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I do not know about you, but in life, I always try my best to steer (pun intended) away from problems. But ironically, sometimes our steering racks are the problem! And as far as car problems go, they are without doubt one of the more critical ones, as it is responsible for changing our car’s direction.
The steering system utilized in many modern cars is a rack and pinion steering system. The rack and pinion are comprised of multiple components including the universal joints, main and intermediate shafts, and at the centre is the steering rack or gearbox. It is this central unit that receives input from the driver, by way of the steering wheel and steering column and sends a mechanical signal to tie rods and steering shafts to complete smooth and efficient left and right turns. However, from time to time, the steering rack or gearbox will wear out.
The steering rack is essentially the heart of the steering system. When it wears out or breaks entirely the ability to steer your vehicle is compromised. If this happens while you are driving, it can be extremely dangerous. It is for these reasons (and many more) that being alert to the warning signs of a bad or failing steering rack or gearbox can save you money, time and reduce the potential of a crash.
The majority of cars today come with “Power Steering”, which means that rack and pinion steering systems are supported by a power steering unit that utilizes hydraulic pressure, or an electric motor, to allow easy and quick steering wheel handling. Regardless of whether your car has a hydraulic or electric power-steering system, it should feel effortless to turn your steering wheel and change the direction of your vehicle. If you must wrestle to turn the steering wheel, then you may have a problem with your steering system.
I say “system”, as the problem is not necessarily the rack; it could also be caused by steering pumps, motor, electronics failure, etc. Different type of steering wheel tightness could indicate failures on different component. The sucker punch is that sometimes the differences are small, and it is difficult to convey a feeling into words. That said, here is how you can test for the stiffness.
1. Switch on your car engine.
2. Let the engine idle for a minute to warm up.
3. Then, move the steering wheel from lock-to-lock position for 10 times to warm up the power steering system.
4. Feel the steering effort. Take a mental note of it.
5. Keep your handbrake on and your gear in “P”.
6. Raise the engine RPM to 3000 ~ 4000 rpm.
7. Move the steering wheel from lock to lock.
8. Feel the steering effort again. Take another mental note of it.
The good news is that tight steering does not require immediate attention. You can still drive your car although it will require a lot more effort. However, it can become dangerous depending on how severe it is and how strong you are. But either way, you should get it fixed as soon as possible.
2. Unresponsive Steering
Whilst driving on the road, try to feel if your car is responding to your steering wheel. If you turn the steering wheel (slightly), but your car still cruises straight ahead without changing direction, you have what we call – an unresponsive steering, sometimes referred to as “free play”. If you suspect you have this steering rack problem, try the following steps to diagnose your steering rack.
1. Park your car in a safe place.
2. Ensure that your car wheels are straight. Do this by returning your steering wheel to the original 12 o’clock position.
3. Switch on the ignition engine.
4. Make sure your handbrake is activated.
5. Then, you can rock your steering wheel back and forth between 10 and 2 o’clock position.
6. Try to feel whether your steering wheel. Does it feel too light at certain spot?
7. Also, with your car stationary, I find it helpful to be looking at your car wheels while rocking your steering wheel too. See if the car wheels move when you turn your steering wheel.
Some people find it easier to diagnose when your car is moving. But again, remember to always prioritise safety.
1. Find a safe road to test your steering. Ideally, the road should be straight, wide and have plenty of space.
2. Ensure your car wheels are straight. Do this by returning your steering wheel to the original 12 o’clock position.
3. Drive slowly in a low gear
4. Rock your steering wheel back and forth between 9 to 3 o’clock position.
5. Try to feel whether your steering wheel changes your car trajectory.
If you have an unresponsive steering, the steering wheel will feel very light. It is as if the steering wheel is disconnected from the car. Also, your car will not (or barely) change direction. This is dangerous to drive because you cannot make proper changes to the car trajectory as you desire. An unresponsive steering is usually a result of wear and tear on the steering rack. It will require some special tools and technical know-how to repair. Speak to a steering rack repair specialist near you if you have this problem.
This steering rack problem is exclusive to hydraulic power steering racks because non-power assisted steering rack and electric power steering racks do not use any power steering fluid.
As noted above, sometimes tight steering is indicated by low power steering fluid. The first and most obvious thing to do, is to open the bonnet and have a look at your steering fluid reservoir. Is the fluid level in the range specified by the car manufacturer? If it is not within the “MIN” and “MAX” level indicator on the reservoir, ask yourself “When was the last time I topped it up?” Steering fluid is not something that you have to top up every other month. If it is running low, you can start to suspect that you have a steering fluid leak. As a rule of thumb, if you constantly must top up your steering fluid every few weeks, you can be certain you have a leak somewhere.
The operative word is “Somewhere”. The steering system comprises many parts, but the most common offenders, in terms of leaks, are the:
1. Steering rack
2. Steering pump
3. Rubber hose and tubings
In theory, you may also become aware of a power steering leak by noticing a puddle of liquid under your vehicle. However, there are many other sorts of automotive fluid (engine oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid) in your car, the puddle is not necessarily steering fluid (Although yes, you still have a leak somewhere that you should have fixed.)
Take a good look at and smell the puddle. Leaking steering fluid can be distinguished from other fluids by its smell (typically a burning oil smell). It is also typically red or pink in colour and will be dripping from the back part of your motor.
If you discover this type of fluid under your car, you can follow the steps below to try ascertaining the source of the leak and know what needs to be repaired.
1. Let the car cool for at least an hour. It is very important to avoid burning yourself.
2. Open the bonnet and see if you can spot any wet components.
3. Try to inspect the parts close to the wet components to see if it is leaking from the part itself or dripping from above.
4. Otherwise, jack your car up. Place a wheel chock at the rear wheel to prevent it from rolling.
5. Bring a torchlight and crawl under the car.
6. Again, try to find any wet components.
7. You can also wear a glove and press onto the rubber hoses and see if they are hard and flaky. Rubber hoses lose their elasticity over time and that could cause leaks. If they are, get it changed.
A bad or failing gearbox is typically caused by lack of proper lubrication and service. The excess heat causes metal-on-metal contact and thus creates a loud grinding noise when you turn left or right. The sound will be most noticeable if you are turning and hit a bump at the same time, like when you drive into a driveway. If you notice this grinding sound when you steer left or right, contact a mechanic so they can quickly diagnose and replace the steering gearbox if needed.
A clunking or knocking sound is another sign of a steering rack problem, and the noise will usually emanate from somewhere close to where your footrests. It is not a continuous and rhythmic knocking sound, but rather an occasional knock here and there, in some case you will hear it again when you return the steering wheel to the original position. If you do, you can start to suspect that you have a worn steering rack. However, I would be hesitant to diagnose a steering problem based on a noise alone, as there are many other parts, such as worn suspension components (such a bad strut, mounting or linkage) which could also be the culprits. The inextricable connection between the suspension and steering system only makes this more confusing. If you notice the clunking noise in addition to other symptoms such as vague or unresponsive steering, there is a high likelihood of a worn steering rack. But we do recommend that you seek professional opinion before concluding the diagnosis.
A less common warning sign of a damaged steering rack or gearbox is the smell of burning oil. Since power steering fluid itself smells like burnt oil, the strong aroma of burnt oil will be present when the steering gearbox is hot. If this occurs, stop your vehicle immediately, find a safe place to park your vehicle and call a mechanic as soon as possible. Continued driving when a steering gearbox is overheating may result in fire and catastrophic damage.
The steering rack allows your car to steer and changes direction. A bad steering rack will compromise your steering control, which endangers the safety of yourself and others on the road. If you suspect your steering rack is bad, head over to your mechanic and have it checked out as soon as possible.