What Is That Steering Noise?

Updated on February 13, 2020
Dan Ferrell profile image

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

Steering system noises may point to problems with the control system of your vehicle.
Steering system noises may point to problems with the control system of your vehicle. | Source

Noise that happens when you are steering your car may come from one or more components in the steering system. It could be caused by:

  • a steering pump issue
  • low fluid in the hydraulic system
  • a loose or worn belt
  • a worn or damaged bushing
  • a loose bracket or component
  • some other worn system component

The problem may be as simple as low fluid, or it can be something more serious. Sometimes diagnosis is complicated: when different vehicle models come with different steering system configurations, the same problem may produce different noise tones in different models.

Whatever the problem, steering noise should be taken seriously. Ultimately, you are dealing with the control system of your vehicle.

Start with a steering system inspection.

This guide shows you the most common steering system noises and their possible causes to help you locate the potential troubled component(s) so that you can fix it yourself, if possible, with the help of your vehicle repair manual.

The next section headings describe a particular noise during a particular steering system event to make it easier for you to concentrate on your specific issue. Also, with some potential problems, a specific test is presented or recommended.

Have the repair manual for your particular model on hand to help you locate and, possibly, test specific components in your particular model. If you don't have the manual yet, you can buy an inexpensive, aftermarket copy through Amazon. Haynes manuals come with step-by-step procedures for many maintenance, troubleshooting, and part replacement projects you can do at home. In most cases, you only need some common tools. You'll recoup your small investment in a short time.

Index
1. Visually Inspecting Tires and the Steering System
2. I Hear a Noise When Starting the Car With the Engine Cold
3. I Hear the Steering Pump Whining When I Make a Turn
4. I Hear a Grunt or Growl at the Start or End of a Turn
5. I Hear a Moan When Turning the Steering Wheel all the Way to the Stop
6. My Steering Wheel Rattles When I Drive Over an Irregular Surface
7. I Hear a Clunk Sound Coming From the Steering System
8. I Hear the Steering Gear Squeak
9. I Hear a Squeal or Chirp Sound When Moving the Steering Wheel From Side to Side, Accelerating or Turning
10. I Hear the Steering System Hissing or Whistling
11. The Steering Column Rattles
12. The Steering Column Squeaks or Grinds
13. Staying Safe on the Road
Closely check your car tires for underinflation and damage.
Closely check your car tires for underinflation and damage. | Source

1. Visually Inspecting Tires and the Steering System

When it comes to a noisy steering system, sometimes it's difficult to tell exactly what component where is making the noise. Tire noise, for example, can easily be confused with steering system noise.

So, begin with a visual inspection of your vehicle tires for underinflation, wear and damage.

Visually inspect the tires for:

  • proper pressure
  • wear
  • uneven wear
  • sidewall issues (knots)
  • ply separation
  • damage

If the tires show uneven wear or damage, have the alignment or suspension system components checked. The conditioin of your vehicle's tire(s) can tell you a lot about a potential problem in the steering or suspension system.

Visually inspect the steering system for:

  • low fluid level
  • loose or worn power steering drive belt
  • leaking hoses, fittings, pump or steering gearbox
  • worn outer tie-rod socket or some other linkage component
  • damaged or torn steering gear boots
  • loose steering column or gear assembly mounting bolts

Check the steering pump for bubbles that may point to air in the system.
Check the steering pump for bubbles that may point to air in the system. | Source

2. I Hear a Noise When Starting the Car With the Engine Cold

Hearing a noise from the steering after starting your car first thing in the morning or with the engine cold usually means one of two things:

  1. The steering system has trapped air in it.
  2. The power steering fluid reservoir or a line is restricted or blocked, usually due to contamination.

Often, you can tell the hydraulic system has air in it, if the fluid in the reservoir looks foamy. But you can do a check yourself to confirm this:

  1. Start the engine and bring it to operating temperature. Let it idle for about 20 minutes.
  2. Turn the wheel about ten to fifteen times from side to side, but don't hit the stops.
  3. Turn off the engine and pop the hood open.
  4. Check the fluid in the reservoir. If there's air trapped in the system, you'll see bubbles.

Air can be leaked into the system through a return hose that is loose or in some way damaged.

Purge air from the system, if necessary. Consult your vehicle repair manual.

If you suspect there's a blockage in the reservoir, consult your vehicle repair manual or a car shop.

If the steering pump pulley is wobbling, you may need to replace the steering pump.
If the steering pump pulley is wobbling, you may need to replace the steering pump. | Source

3. I Hear the Steering Pump Whining When I Make a Turn

Usually, a whine noise coming from the steering pump when turning the steering wheel may point to:

  • low fluid level
  • fluid in the system is exposed to outside air
  • air in the system
  • faulty steering pump (bad bearing, leaking seals, wobbly pulley)

You may also feel the steering wheel a little hard to turn as well.

  • Check fluid level and add fluid, if necessary, and look for potential leaking spots in the system.

    • Only use the recommended type of steering fluid for your particular application to prevent system damage.
    • If necessary, purge the system.
    • If fluid level is correct, check the condition of the steering pump fluid. Aged fluid will turn dark or cloudy; contaminated fluid can also lead to a whining noise. Replace the steering fluid if necessary.
  • Check the steering pump pulley. If it wobbles while the engine is running, investigate the cause and make the necessary repairs.

  • Check other accessories. Sometimes, the whining may come from a different accessory pulley or belt, or even one or more tires with abnormal tread wear. So check your tires as well.

Check power steering fluid level and condition.
Check power steering fluid level and condition. | Source

4. I Hear a Grunt or Growl at the Start or End of a Turn

At low speed, you may hear a grunt or growl noise coming from the engine at the start or end of a turn.

Depending on your particular system configuration, this may point to:

  1. Faulty steering pump.
  2. Low fluid level (system leaks).
  3. Air in the hydraulic system.
  4. A restriction in one of the power steering hoses.
  5. Restricted or clogged reservoir or filter.
  6. Damaged hose.
  7. Worn steering gear.

Check section 2 I Hear a Noise When Starting the Car With the Engine Cold for a quick test to confirm air trapped in the system. If you suspect a hose is restricted, consult your vehicle repair manual or with a trusted car shop.

Bad suspension system parts may also cause noises when turning:

  • Front strut jounce bushing
  • Worn or bad suspension bushings
  • Worn or faulty struts and shocks
  • Dry, worn or bad ball joints
  • Faulty tie-rod end (knocking or clicking)

A moaning noise when turning the steering wheel to the stop may suggest low steering fluid level.
A moaning noise when turning the steering wheel to the stop may suggest low steering fluid level. | Source

5. I Hear a Moan When Turning the Steering Wheel all the Way to the Stop

Usually when turning the steering wheel all the way, a moaning noise may suggest:

  • low steering pump fluid
  • air in the power steering system
  • power-steering pump bracket loose
  • reservoir restricted or blocked

To check for air in the system, head over to section 2 above, "I Hear a Noise When Starting the Car With the Engine Cold."

Check for loose steering column shaft mounting bolts when the steering wheel rattles.
Check for loose steering column shaft mounting bolts when the steering wheel rattles. | Source

6. My Steering Wheel Rattles When I Drive Over an Irregular Surface

This type of mechanical problem may come from the steering or suspension system.

Check steering system for:

  1. Steering column shaft mounting bolts loose.
  2. Steering gear mounting bolts loose or damaged.
  3. Damage to the steering column.
  4. Loose, damaged or worn tie-rod ends.
  5. Suspension bushings, ball joints, or bolts loose.

This can also be a sign of loose, worn or damaged steering column joints or bad bushings. Sometimes, you can tell the problem is in the steering column by doing this simple test:

  1. Set the parking brakes.
  2. Set the transmission to Park (automatic) or Neutral (manual).
  3. Start the engine.
  4. Turn the steering wheel to the left and right.

If there's significant steering wheel play before the wheels begin to move, check the steering column for issues. If the wheels turn soon after you turn the steering wheel, you may be dealing with a front suspension issue. When necessary, consult your vehicle repair manual.

Steering system showing some basic mechanical components.
Steering system showing some basic mechanical components. | Source

7. I Hear a Clunking Sound Coming From the Steering System

A "clunk" or dull heavy sound may be produced by:

  1. Air in the hydraulic system
  2. An issue with the steering column U-joints
  3. Worn steering gear
  4. Loose steering gear mounting bolts

Section 2 above, "I Hear a Noise When Starting the Car With the Engine Cold," gives you a quick test you can do yourself at home if you suspect air trapped in the hydraulic system. If you think you have a mechanical issue in the system, consult your vehicle repair manual or with a car shop.

Keep in mind that a worn or bad joint or ball joint in the suspension system may also lead to clunking or popping sounds.

Faulty steering column components may cause steering noise.
Faulty steering column components may cause steering noise. | Source

8. I Hear the Steering Gear Squeak

Sometimes, you'll know what part of the system is noisy, for example when dealing with a squeaky steering gearbox.

Usually, a squeaky steering gearbox means:

  1. A problem with the steering gear rotary seal
  2. An issue with steering column components

Consult your vehicle repair manual to check these components in your vehicle model or, if necessary, consult with a car shop.

Sometimes, using the incorrect type of fluid for the system can lead to steering gear squeaking sounds. If you recently replaced the system fluid, make sure you've used the right fluid for your application. Consult your car owner's manual or vehicle repair manual.

Carefully check the belt, tensioner and pulleys for problems.
Carefully check the belt, tensioner and pulleys for problems. | Source

9. I Hear a Squeal or Chirping Sound When Moving the Steering Wheel From Side to Side, Accelerating or Turning

Sometimes, you may hear a squeal, chirp, or screeching sound every time you turn the wheel from one stop to the other, which increases system pressure. In most cases, this sharp or high-pitched sound comes from the drive belt or a related component.

Check belt or pulley for:

  • Proper belt tension
  • Worn belt
  • Proper belt installation
  • A faulty pulley
  • Worn or faulty belt tensioner

The crankshaft uses the belt to drive the steering pump. So carefully check the belt.

A loose, dry or worn drive belt can also cause a squeal or chirp noise during acceleration or turning a corner.

Check for loose steering column brackets under the dashboard.
Check for loose steering column brackets under the dashboard. | Source

10. I Hear the Steering System Hissing or Whistling

Hissing or whistling sounds may come from mechanical or hydraulic system issues.

Check the steering system for:

  • Restricted power-steering lines or hoses
  • Low relief pressure in the power steering pump
  • loose steering column bracket
  • Steering column shaft binding or misaligned
  • Steering gear input shaft and valve wear or damage

Consult your vehicle repair manual to check or test any of these components.

Replace steering system components as necessary.
Replace steering system components as necessary. | Source

11. The Steering Column Rattles

A rattling steering column is not a steering system noise you'll often hear, but it can happen.

The most common sources of this rattling come from:

  • loose bolts or mounting column brackets
  • worn or damaged steering shaft insulator
  • column bearing(s) loose, worn, dried or damaged
  • power-steering gearbox loose or damaged

Do a careful inspection of the column and steering gear to locate the fault. Also, problem with suspension components can lead to rattling sounds. Consult your vehicle repair manual.

Squeaking sounds coming from the steering wheel may point to a loose steering column shroud.
Squeaking sounds coming from the steering wheel may point to a loose steering column shroud. | Source

12. The Steering Column Squeaks or Grinds

Also, this is not a common steering system issue, but it may happen on old models or after having worked on the column or components near it.

Check steering column for:

  • dried, worn or damaged steering shaft bushings
  • steering column shrouds loose or misaligned
  • steering wheel rubbing against steering column shrouds
  • misaligned bearing sleeve

Repair any steering system issues to prevent vehicle control problems.
Repair any steering system issues to prevent vehicle control problems. | Source

13. Staying Safe on the Road

Knowing which part of the steering system a noise is coming from is key to fix most faulty system components.

Usually, steering system noises will come from:

  • a slipping belt
  • low power steering fluid level
  • loose parts
  • part in need of lubrication
  • worn or damaged component

Concentrate on this type of issue when dealing with system noises.

Still, noises may not be easy to diagnose, since a noise thought to come from the steering system actually may come from another system or component. Keep the following points in mind:

  • If the noise is coming from the engine bay side of the system, check the condition of the tires first. Tire noise is easy to confuse with a steering component.
  • Other accessories may be the source of the noise, like alternator, AC compressor, cooling fan bushings, or a pulley or drive belt.
  • Suspension bushings, joints and ball joints and other components are a frequent source of noise as well.

If you determine that a particular noise is coming from the steering system, try to make the necessary repairs as soon as possible. A steering system issue can be a road hazard for you and those vehicles around you.

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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