Symptoms of a Bad Power Steering Pump

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An average vehicle weighs about 2,900 pounds. That, of course, will vary depending on what type of vehicle you’re driving. On average, a midsize car can weigh up to 3,400 pounds, while a large pickup truck can weigh twice as much. Simply put, cars are heavy. But thanks to power steering, you’re able to drive around effortlessly—even at low speeds.

There are three types of power steering systems: hydraulic, electro-hydraulic, and fully electric. Hydraulic systems use a pump to circulate the fluid under pressure, while the latter relies solely on a motor. The first two use an incompressible fluid that converts mechanical force into fluid power as it gets pressurized.

woman's hand on a steering wheel with power steering enabled
Power steering enables a driver to drive effortlessly despite the vehicle’s weight.

How to Tell if Your Power Steering Pump is Bad

Like any other component, the power steering pump is prone to wear and tear. It’s important to diagnose (and address) a failing power steering pump, as it can worsen the overall handling of your vehicle. Any sudden changes in the steering behavior can be hazardous and possibly put you and your passengers at risk.

Below are the most common telltale signs of a bad power steering pump:

Whining noise that coincides with engine speed

Among the common faulty power steering pump symptoms are whining noises that coincide with engine speed. The power steering pump is driven off the engine via a belt. If you have a bad pump, it could whine the moment you turn your engine on. The pitch often gets higher as your RPM climbs up.

Whining noises are often caused by a low fluid level or worn out pump. Since there are multiple culprits to a whining noise, it would be wise not to jump to conclusions and aggravate the problem.

Instead, bring your car to a certified mechanic, who is far more capable of performing the necessary tests and evaluation.

Loss of power assist

Have you had that experience where your car felt like it reverted to manual steering? This is a clear indication that your power steering is not working. The power steering pump is among the first components you should check if the steering wheel becomes very difficult to turn.

The pump is responsible for making sure the fluid is being circulated properly under pressure. If the pump ceases operation, the pressure needed will not be regulated and the steering wheel would feel a lot heavier to operate.

Fluid leaks

Power steering pumps also have seals that can develop leaks, which then creates a low fluid level. If you suspect a bad power steering pump, consider checking for leaks.

Low power steering fluid can damage the pump and cause it to make weird noises. The most common low power steering fluid symptoms are jerky steering feedback and a stiff steering wheel.

You can prevent further problems by tracing a leak early.

Power steering fluid leak symptoms include red or light brown puddle formations underneath your car. This is the easiest way to find out whether your power steering pump is leaking fluid. However, a bad steering pump doesn’t always involve a leak.

power steering fluid leak under a car
Check for leaks if you suspect a faulty power steering pump.

Metal contamination to the fluid

It is important for the power steering system to be tightly sealed to maintain and achieve the pressure it needs to operate. But even when the fluid is completely protected from external elements, it can still be contaminated by small debris.

And where would the debris come from, you ask? From inside the power steering pump.

If the pump is extremely damaged, metal parts inside can come apart and mix with the power steering fluid. The tiny metal shards can damage passages and cause the whole power steering system to fail.

This often leads to major changes in your vehicle’s handling. If this is the case for you, you may need to flush your power steering fluid and replace the power steering pump and other affected components, such as the steering gear.

Can You Drive Without Power Steering?

The short answer is you shouldn’t—even if you can. You may find some people arguing that cars back then were power assist-free, so driving around without power steering shouldn’t be a concern.

While it’s true that older cars didn’t have power steering, driving without it has various consequences.

Difficulty steering

A failed power steering pump can make your vehicle difficult to steer. Obviously, such a scenario presents a safety concern.

A leak that worsens through time

Not dealing with a problem will definitely make it worse. Power steering fluid is a hydraulic fluid meant to be contained in a tightly sealed system. If it leaks, your power steering will be compromised.

A small leak may sound unalarming but once it gets big, especially if it’s due to a crack somewhere along the steering lines, problems will quickly unfold.

An existing leak could be causing your power steering pump to fail. If this small leak rapidly turns into an uncontrollable mess, you could end up damaging the pump and other parts of the power steering system. When this happens, a more costly repair and replacement will be your only option.

A badly damaged power steering pump

Your steering pump creates pressure to help regulate the power steering fluid. Even very minor damage can quickly compromise its ability to do this.

This is the perfect time to act and consult a certified mechanic if the pump is still serviceable. If the problem gets worse, you may end up completely damaging other components, such as the steering gear, beyond repair.

close up shot of a damaged power steering pump and wrench
The power steering pump creates pressure to help regulate power steering fluid.

What is a Power Steering Pump?

The power steering pump is responsible for providing the hydraulic pressure needed for the system to function properly. It regulates the power steering fluid, which helps make the steering lighter and easier to operate. It is connected to your engine via a belt-pulley mechanism that’s driven off the crankshaft.

There are different types of power steering pumps, known as the rotary vane, roller, and slipper. Though each one features different designs and mechanisms, all three function on the same principle, and that is to pump the fluid to the entire system.

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Staff Writers

In the Garage with is an online blog dedicated to bringing DIYers and devoted car enthusiasts up to date with topical automotive news and lifestyle content. Our writers live and breathe automotive, taking the guess work out of car repairs with how-to content that helps owners get back on the road and keep driving.

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