Drivers today take easy steering of their vehicles for granted. But prior to the 1960s, power steering was not standard in cars and trucks, so many people drove without it well into the ‘70s and ‘80s. Here’s what you should know about this modern vehicle amenity, especially signs of power steering failure that should send you to your mechanic right away for a diagnosis and repair.
How Power Steering Works
Power steering was designed to help make maneuvering a vehicle much easier physically. Prior to the invention of power steering, drivers had to exert much more pressure to turn the wheel and direct their vehicles. Steering was therefore slower and less precise than it is nowadays.
Cars and trucks use one of two power steering systems (electric or hydraulic) or sometimes a combination of the two (hybrid hydroelectric). With an electric power steering (EPS) system, sensors attached to a motor on either side of the steering column determine how much assistance the driver needs to turn the front wheels. It makes parking at low speeds less arduous while simultaneously making high-speed turning more stable.
Hydraulic systems, on the other hand, use hydraulic fluid powered by a pump to assist with turning the steering wheel. Unlike an EPS system, which is powered by the vehicle’s electrical system, a hydraulic power steering system is driven by a serpentine belt or drive belt attached to the engine.
The Pros and Cons of Electric vs. Hydraulic Power Steering
It used to be that hydraulic power steering was the norm. However, electric power steering systems have become more prevalent since the early 2000s. Drivers have found pros and cons with each type.
Hydraulic power steering gives you a better feel for the road. This isn’t just a benefit for racecar drivers — if you do a lot of high-speed highway driving, you may appreciate this too.
The downsides to hydraulic power steering include:
- Having to replace the power steering fluid at regular intervals (often around every 80,000 kilometres)
- Needing the engine to be on in order for the power steering system to function
- More parts and complexity than electric power steering
Electric power steering does not require any fluid, and it has enabled new technology like parking assistance and lane-keep warnings. This type of power steering also works better if the wheels aren’t perfectly aligned or the road conditions are rough.
The biggest negative associated with EPS systems is the cost of repairs. Specialized equipment is required for this, and often electrical or computer components must be fixed to get the system to work properly.
Power Steering Problems: Symptoms to Watch Out For
What are signs of power steering problems? If you experience these issues, get on the phone to your mechanic and schedule an appointment right away:
- A stiff steering wheel or a wheel that feels unresponsive
- Excessive play or slipping of the steering wheel
- A groaning or whining noise when turning the vehicle
- Squealing noises for the first minute or two after you start the auto
- Vibration from the steering wheel or vehicle shuddering when turning
- Red fluid pooling underneath the car (leaking power steering fluid)
- Burnt smell under the hood (failing or seizing pump pulley)
Keep in mind that power steering troubles usually get worse with time. This is particularly true if you are either losing power steering fluid or a serpentine belt or pump pulley is wearing out. You don’t want to embark on a trip or find yourself in a wilderness area of British Columbia with a power steering system that could completely cease working.
Diagnosing Power Steering Problems
Your mechanic will look for multiple potential issues when diagnosing a vehicle suspected of power steering failure. Depending on the model of the vehicle and its power steering system, they will look for any of the following:
- Low power steering fluid levels and leaks in hydraulic systems
- Dark or foamy leaking power steering fluid in the reservoir (signs of old fluid or a leak)
- Faulty power steering pump, including the pump pulley
- Worn or broken serpentine belt causing loss of power to the system
- Loose tie rods in rack and pinion steering mechanisms
- Computer or electrical problems affecting EPS systems
- Wheel misalignment, low tire pressure, worn brakes, or suspension problems that could be masquerading as steering issues (still dangerous)
Steering is one of the most essential driving actions related to vehicle safety and accident avoidance for you and your family members. So if you’re having trouble with your steering — including a suspicion that your power steering system is failing — it’s vital to get your car or truck to your mechanic’s shop as soon as possible. Once your mechanic diagnoses the precise issue, you can work together to fix it and know you’re driving safely and comfortably again.
Can Power Steering Fluid Freeze?
Power steering fluid, like most automotive fluids, is formulated to remain fluid and functional over a wide range of temperatures, including those well below freezing. However, extremely cold temperatures can cause the fluid to become more viscous or thick, which might make steering harder until the fluid warms up. It’s very rare for power steering fluid to actually freeze solid, as it has a lower freezing point than water.
If you’re experiencing steering difficulties in cold weather, ensure you’re using a power steering fluid suitable for your vehicle and climate. Some fluids are designed for better performance in cold conditions. Additionally, keeping your car in a warmer environment, like a garage, can help. Regular maintenance of the power steering system, including checking for leaks and fluid level, is also important to ensure smooth operation in all temperatures. If problems persist, consulting a mechanic is advisable, as there might be an issue with the power steering system itself.