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Summary
  • An illuminated power steering symbol could indicate that your vehicle doesn’t have enough power steering fluid.
  • Driving with a low level of power steering fluid may cause your steering wheel to be jerky, difficult to turn, and noisy.
  • Check your power steering fluid immediately as soon as this warning light comes on. If your steering fluid continues to be depleted after topping it up, hire a qualified mechanic to check the system for leaks.

You might be reading this because the symbol of a steering wheel with an exclamation point has illuminated in your gauge cluster. This is the power steering warning light and it’s meant to warn you that there’s a problem with your vehicle’s steering system.

Most modern vehicles have a power steering system that utilizes a hydraulic fluid pump and hydraulic fluids to help the driver turn the steering wheel, but a lot of vehicle manufacturers have shifted to using electric power steering systems that utilize electric motors to assist the driver.

On platforms that monitor power steering fluid pressure, a loss of pressure due to low fluid or a pump malfunction may turn on the warning light. A clogged reservoir screen starving the pump for fluid may also cause this.

What Should You Do When the Power Steering Symbol Appears?

If your vehicle has a hydraulic power steering system, an illuminated power steering symbol can mean that it doesn’t have enough steering fluid.

The power steering fluid symbol is a circle that looks like a steering wheel. It is also frequently colored bright yellow for ease of identification in low-light conditions, but this can vary. Most vehicles with hydraulic power steering won’t have a warning light. Warning lights are more common on electric power steering systems, but a few hydraulic systems will have a light.

, What Does the Power Steering Warning Light Mean?

Pro Tips are nuggets of information direct from ASE-certified automobile technicians working with CarParts.com, which may include unique, personal insights based on their years of experience working in the automotive industry. These can help you make more informed decisions about your car.

Pro Tip: If your car has electric steering and you see a light, cycle the key off and on. If that doesn’t take care of it or if you lose steering assist, have it towed to a shop.

power steering fluid reservoir typical location
The power steering fluid reservoir is typically located either on the pump (see left side of photo) or away from the pump with a large hose feeding the pump (see right side of photo). | Image Source: Richard McCuistian

Some reservoirs are translucent so you can easily check the fluid levels. However, some containers are opaque, so you’ll need to open the lid and check if it has enough fluid. Note that some reservoirs also have a small dipstick.

If the container is completely empty, then there might be a fluid leak somewhere in the system.  If there is a leak, it’s usually pretty easy to spot. It’ll usually be a pressure hose leak that squirts fluid everywhere when the wheels are turned, so make sure to wear safety glasses.

What Are the Signs of Low Power Steering Fluid? 

Aside from an illuminated power steering symbol on your gauge cluster, you should also look out for symptoms of low steering fluid:

Difficulty turning the wheel

If the steering wheel becomes difficult to turn, this is an obvious sign that your vehicle might be low on steering fluid. This can be dangerous while driving, especially if it happens suddenly. Turning quickly to avoid an obstacle might become impossible.

Jerky Steering Wheel

A vibrating steering wheel is dangerous since it can compromise your ability to accurately turn your vehicle. Small deviations in steering angle can significantly affect the vehicle’s path, especially if the vehicle is moving fast.

Squealing or Whining Noises

If you hear a squealing or whining noise when you’re turning the steering wheel, it’s likely that there are low levels of power steering fluid in the reservoir. Air in the power steering fluid will usually work its way out, but not always. Sometimes, special bleeding procedures are required.

The power steering system makes steering easier by directing pressurized hydraulic fluid to pistons. If there is insufficient fluid, air will begin to circulate through the steering system, making strange noises when you turn the steering wheel.

Air in the power steering fluid will usually work its way out, but not always. Sometimes, special bleeding procedures are required.

– Richard McCuistian, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician

Should You Drive With an Illuminated Power Steering Light?

An illuminated power steering light could mean you have a leak in your power steering system. This is very dangerous because this can cause your power steering to stop working. When this happens, you would need to turn the steering wheel with much more force since you’ll be moving the front wheels, steering linkage, and wheel hubs without any assistance. This can make turns incredibly difficult, especially when the vehicle isn’t moving since you’ll also need to overcome the friction between the wheels and the ground. You should go to a mechanic as soon as possible to have it inspected.

If you ever see your power steering light come on, pull over and check your fluid immediately. Make sure to do this carefully, since you might already be experiencing low steering fluid symptoms.

Hopefully, your steering fluid reservoir isn’t leaking and it just needs to be topped up. But if it has a leak, refilling it with fluid is only a temporary fix. It will continue to leak and deplete your steering system of fluid until the problem is resolved. If this is the case, safely have your vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic as soon as possible.

About The Authors
Richard McCuistian, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician
Reviewed By Richard McCuistian, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician

Technical Reviewer at CarParts.com

Richard McCuistian has worked for nearly 50 years in the automotive field as a professional technician, an instructor, and a freelance automotive writer for Motor Age, ACtion magazine, Power Stroke Registry, and others. Richard is ASE certified for more than 30 years in 10 categories, including L1 Advanced Engine Performance and Light Vehicle Diesel.

CarParts Research Team
Written By CarParts.com Research Team

Automotive and Tech Writers

The CarParts.com Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by CarParts.com's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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