Power steering is a grace of the modern automobile that we perhaps most take for granted. Finally, we won’t need to do a serious arm workout just to make the wheels turn. Yet, we can sometimes ignore its needs more often than not when it comes time to have your car serviced. Tires, battery, motor oil, filters, coolant… But what about the hydraulic liquids that make your assisted steering work? When it’s too late, what can you do when there’s a power steering fluid leak?
Have you ever noticed your steering wheel feel just a bit stiff? Maybe, it’s a bit jerky, or it emits unusual noises when it’s turning. Worst of all, your power steering might give up while you’re in the middle of a drive. All are the perfect circumstances for an accident when you find that you can’t turn the wheel as well as it used to. As with everything else on a car, power steering fluid needs loving care and attention, too. So, let’s try to understand more about power steering fluid leak.
- What Is Power Steering Fluid?
- Do You Need To Service It?
- Types Of Fluids
- Causes Of The Leak
- Fixes (And Costs)
How Does Power Steering Fluid Work?
Before we discuss more on a power steering fluid leak, we should first try and understand more on how the whole system works. Most cars today have some form of hydraulically-assisted steering. Through a series of hydraulic actuators, your inputs on the steering wheel are amplified. This, in effect, makes actions easier to perform and requires less arm muscle. The pressure comes from the power steering pump, which is driven by the engine through the serpentine (or drive) belt.
The pump connects to a hydraulic actuator or cylinder, which forces the hydraulic pressure onto the steering gear. It will then steer the wheels left and right, respectively. With hydraulically-assisted power steering, the steering wheel itself can operate a number of valves that control the flow of fluid. The flow can then transmit pressure across to the cylinders and actuators. The key benefit, therefore, is that you don’t need to exert a lot of force in order to turn the wheel.
A slight jerk on the steering wheel can greatly amplify the degree of turning that the wheels of the car move by. Some newer vehicles, however, have gone a step above hydraulic power steering. Instead, they are using electric power steering, where electrical inputs are sent to a motorized actuator. In this case, you won’t need any fluids. On the subject of liquids, know that your power steering fluids need a full flush, and then replaced after a certain time or mileage has passed.
Do You Need To Replace Your Car’s Power Steering Fluid?
A continuation of the previous point that we made earlier in our guide on power steering fluid leak, you definitely need to replace it. It’s no different than other liquids in your car, such as engine oil, brake fluids, transmission fluid, coolant, and so on. This is something that needs to be done and is often overlooked when having your car serviced. It will depend on the make and model, but each car will have a set timeframe when the power steering fluid needs a flush and replacement.
You’ll need to be attentive, and consult your owner’s manual from time to time. The average lifespan of a power steering fluid lasts anywhere from 50,000 miles, all the way to 100,000 miles. Although, most technicians recommend replacing it with the former 50k miles. A bottle of power steering fluid can be bought for as little as $15. If you’re going for a full flush of the old liquids and have it replaced at a workshop, the cost will vary from $100 to $250, also including labor.
What Are The Different Types Of Power Steering Fluid?
Now, before you think of topping up your power steering fluid leak, there’s another major factor to consider. There isn’t just one type of power steering fluid that you’ll need to worry about. In fact, there are three distinct types of liquids, each with its own properties. You can’t just grab any bottle of fluid from a shelf. So, go back to your owner’s manual, and see what brand or type of fluid is recommended. The lid or cap of the power steering fluid reservoir might give a clue, as well.
Using incompatible power steering fluids won’t necessarily kill you. Nonetheless, they may pressurize differently than what the car’s power steering system was designed for. Or, it may lack some of the additives that might benefit the insides of the power steering loop. In all, using the wrong type of power steering fluid could lead to premature wear and tear. This then multiplies what might be a fairly cheap repair job, into a catastrophically expensive one involving the whole power steering.
Speaking a bit more on those additives that we mentioned earlier, some types or brands of fluids do have regenerative properties within them. They can have anti-corrosion properties. It might help to prevent the metallic components within your steering from rusting. The best add-on feature has to be ‘stop-leak’. These formulations have plasticizers in them that can strengthen rubber seals and tubing, and as the name suggests, stops leaks from happening.
1. ATF Transmission Fluid
Yes, you heard that right. In some cars, their power steering fluid can be interchanged with gearbox (automatic) fluid. Commonly, the sub-types of these fluids can be Dexron, Mercon, ATF+4, or Type F. However, other similar formulas of automatic transmission fluids might also be used. Usually, power steering systems that adopt ATF fluid are older cars from the 70s and up to the 90s. US-built cars are the most frequent user of ATF-based power steering fluids.
2. Synthetic Hydraulic Fluid
This is a specially formulated fluid engineered just for power steering, complying with the ISO 7308 and DIN 51 524T3 standards. Often, you’ll find these on higher performance models, or among the later crop of cars from the post-2000s. Mainly, European and Japanese carmakers adopt this type of power steering fluid. Synthetic fluids can flow smoothly and cleanly at low temperatures. On top of that, they could also work to reduce the friction within the pump through extensive lubrication.
3. Universal Power Steering Fluid
If the name isn’t enough of a clue, this type of fluid can be universally used in most cars today. Aside from compatibility, it does bring a heap of benefits on its own. These include reducing the friction of certain components. Moreover, they can contain the aforementioned additives that could seal small leaks, prevents corrosion, and reducing the wear and tear of metallic parts within your steering. Nevertheless, you should still check and see if your car can even support this universal type of fluid.
What’s Causing My Car’s Power Steering Fluid Leak?
We’re now well acquainted with what power steering is, and what it does. Furthermore, we’ve since established that there are different types of fluids, and you need to have them serviced. But, we’ve yet to understand what exactly is the cause of the power steering fluid leak. Why is this even happening anyway? As with many other reasons why a certain part of a car breaks down, time and usage are your enemies. As your car ages and gets driven, the power steering goes through a lot of strain.
If you service your car diligently enough, you might prevent a power steering fluid leak from spilling out. This is proof that good maintenance is all it takes to keep a running peachy for years to come. To look a bit closer, there are several potential root causes of why your power steering fluids are leaking. Here are some examples…
1. Seals, Tubing, And Other Internal Components Wearing Out
Your power steering fluid interacts with a lot of elements within your power steering system. These bits can include the pump, hoses, tubing, seals, and so on. The latter are usually made from degradable materials, such as rubberized compounds. Over time, they can wear out, as they continually strive to maintain pressure and circulate the flow of fluids. They’re exposed to a lot of pressurized stress, as well as intense heat from the engine and other mechanical parts.
If your car hasn’t been serviced in a while, things like the O-ring or the seals can lose mass and form. Essentially, they break down into chunks, and could fall off. These then circulate within the power steering fluid. As you can imagine like logs being carried downstream by a river, the chunks can clog certain portions of the power steering system, causing even more strain. At the very least, the rubber hoses and tubing may harden and crack over time as it gets exposed to heat, as well.
2. Contaminated Power Steering Fluids
The condition of the fluid is a major contributor to power steering fluid leak. As we noted earlier, the O-rings, seals, or the tubing itself that carries the fluid can degrade. When they decay into chunks that get mixed with the power steering fluid, these can contaminate the liquids. The steering rack as a whole is made from metallic substances like aluminum. As it works and grinds away, it might start to shed fine aluminum powder into the fluid.
While this is all normal, debris like those will have a significant effect on how the fluids flow. We haven’t even discussed the potential for water and moisture to get trapped in there, either. When water oxidizes the power steering fluid, it won’t be as hydraulically potent as it once was. Anyhow, contaminated power steering fluid can cause blockages within the circulation of the liquid flow. That’s not to mention causing certain units, like the pump to fail, thus springing a leak.
3. Burnt Out Power Steering Fluids
Yet, you should bear in mind that the fluid can, eventually, fail by itself. The power steering fluids go through immense hydraulic pressures. Plus, it needs to flow through a constant heatwave from the engine and its surrounding bits and pieces. A combination of heat and pressure, over time, is more than enough to naturally degrade the chemical compound of the power steering fluid. It will turn into a thick and viscous sludge, which may disrupt the flow, or eat into the rubber tubes and hoses.
How Can You Tell That Your Car Has A Power Steering Fluid Leak?
The most obvious way to tell that your car has a power steering fluid leak is by checking underneath it. Do you see a reddish puddle down there? Well, that’s power steering fluid. To be more specific, there are certainly other places where you can detect where it’s leaking from. The first point of failure would be the pump, where you can find near the front and bottom of the car. Otherwise, some or all of the hoses and tubing that carry the power steering fluid might be compromised.
These are routed in between the pump and the steering rack or gear. They might’ve given way after years of abuse. The final place you could check to see if there’s a leak is along the actual steering rack. Here, seals are exposed to a lot of road debris, dirt, and grime build-up. This can eat away and wear out the seals over there, as well. But aside from this, there are a few other tell-tale signs that your power steering fluid may have sprung a leak, as it begins to behave oddly.
1. Stiff Steering Wheel
Any difficulty in turning the wheel is a clear symptom that something’s amiss within your car’s steering. When there’s an insufficient amount of hydraulic fluid in there – indicative of a leak – then the wheel might stiffen up. It would take you a lot of effort just to rotate it by a few degrees left or right. Since there isn’t a sufficient quantity of liquids to transmit hydraulic pressure, the power steering can’t pressurize adequately enough.
2. Jerks, Vibrations, Or Locking Steering Wheel
Once again, you can sense a lot of the forthcoming issues by how the steering wheel feels in the hand. For example, when you turn the wheel to the right, does it jerk left or back to the center? It’s most noticeable in low-speed driving, such as during parking. Have you felt the wheel vibrating excessively, or the wheel lock itself up completely? These are all very clear signs that among other things, there could be a low volume of hydraulically-pressured power steering fluids.
3. Odd Sounds When Turning The Wheel
Rounding off the ‘can you feel it through the wheel’ sensations, we have noises to listen to now. A vehicle’s steering shouldn’t make any sound at all. The only way you can hear these noises is by way of the power steering pump. This is what circulates fluid in the system, and provides pressure. Well, when there are inadequate quantities of power steering fluid to move around, your pump could be pressurizing plenty of air. Usually, you’ll hear a ‘whish’ or a ‘whine’ when this happens.
How Can You Fix A Power Steering Fluid Leak?
So then, how exactly do we fix a power steering fluid leak? Well, if you notice any of the symptoms of leaking fluids as we listed earlier, then you should immediately stop driving your car. Not only is it deadly to have your power steering run awry while you’re at speed, but it can cost you. Know that trying to exert force and muscle against a power steering with insufficient fluids could seriously wear out the many parts connected to it. These include the pump and the steering rack.
They’ll be put under a lot of fatigue as they’re trying their hardest to pressurize the scant volume of fluids in there. That way, you’ll be left with repair bills upwards of a thousand dollars or higher, which is completely unnecessary. Once you’ve given enough thought to checking over your car and finding the leak, take a peek at how bad it is. As soon as a leak starts appearing, you should head over to the nearest auto parts store, and find a bottle of ‘stop-leak‘ additive.
Although, do bear in mind that stop-leaks can only work on smaller leakage. Larger holes or gashes in the tubing, for example, can’t be patched up using stop-leak additives. What it does, is help to repair and treat seals and O-rings (which are generally the main cause of leaking) by softening and then swelling them. This should somewhat clog up the leak long enough so that you can drive it to a workshop and have it inspected.
How Much Is All This Going To Cost You?
For stop-leak additives, they’re the cheapest way to temporarily patch up a leak. A bottle can cost anywhere from just $5 to $10, depending on how big it is. Some stop-leaks also have additional additives that can revitalize the power steering fluids, too. As for the price you pay in time, a stop-leak additive is a very simple fix to do. All you need to do is find the power steering fluid reservoir in the engine bay. Then add the recommended amount of stop-leak into the reservoir.
Be careful not to overfill with additives, though. Read the instructions on the bottle, and determine how much stop-leak you need to add, corresponding to the volume of power steering fluids you have. After that, just reseal the cap on the reservoir, and go for a drive. It may take some hours, or upwards of a couple of days before the leak truly goes away, depending on how severe it is. The more you drive, the more the stop-leak gets a chance to circulate around and heal the innards.
But What If The Leak Is More Serious?
Stop-leak additives, as magical as they are, can only work best on smaller leakages. What about those gushing power steering fluid leaks, then? Unfortunately, you’re going to have to get your car inspected thoroughly to find exactly what’s causing the leak. We noted earlier that leaks can spring up from several different components within the steering system as a whole. While a bottle of stop-leak may just cost you no greater than a hearty lunch, bigger leaks will be more expensive.
Let’s say you need to replace the whole power steering system, as the leak is far too serious. On average, this will cost you between $500 to $650 for most cars today. If you think that’s painful, just wait until the local mechanic tells you that you need a brand new steering rack. This will very easily leave your wallet $1,000 or more lighter. That there is what could happen if you overstress your steering by continually driving, despite knowing that there’s a fluid leak around.
However, you can save a lot by diagnosing and replacing individual components rather than the entire thing. The power steering pump, for instance, is a common culprit of leaks. One of these will cost you around $200 for the pump alone. A hose or tube, meanwhile, can be found for about $60 to $150. If it’s just a faulty pressure valve, then you can find these for as little as $10. All of the prices that we’ve quoted so far don’t account for labor, by the way. For this, add $200 just to be safe.
While you’re in the middle of all that, be mindful that it’s recommended you get a full fluid flush and replacement once the repairs are done. A bottle of fresh power steering fluids in there will keep the system running healthier still. A professional flush and change job at a garage will vary between $100 to $250, including labor. Overall, we can see here that the power steering fluid leak is no joke, and it’s a problem that you should certainly attend to as soon as possible.
Once you get a leak, have stop-leak solutions at the ready to potentially stop, or at least slow it down. If it still keeps leaking, or if the fluid leaks are far too serious, then you’ll need to have it checked and see which components within the steering are responsible. It could be hoses and tubing, pumps, or the whole steering rack that’s the cause. Then, have these repair or replaced to prevent that leak from appearing again. A bit of prudence, and you may yet have averted disaster.
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