A Buyer’s Guide to Ball Joints
- Your car’s ball joints can wear out faster than the manufacturer expected or get damaged during an accident. You need to replace it and its partner at the same time.
- A ball joint links the steering knuckles and the control arms. Depending on the suspension, a car can have upper and lower joints, only lower joints, or even rear joints.
- The most common reasons for ball joint failure include wear and tear, contaminants, loss and lack of grease, and corrosion.
- Signs of bad ball joints during driving include vibrations in the floor or steering wheel, drift in the steering wheel, and clunking or squeaking noises.
- Most cars can travel anywhere between 70,000 and 150,000 miles before they wear out a ball joint.
- Consider fit, design, material, and coating when looking for a replacement ball joint.
- A ball joint replacement can cost anywhere between $3 and $377.
- With the right tools and skills, you can replace your ball joint on your own.
Your car’s ball joints should last as long as the suspension system and the rest of the vehicle. However, they can wear out faster than the manufacturer expected or get damaged during an accident.
Fixing a worn-out ball joint on a car isn’t possible. You need to replace it and its partner at the same time since the other joint will soon follow suit. Since the suspension system relies on the ball joints, get a new pair as soon as you notice your current ones failing.
What is a ball joint?
A ball joint is the part of the chassis that links the steering knuckles and the control arms. As its name implies, it follows a ball and socket design.
A car’s suspension determines how many ball joints it possesses. Short-long arm suspensions feature two upper ball joints and two lower joints. In comparison, most strut suspensions have two lower joints in the front end, although wishbone strut suspensions have four ball joints. Meanwhile, vehicles with conventional types of suspension systems usually have two ball joints, the upper and lower ball joint.
Front-wheel drive cars with independent rear suspensions can sometimes have ball joints in the rear end of their suspension.
What does the ball joint do?
The ball joints swivel in response to how you steer your vehicle. Their motion and design let the knuckles pivot alongside the wheels.
Likewise, when the vehicle encounters uneven road surfaces, the ball joints arc alongside the suspension. They help the steerings knuckle follow the suspension as the latter moves up or down.
Causes for bad or worn out ball joints
Factory-issue ball joints can take a lot of punishment and last for many years. But they can still fail prematurely. The most common reasons for ball joint failure include:
Wear and tear
Every time you turn the wheel or drive on uneven terrain, the ball stud and the ball bearing touch each other. The physical contact creates friction that heats and weakens the metal until a part breaks.
Turning more often or driving on very rough roads produces more friction and wears out the joint faster.
Lubricants reduce friction caused by physical contact between the stud and bearing. Modern “low friction” ball joints permanently seal grease in them, but older designs lack those seals. The older joints need greasing now and then with a grease gun.
Contaminants like dirt, grit, and impurities can enter ball joints. Once inside, they will decrease the lubricating effect of grease and increase friction.
Loss and lack of grease
Grease can leak out of an older ball joint or a low friction joint with faulty or broken seals. If the joint lacks lubrication, its stud and bearing will wear out faster from friction.
For older ball joints, adding more grease will improve the situation for the time being.
Rust is another potential source of friction and damage to ball joints. Corrosion weakens the metal and rusty parts generate more friction when they grind against a surface.
How to tell if a ball joint is bad
There are several ways to check the condition of your car’s ball joints. The easiest and arguably most enjoyable method is taking the vehicle for a spin and looking out for signs of worn joints.
Drive your car on the nearest public road at the speed limit. Next, drive over speed bumps at low speeds. Finally, park before turning the steering wheel several times.
Look for any changes in the way your car handles, especially its steering. You are looking for:
Vibrations while driving
Do you feel the floor or the steering wheel shake while driving? The unpleasant vibrations can come from a worn ball joint that has come loose from its socket.
Steering wheel drifts left or right while driving
If the wheel shows clear signs of wandering either left or right despite your input, you may have a bad ball joint that swivels on its own. Check out the tires for signs that one is wearing out faster than the others.
Clunking and squeaking noises
Depending on what part of the ball joint went bad, it can make odd noises while going over speed bumps, or when you turn the steering wheel while parked.
A worn ball joint will produce clunking noises whenever the suspension moves vertically. If you hear squeaking noises, there is a problem with the rubber boot that keeps the grease inside the joint.
Whatever noise you hear, replace the ball joints soon. The issue will get worse, and so will the noise.
When is it time to replace a ball joint?
Most cars can travel anywhere between 70,000 and 150,000 miles before they wear out a ball joint. A joint can last shorter or longer than the above mileage depending on how much it gets worked, how rough the roads get, and its exposure to road splash and salt that cause corrosion.
What to look for in a replacement ball joint
When picking new ball joints, keep in mind that the parts carry your vehicle’s weight and take a beating from the many turns you will make. You need replacement parts that can take that punishment daily for many thousands of miles.
The right fit
Select ball joints that enjoy compatibility with your car. You can find the specifications of factory-issue joints in your vehicle’s manual or the manufacturer’s website.
Different suspension types will mount different numbers of ball joints. If your car uses upper and lower joints, identify the specific joint that failed and get the appropriate replacement part. You cannot swap upper and lower joints, much like how you cannot switch most parts intended for driver side use with those for the passenger side.
While most ball joints use the same parts, their designs put those parts together differently. Pick a design known for its strength and sturdiness, like Moog or AC Delco.
Likewise, get ball joints made from heavy-duty materials. Hardened steel and similar materials possess the toughness to withstand.
Their position in the suspension exposes ball joints to road splash and salt that can corrode metal. A high-resistance coating will protect the joints from the contaminants.
Ball joint replacement cost
How much does a replacement ball joint cost? At CarParts.com, ball joint price can go for anywhere between $3 and $377. They are available in single pieces, sets of multiple pieces, and as part of a suspension kit.
To find a specific product like a 2000 F150 ball joint, enter your vehicle’s year, make, and model into the filter bar. Whether it’s for replacing a worn joint or upgrading your vehicle with better-performing parts, you’ll find a part to your satisfaction.
Automotive DIY: Ball Joint Replacement
Sometimes, you just have to listen carefully to your vehicle to know what's wrong with it. Unusual noises coming from your ride are good indicators that some of its parts are already failing. One of them could be the ball joint. The sound produced by a worn-out ball joint can vary from an occasional clicking noise to a loud thump whenever you go over a road bump. If you've already noticed such sign and did not do anything about it, the noises from your car won't be the only problems that you will have to deal with. This part's failure could lead to shimmies and erratic suspension and steering, which could make driving more difficult and stressful. If you want to fix this problem, you must quickly perform the necessary replacement. There's no better way to start on your mission than by reading this guide now.
Difficulty level: Moderate
Things you'll need:
- Nose pliers
- Wrench set
- Ratchet and socket set
- Pitman arm puller
- New cotter pin
- Ball joint driver (if necessary)
- Electric drill (if necessary)
Step 1: Using your lug wrench, loosen the wheel lug nuts in the front wheel assembly where you need to replace a ball joint.
Step 2: Raise the tire with the help of a floor jack. You will also need to properly support the weight of the vehicle so you're going to need two heavy-duty jack stands.
Step 3: Remove the cotter pin from the castle nut holding the ball joint stud to the steering knuckle arm using a pair of needle-nose pliers. You can throw out the old pin.
*Note: On some vehicle models, you must remove the strut assembly or control arm to replace a ball joint. We advise to check your particular vehicle service manual first.
Step 4: Remove the castle nut from the ball joint stud using a variety of tools including a wrench or ratchet and socket and a pitman arm puller. Pulling the ball joint out of the steering knuckle arm can be done with your hand.
Step 5: Place the new ball joint on the control arm. Install the ball joint stud on the steering knuckle arm and tighten the castle nut using a wrench or ratchet and socket.
Step 6: Insert a new cotter pin and bend the ends using the nose pliers.
Step 7: Lastly, mount the tire and tighten the wheel lugs with the lug wrench.