Diagnosing Power Steering Problems Using Your Steering Wheel

Updated on April 28, 2020
Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell writes about do-it-yourself car maintenance and repair. He has certifications in automation and control technology.

Unusual steering wheel behavior can reveal potential problems with your car's power steering system.
Unusual steering wheel behavior can reveal potential problems with your car's power steering system. | Source

The Way Your Steering Wheel Acts Helps You Diagnose Problems

A steering wheel's unusual behavior, noises, and other telltale signs can tell you a lot about the problem affecting the steering system. For example, when your steering wheel:

  • has excessive play
  • is hard to turn
  • becomes noisy
  • oscillates
  • rotates on its own

it can mean worn parts, need for lubrication, or a need for adjustment in the steering system or suspension.

But you don't have to keep suffering from your steering wheel's weird behavior.

Just take a look at the index below and head over to the appropriate section that best describes your particular problem so you can start your diagnostic. Each section lists the most common sources of trouble behind the problem, so you can fix the problem before it turns into an unsafe situation or an expensive repair.

Before you start, though, it's recommended you have the vehicle repair manual for your particular car make and model. It'll help you identify components in your particular system configuration, troubleshoot the steering system, pinpoint the source of the problem, and, if possible, make the necessary repairs at home.

If you don't have the manual yet, you can buy a relatively inexpensive, aftermarket copy through Amazon. Haynes manuals come with images and step-by-step procedures for many troubleshooting, maintenance, and component replacement projects you can do at home.

Index
1. My Steering Wheel Has Too Much Play
2. My Steering Wheel is Hard to Turn
3. I Hear Noises When Turning My Steering Wheel
4. My Steering Wheel Oscillates
5. I Can Feel the Road Imperfections Through My Steering Wheel
6. My Steering Wheel Turns to One Side
VIDEO: Faulty Tie-Rod Causes Steering Wheel Pull
7. My Steering Wheel Wants to Stay on One Side After a Turn
8. I Need to Turn the Steering Wheel Left and Right To Stay on the Lane
9. Dealing with Power Steering Problems
You shouldn't turn much your steering wheel without causing your tires to turn as well.
You shouldn't turn much your steering wheel without causing your tires to turn as well. | Source

1. My Steering Wheel Has Too Much Play

This is perhaps one of the most common steering system problems. Normally, you shouldn't be able to turn the steering wheel more than 1 1/2 inches (33mm) without causing the wheels to turn. So you know something is not right when you turn the steering wheel too much before the tires actually turn.

Excessive play at the steering wheel may be caused by:

  • Air or air bubbles in the steering fluid
  • Faulty or worn steering gear
  • Loose steering gear bolts
  • Worn, loose or damaged steering linkage or tire rod ends
  • Bad steering column U-joints or bearings
  • Worn ball joints
  • Bad strut bearing or plate

A couple of tests can help you check for loose components in the steering system:

  1. Open the hood.
  2. Ask someone to start and idle the engine.
  3. Have your assistant turn the steering wheel back and forth.
  4. Look at the steering column, rack and pinon and tie-rod ends for signs of loose bolts or components.

Another way to check for loose parts:

  1. Jack up the front end of the vehicle and safely secure it with a couple of jack stands.
  2. Chock the rear wheels.
  3. Have an assistant wiggle each front tire.
  4. Watch for loose tie-rod ends, loose bolts or parts around the rack.
  5. Squeeze the rubber boots (bellows) at each end of the rack to feel for loose inner tie-rod ends as well.

Underinflated tires is a common source of hard steering issues.
Underinflated tires is a common source of hard steering issues. | Source

2. My Steering Wheel is Hard to Turn

This is another common steering system problem. Hard steering happens when you need to apply force to the steering wheel to turn it. This symptom may point to one or several issues with the power steering system or suspension.

Check for:

  • Underinflated tires

    • Start your diagnostic here. Low tire pressure is a common source of hard steering issues. Make sure your tires are properly inflated. Check the recommended inflation pressure in your car owner's manual, repair manual, or the placard located on the driver's door jamb.
  • Low fluid, possibly a power steering system leak

  • Loose or worn power steering pump belt

  • Bad power-steering pump

  • Blocked or restricted power-steering hose or line

  • Faulty flow control valve

  • Problems with the steering gear

  • Bad steering column U-joints or bearings

Suspension problems can also lead to hard steering. So make sure to diagnose the issue correctly before starting any repair.

A worn or loose drive belt or serpentine belt may slip and screech around the steering pump's pulley.
A worn or loose drive belt or serpentine belt may slip and screech around the steering pump's pulley. | Source

3. I Hear Noises When Turning My Steering Wheel

Noises are also a common power steering system problem.

Steering system noises can be a symptom of:

  • worn, slipping drive belt or serpentine belt
  • low fluid level
  • worn or faulty steering pump or some other component
  • loose components

A slipping steering pump belt can produce a loud squeal when you turn the steering wheel. Also, low fluid level can cause the steering pump to whine when you turn the steering wheel.

This other post will help you diagnose power steering system noises.

An out-of-balance tire can cause your steering wheel to oscillate.
An out-of-balance tire can cause your steering wheel to oscillate. | Source

4. My Steering Wheel Oscillates

This other common steering problem happens when you notice a slight or large rotational oscillation at the steering wheel. This movement is constant and come from lateral movement of the tires.

Slight oscillations at the steering wheel may be caused by:

  • Worn, loose or damaged steering linkage or tie rod ends (a)
  • Worn, loose or damaged suspension components

Large oscillations at the steering wheel may be caused by:

  • Worn, loose or damaged steering linkage or tie rod ends (a)
  • Worn, loose or damaged suspension components
  • Loose wheel bearings
  • Bad or out-of-balance tire(s)
  • Excessive wheel runout

(a) These next two tests will help you check the steering linkage and tie rod ends:

  1. Open the hood.
  2. Ask someone to turn the ignition key to the Run position to unlock the steering wheel, but don't start the engine.
  3. Have your assistant turn the steering wheel back and forth.
  4. Look at the steering column, rack and pinon and tie-rod ends for signs of loose bolts or components.

Another way to check for loose parts:

  1. Jack up the front end of the vehicle and safely secure it with a couple of jack stands.
  2. Chock the rear wheels.
  3. Have an assistant wiggle each front tire.
  4. Watch for loose tie-rod ends, loose bolts or parts around the rack.
  5. Squeeze the rubber boots (bellows) at each end of the rack to feel for loose inner tie-rod ends as well.

Worn tie-rod ends can cause road feedback through the steering wheel.
Worn tie-rod ends can cause road feedback through the steering wheel. | Source

5. I Can Feel Road Imperfections Through My Steering Wheel

This type of steering system problem is referred to as feedback because you can feel road imperfections through the steering wheel.

This steering system problem may be caused by:

  • Worn, loose or damaged steering linkage or tire rod ends
  • Bad steering column U-joints or bearings
  • Loose steering gear bolts
  • Faulty or loose suspension bushings, fasteners, or ball joints

Underinflated tires and bad wheel alignment are two sources of steering wheel pull.
Underinflated tires and bad wheel alignment are two sources of steering wheel pull. | Source

6. My Steering Wheel Turns to One Side

This type of steering problem causes the vehicle to pull to the right or left unless you hold the steering wheel firm.

Several problems may cause a steering-wheel pull:

  • Underinflated tire, bad wheel alignment, or other tire problems

    • This is a common issue on a vehicle that pulls to one side of the road. So make sure your tires are properly inflated and in good condition. If necessary, check wheel alignment.
  • Worn, loose or damaged steering linkage or tire rod ends

  • Faulty steering gear valve

  • Brake system problem

  • Binding strut bearing

The next video shows how a faulty tie-rod was causing the vehicle to pull under acceleration.

Faulty Tie-Rod Causes Steering Wheel Pull

Faulty steering column U-joints or bearings can prevent free movement of the steering wheel.
Faulty steering column U-joints or bearings can prevent free movement of the steering wheel. | Source

7. My Steering Wheel Wants to Stay on One Side After a Turn

When this problem shows up, your steering wheel seems to resist returning to its center position after a turn.

A sticky steering wheel may be caused by:

  • Worn, loose or damaged steering linkage or tire rod ends
  • Bad steering column U-joints or binding column bearings
  • Binding steering gear
  • Faulty wheel alignment

Leaking rack pistons may lead to a wandering steering wheel.
Leaking rack pistons may lead to a wandering steering wheel. | Source

8. I Need to Turn the Steering Wheel Left and Right To Stay on the Lane

With this steering system problem, you need to turn your steering wheel left and right in order to drive straight down the road.

This type of steering system issue may be caused by:

  • Worn, loose or damaged steering linkage or tire rod ends
  • Leaking rack pistons
  • Loose steering gear bolts
  • Loose steering column U-joint bolts
  • Faulty wheel alignment
  • Worn, loose or damaged suspension components

Diagnose for common issues when dealing with power steering problems.
Diagnose for common issues when dealing with power steering problems. | Source

9. Dealing with Power Steering Problems

Excessive play on the steering wheel, hard to turn or steering system leaks are among the most common power steering system problems. Depending on the particular issue, always start your diagnosis by checking for the most obvious, like low system fluid, a loose or worn drive belt or serpentine belt, and underinflated tires.

Often, you'll be able to diagnose the source of the problem and, possibly, fix it yourself; other times, you'll need to bring the vehicle to the shop for service.

Either way, you may save time and money by doing an initial inspection. Look for the telltale signs of common issues to locate potential problem as described in the previous sections.

If you have some repair skills or have the confidence to tackle the problem, you may repair it at home with the help of your vehicle repair manual.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Dan Ferrell

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