Ah, the joys of owning a vehicle. The freedom to go anywhere, as long as the tank is full. But once things start to break, we are responsible for making the decision of getting the issue dealt with. Should we put off the repair and hope for the best? Or should we deal with the issue right away?
Not everyone has the luxury of having enough money and time to visit a mechanic for every issue, however some issues do need to be dealt with quickly. So, is a power steering leak one of those issues?
Before driving a vehicle with any sort of fluid leak, it’s important to understand the possible consequences. We have put together a guide on everything you need to know about your power steering leak.
Table of Contents
What is power steering?
In the early 1950s, Chrysler introduced the first power steering system to help reduce the difficulty of steering. They were originally intended for luxury vehicles but now they are found in nearly all modern day vehicles.
In simple terms, power steering is an advanced steering system that helps reduce the effort required to steer the front wheels of a car by using a combination of hydraulic assistance and electrical assistance.
So, what are the benefits of power steering?
- Ease of operation: Before power steering, cars were very hard to turn. It required a lot of strength to turn the steering wheel on a heavier car. Like most modern day innovations, power steering makes the steering while lighter and easier to use for the driver.
- Faster steering response: Driving can be dangerous, so it’s important that you’re able to react quickly in the event something serious happens. Power steering makes it A LOT easier to spin your wheel in order to avoid danger.
- Steering wheel return: In most modern vehicles, when you make a turn the steering wheel returns to a straight position. A car that has power steering has a much better steering wheel return speed.
- Bump steer: As you probably already know when you drive over a bump on the road, the force is absorbed and reduced by your car’s suspension system. But did you know some of that force is transferred to the steering system? Power steering provides more resistance to the bump steer, giving your vehicle more stability at high speeds.
How does power steering work?
Power steering usually works in two different ways:
Hydraulic Power Steering
Nowadays, the most common power steering systems use hydraulic power steering. This system operates on a closed loop that utilizes pressurized hydraulic fluids which changes the angle of the front wheels based on the steering angle. It has a hydraulic pump that is driven by a serpentine belt, valves, cylinder, reservoir and a rack & pinion system.
When you rotate your steering wheel, the belt and pulley system will redirect fluid from the reservoir to the pump.
The hydraulic pump will then pressurize the fluid and release the fluid towards the steering rack. The steering rack has a piston and cylinder that has two openings on either side. When the fluid is released into either of the openings, the piston will move to the opposite direction along with the steering rack. This results in smooth and seamless motion of the front wheels.
Electric Power Steering
Electric assisted power steering (EPS) is the latest steering technological innovation. The idea is to replace the hydraulic assist with a computer-controlled electric motor which helps increase fuel efficiency, and provides more refined steering and handling.
The electric power steering system is completely electronic and powered by four main components: electric control unit (ECU), electric motor, torque sensor, and reduction gear.
The steering wheel input is constantly kept track of by the ECU. The ECU monitors the speed, torque and direction of the steering wheel along with the vehicle speed. This data is absorbed by the ECU and sent to the electric motor which then moves the steering rack and turns the wheels.
Signs your power steering is failing
Understanding the signs of power steering failure can help you prevent potential accidents and save you money at the mechanic.
If you’re experiencing a whining or screeching noise when turning the wheel, your power steering system may be low on fluid or the pump might be going bad. If you notice the power steering fluid level is low, you likely have a leak in the system.
If you feel like your turning a yacht when making a left turn, you most likely have an issue with your power steering system. If you have a hard to turn steering wheel, you may also notice some pump noise. If thats the case, you may also have a loose serpentine belt or a bad pump.
Low Fluid Level
Power steering fluid should be flushed every 2 years, or 75,000 miles. However, you should still check the fluid level regularly to make sure there is no leak. If you notice the fluid level is low, you likely have a leak in your system.
One way to check for leaks is to leave your car parked for a couple of hours. Once you move the car, check to see if there is any oil puddles under where your car is parked. Always compare the colour of the fluid with the colour of the power steering fluid found in your car.
You can tell right away if your fluid needs to be replaced by look at the colour. New power steering fluid is clear with a pink tone & a mild smell. If the colour is dark, this indicates oxidation and the fluid should be replaced. Bubbles in the fluid can mean that there is water or air in the steering lines, while metallic flakes usually indicate a failing pump.
Can you drive without power steering?
Yes, you can drive without power steering, however, that does not mean you should!
You may notice your steering still works, but soon you’ll regret not going to the gym regularly because the steering wheel will be very hard to turn. Driving without power steering for a long time can also damage your pump which be a lot more expensive to repair.
Driving without power steering means parking and quick steering become extremely difficult. This makes driving without power steering very dangerous and potentially illegal – so don’t do it!
Not only are you severely limiting the performance of your car, but there is also liability involved. Say you get into an accident while you had a power steering leak. If this was discovered you have a very good chance of getting sued for negligence. On top of that, your insurance company won’t cover any damages.
What could happen if you drive without power steering?
A small leak can and will get bigger
The power steering fluid in your vehicle is not meant to leak. That means if you find a leak, it’s the start of a potentially much larger problem. A small power steering leak isn’t the end of the world, but once the leak starts it usually gets worse over time. For example, if a leak is due to a little crack in your hose, if the crack gets bigger, you’ll lose all of your power steering fluid quickly.
Loss of power steering fluid affects the driving quality of your vehicle
While most older vehicles don’t have power steering, it’s not the same as driving a car that has power steering but no fluid. When your power steering fluid is leaking you’ll notice your steering wheel will feel stiffer and harder to turn. This is exaggerated when you’re driving at low speeds and can make turning extremely difficult.
Damage to the power steering pump
While a power steering fluid leak isn’t going to leave you deserted on the side of the road, once the level drops, your power steering pump runs dry. This can quickly lead to an expensive repair due to the increased friction and heat. If you absolutely need to drive your car with no power steering fluid, make sure you avoid any sharp left or right turns.
Okay, so what do I do if it fails?
Don’t panic. If you’re on a busy road turn on your hazards to let other drivers know there is a problem.
This will probably be very difficult but carefully move your car over to the side of the road.
Once you’re in a safe spot, pop the hood and check the level of your power steering fluid. If it’s low, you’ll be able to make it back home. If it’s full, then that’s bad news. Call a tow truck and wait for help to arrive.
Power steering is arguably one of the best innovations in cars (besides the tire). It allows us to accurately and efficiently control our vehicles. However, it is not immune to failing.
Thankfully, the system is designed to work even if the power steering fails, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to continue driving.
Driving without power steering is a hazard to you, civilians and your bank account. It’s important to get your power steering fixed before the damages get beyond repair.