Power steering may once have been an expensive optional extra reserved for luxury vehicles and heavy SUVs, but with the average car becoming heavier and more difficult to maneuver unassisted every year, even the smallest vehicles now routinely come fitted with some variety of power assisted steering. Unfortunately, while the benefits these sophisticated hydraulic systems provide take a tremendous amount of effort out of daily driving, it does mean that you have one more component in your vehicle which can go wrong.
Power steering faults are generally fairly noticeable, since even slightly malfunctions can make steering your vehicle much more challenging. However, determining the exact cause of your power steering woes can be a challenge, as your system may be affected by any one of a number of faults. Taking your vehicle in for inspection and repairs by mechanics specialising in power steering repairs is always the easiest and smartest option, but you can attempt to diagnose the problem yourself by keeping an eye out for the following symptoms of power steering failure:
If you hear a grinding noise coming from the steering column while turning your vehicle, you may well have problems with your power steering system's supply of hydraulic fluid. Fluid problems can have a number of root causes; if you have an older vehicle that has not has its power steering system serviced in a while, the fluid within may have perishing and separated, reducing its effectiveness and causing the distinctive grinding noise. Changing your system's fluid supply general solves this problem quickly and effectively.
However, the most common cause of a grinding power steering system is low fluid levels, which are generally caused by a leak in your system's hydraulic cylinders. Check under the driver's side of your vehicles for pools of liquid that can indicate a leak (power steering fluid is usually red or pink). If you suspect a leak is the cause of your problems, taking your vehicle in for professional inspection and repairs is generally the best option, as finding the location of a hydraulic cylinder leak can be extremely difficult without specialised equipment.
Rapid increases in steering difficulty
If your steering wheel becomes harder to turn rapidly rather than gradually, the hoses the feed fluid to your power steering system may be the culprits. While leaks in the hydraulic cylinders themselves generally cause gradual loss of steering ability, damaged or defective hoses tend to burst suddenly and leak fluid far more rapidly.
If your vehicle suddenly becomes significantly more difficult to steer, take it off the road as soon as you can; burst hoses can rapidly empty your system's supply of hydraulic fluid, and attempting to steer without a fluid supply can cause catastrophic damage to your power steering system. Inspect all the hoses and hose couplings leading to and from your power steering system, replacing any that are obviously damaged or defective. Burst hoses can also leave contaminants in your system's fluid reservoir, so flushing out any remaining fluid is generally wise.
One of the most distinctive symptoms of a faulty power steering system is a loud, piercing squealing noise generated when making sharper turns; this problem is almost always caused by a worn or slipped drive belt, the belt that provides power to your system's fluid pump. Thankfully, this is one of the easier power steering problems to solve. Readjusting your belt is generally a quick and easy fix, but older belts that have lost their elasticity may need to be replaced entirely.
However, if your drive belt slips repeatedly in a short space of time, you may be dealing with more profound problems such as worn spindles, or a damaged fluid pump creating excessive vibrations. If you suffer repeated drive belt problems, calling in professional car service help may be necessary.