Power Steering – Maintenance Free: True or False?

October 2nd, 2013 by


Power steering pumpIn our continuing series regarding the importance of maintaining your vehicle, we are going to discuss the Power Steering system.  We have hit the big scary items, but now it is time to discuss the equally important, but often viewed as unimportant systems, starting with the Power Steering System.

If you are over 30 you probably remember the days of using 2 hands to crank the steering wheel around the corner.  Ever drive Grandpa’s old pick up truck?  I remember asking  my uncle if his truck had power steering, he said “Yes, Armstrong Steering”, I asked what that meant, and he replied “you need strong arms to steer it”.  And thus the driving lesson began.  I still remember the first time I drove a car with power steering, I about ran us into a ditch, took a while to get used to the ease of the steering wheel.

Cars and trucks have come along way since the first horseless carriage, and they have jumped by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years.  Some of them even park themselves!  Now, the same is true for steering modules and controls, new generation vehicles have totally different systems.  However, for the purpose of this article, we are going to discuss the majority of vehicles on the road right now, which do have power steering, pumps and fluids.

As we have discussed in previous articles, anything with a fluid, has fluid for a reason, and that fluid breaks down, causing damage to the mechanism that result in premature failure and costly repairs.

That is the summary, so let’s break it down.

The power steering system is made of 2-3 components (depends on make/model), and whether you have a recirculating ball or rack and pinion steering system, the power steering aspect of the system works essentially the same way.

Power Steering Pump:

The power steering gearbox is used in vehicles that do not have rack and pinion steering.  The power steering pump pumps high pressure fluid to the gear box.  There is a A”nut” inside the gear box, which is attached to a long screw (torsion bar and rotary valve system).  The fluid forces the nut to move along the screw as you steer.  The nut makes the sector, which is attached to the pitman arm, move, removing a lot of the friction caused by the weight of a heavy vehicle on the road.  The power steering fluid is returned to the reservoir on the power steering pump via the return hose.

Rack and Pinion:

The rack and pinion works under the same principle as the gear box, using a long screw-type mechanism and  “nut.”  The power steering pumps fluid under high pressure to the rack and pinion’s steering mechanism.  The power steering fluid pushes left or right, depending on how you are turning eh steering wheel, then it then through the rack and pinion and up the return hose and back into the power steering reservoir.

The power steering fluid cleans, cools and lubricates the power steering pump and system.  Like any fluid it breaks down over time and becomes less effective.  Like with any fluid in your vehicle, the better you maintain your fluids, the longer the parts will last.

As mentioned, repeatedly, maintenance recommendations vary greatly by make and model, and tragically some owner’s manuals leave this tid bit out completely.  As with any fluid, when you need to change your fluids varies greatly by driving habits, overall maintenance habits, and area driving and weather conditions.  Each time you go in for  you oil change, your shop should be performing a basic vehicle inspection.  (If they aren’t you need a different shop)  As always, we recommend using a certified dealer to look at your vehicle, they know the specifications best and will be able to spot trouble sooner and make recommendations based on the on the manufacturers recommendations.

If everyone is different, and it isn’t clear in my owner’s manual, how do I know when to change it?
Excellent Question!  If your fluid is “dirty” or dark, it is time to change it out.  If it is really dark, and gritty you need it flushed.  If it is low, they need to look for leaks.  If there are no leaks, then you are due for a flush.  As with any fluid, time, not just use, breaks down the fluid.  So regardless of your driving habits, if you haven’t done it in the last 2 years, it is time.

Just like any operating part of your vehicle, the reliability of your steering is not just about comfort, it is about safety.  When you turn that wheel, you want it to respond, when and how you expect it to.  Failure to maintain this vital system can have dire consequences, not too mention prove to be very costly.

Replacing your power steering pump can be one of those unexpected expenses that  could have been prevented.  Example:  Subaru Legacy approximately $650 – that is just for the pump, not any hoses, taxes etc.  Nissan Murano – around $900, Ford F150 basic around $450.

The lesson here, is take care of your vehicle and it will take care of you.

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