leaks. A large square of cardboard placed under the vehicle overnight can help locate leak sources.
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