Before power steering was introduced on production vehicles in the 1950s, drivers had to rely almost entirely on their muscles to turn the car’s front wheels back and forth. Fortunately, these days, all vehicles have power steering. The technology makes the steering wheel easier to turn by augmenting the force the driver exerts on the vehicle’s mechanical steering gear.
Most vehicles have either electric power steering (EPS) or hydraulic power steering. Hydraulic systems use pressurized fluid as the medium that acts on the steering gear to provide steering assistance.
Over time, leaks can develop in a hydraulic power steering system, leading to a low fluid level. When the fluid level becomes significantly low, you’ll likely notice one or more troublesome symptoms that you’ll want to address right away.
Signs of Low Power Steering Fluid
Do you think your car might be low on power steering fluid? If you notice one or more of the following symptoms, you might be right.
Low Level in the Reservoir
One of the most obvious signs of low power steering fluid is a low fluid level in the reservoir. You can easily check the fluid level yourself, as we’ll discuss later on.
Whining or Groaning Noise
If the power steering fluid level is significantly low, air will get sucked into the power steering pump, resulting in a whining or groaning noise that coincides with engine speed. You may also notice that the noise becomes louder when you turn the steering wheel back and forth.
Difficulty Turning the Steering Wheel
When air gets into the power steering system due to a low fluid level, you may notice that the steering wheel is more difficult to turn. Without a functional power steering system, you have to rely on your arm muscles to turn the car’s front wheels back and forth via the steering wheel.
How to Check Power Steering Fluid
If your car uses power steering fluid (those with electric power steering do not), it’s usually fairly easy to check the level and condition of the fluid. Although the steps for checking power steering fluid will vary by vehicle, generally, the process involves the following:
Note: Consult your owner’s manual to determine the exact procedure for checking the power steering fluid on your vehicle.
- Locate the power steering reservoir. Usually, the reservoir is mounted to (or located near) the power steering pump at the front of the engine.
- Make sure the engine is off.
- Note the power steering fluid level. On some reservoirs, you must remove the cap to access the fluid level dipstick. In other instances, the reservoir will have markings on the side to indicate the level.
- Add power steering fluid if the level is low. If the fluid is dark brown or has a burnt smell to it, you (or your mechanic) will want to perform a power steering fluid service.
Why is My Power Steering Fluid Low?
A low power steering fluid level indicates there’s a leak somewhere in the system. Common leak sources include:
- The power steering pump
- The steering gear
- The power steering lines
- The seals and o-rings within the system
How Long Should Power Steering Fluid Last?
Some vehicle manufactures recommend a periodic power steering fluid service while others do not. Regardless, it’s a good idea to replace your car’s power steering fluid occasionally.
Over time, the fluid can become contaminated, and its corrosion inhibitors can break down.
As a general rule of thumb, most experts recommend replacing power steering fluid every five years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first.
Power Steering Fluid FAQ
No, it’s not normal for your car to lose power steering fluid. A low fluid level means there’s a leak somewhere in the power steering system that you need to address.
Some vehicles require dedicated power steering fluid, while others use transmission fluid in their steering system. Consult your owner’s manual to determine the correct type of power steering fluid for your application.
Driving with low power steering fluid is a bad idea. A fluid level that’s significantly low can result in a lack of lubrication to the power steering pump and steering gear, potentially causing those costly components to fail. If the power steering fluid is low, you’ll want to address the issue as soon as possible.
Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic.