Turning your steering wheel usually requires minimal effort on your part. Even when driving at highway speeds, you can typically keep your car headed straight with just a couple of fingers on the wheel. Your power steering system is responsible for making things so easy, and the power steering fluid is the system’s lifeblood.
If you experience a power steering fluid leak, turning your wheel might not be so easy. A low power steering fluid level can make it difficult to steer your car, and it might even cause a crash that could have been prevented. There are a few different things that can cause a fluid leak, and you should keep a regular check on your fluid level so that you notice fluid leaks right away. Keep reading as we give you all the common causes of power steering fluid leaks and tell you how to repair them.
Causes Of A Power Steering Fluid Leak
A power steering system consists of a few basic components, like the steering wheel, steering gear, power steering pump, rack and pinion, and power steering hoses. Most power steering systems are hydraulic systems and utilize the engine to run the power steering pump. However, some of the newer systems use electric motors to run the power steering pump. Here are some of the most common causes of a fluid leak in your system.
— Bad O-Rings In Power Steering Pump
As your car ages, seals and O-rings lose shape and mass. They become dry and brittle, and they no longer provide the seal they were meant to. When the O-rings get brittle, they can be the source of leaking power steering fluid. Your power steering pump contains several O-rings. These are located at the inlet and outlet where the power steering hoses attach as well as other internal O-rings, like around the pulley connector. If you notice power steering fluid leaking directly from the pump, it is likely that a bad O-ring is the culprit.
— Bad Seals In Steering Rack
Your power steering rack has pistons that push against it using the force of the hydraulic fluid in your power steering system. As you turn the steering wheel, the power steering gearbox turns and causes these pistons to move the steering rack. Power steering fluid is under intense pressure within the steering system, and seals inside the rack can fail. Seals are especially susceptible to failure as they age. The slightest defect in a steering rack seal will lead to a fluid leak due to the amount of pressure in the system.
— Cracked Power Steering Fluid Line
Your vehicle has power steering fluid lines that carry the fluid from the power steering pump to the steering rack. A return line also returns fluid from the rack back into the pump. These lines are often made of rubber with metal connectors on the ends. The heat from your engine bay, along with age, can cause these power steering lines to fail. Even a small crack will lead to significant leakage from the line. The leak will generally get much worse as you attempt to turn your vehicle since this pushes pressurized fluid into the lines.
— Damaged Power Steering Cooler
Not all vehicles are equipped with a power steering cooler, but many modern vehicles have them. These coolers function just like a radiator or engine oil cooler in your car’s cooling system. The power steering fluid flows through the cooler, and heat is removed from the fluid as air passes over the fins of the cooler. Most of these coolers sit near the ground toward the front of the vehicle — often right behind the radiator. Debris from the road can sometimes hit the power steering cooler and damage it. This damage can result in a power steering fluid leak, and it should be repaired right away.
Symptoms Of A Power Steering Fluid Leak
Now that you know the likely causes of a fluid leak, how can you tell when fluid is leaking? There are a few things you can watch and listen for that almost always signal a power steering fluid leak. Here are the most common signs that fluid is leaking from your system.
— Noticeable Drops Of Fluid
If you notice any type of fluid leaking under your vehicle, you should always investigate the cause. The fluid could be from an engine oil leak, automatic transmission fluid leak, brake fluid leak, coolant leak, or a power steering fluid leak. You might need to observe the color or smell of the fluid to determine which type of fluid it is. The power steering fluid will be red, although it will turn darker red over time. It has a thin consistency and oily texture. If you notice drops of power steering fluid under your vehicle, you should get to a repair shop as soon as possible.
— Difficulty Steering Your Vehicle
You should be able to turn your steering wheel very easily in most cases, so if you notice it becoming difficult to steer your car, you might be leaking power steering fluid. Difficulty steering almost always points to a problem with your power steering system. You could have a fluid leak that has resulted in poor lubrication of the power steering components. Your power steering pump might also be failing. Either way, you should head to your local dealership to have them take a look at your car to diagnose the problem.
— Whining Noise
A whining noise from your power steering pump is a surefire sign of leaking power steering fluid. As the fluid seeps out of the system, the level in the system becomes low. Low fluid will cause your power steering pump to whine because it is not properly lubricated. The whine will be especially noticeable at low speeds, such as when driving in a parking lot or your driveway. If you can hear your power steering pump whining when you start to turn the steering wheel, then it might be time to head to an automotive repair shop. You should have a professional mechanic determine the root cause of the problem.
— Low Fluid Level
A low fluid level is a clear sign of a power steering fluid leak. Your power steering system does not burn fluid, and the fluid should not evaporate from the system. Therefore, a leak is the only thing that will cause the fluid level to become low. If you check your power steering fluid and notice the level is low, you should start to look for leaks. Check the power steering pump and lines for fluid, and get the help of a mechanic if necessary. A low fluid level signals a leak somewhere in the system, and you should get it repaired soon.
How To Fix Power Steering Fluid Leaks
The fix for a power steering fluid leak depends on the cause of the issue. Bad seals and O-rings are a major cause of power steering fluid leaks, and some people use a power steering stop leak additive to fix the issue. This kind of additive helps to condition old seals and O-rings, and it will stop small leaks in most cases. These products generally work on the seals in the power steering pump, power steering rack, and gearboxes. In addition, these products can help reduce any whining noise from your power steering pump. Simply pour a bottle of the additive into your power steering fluid reservoir, and let it work.
Stop leak additives will not usually repair leaks that result from a cracked power steering line. In that case, a new line will be needed. Thankfully, a power steering hose replacement is not that difficult. Many people are able to perform this repair on their own and save a few dollars on a mechanic. On the other hand, a damaged power steering cooler replacement is a more complex job. You will likely need the help of a mechanic for that job.
Finally, if you have fluid leaking directly from your power steering pump that is not fixed by a stop leak additive, you will probably need to replace the pump. While rebuilding a power steering pump is possible, many people simply replace the pump with a new one because it is not that much more expensive. You will need to clamp the power steering lines, disconnect the lines from the old pump, and disconnect the pump from the engine. The new pump will need to be bolted to the engine, and then you can reconnect the power steering lines. Make sure to remove the reservoir cap and turn the steering wheel from side to side after filling the reservoir with fluid. This will bleed air from the lines and ensure that your system is working properly.
Cost To Repair Leaking Power Steering Fluid
If you are lucky and can repair your issue with a bottle of stop leak additive, your cost to repair the leak might be as little as $20. However, if parts need to be replaced, the bill will be higher. One of the cheapest repairs is likely to be a power steering line replacement. Replacing a power steering line will usually cost you $150 to $250. Unfortunately, other types of power steering repairs are more expensive. The average cost to repair a power steering fluid leak is about $400 to $600 in most cases.
Replacing a bad seal in the power steering rack can be difficult because it often takes a mechanic a few hours to complete the job. The additional labor required for the job is the reason it will cost you several hundred dollars for the repair. Similarly, you can expect to pay around $400 to $600 for a power steering pump rebuild. Finally, a power steering pump replacement is usually the most expensive repair of all. Although not as expensive as replacing a head gasket on your engine, a power steering pump replacement will usually cost you $600 to $800. Therefore, if you notice leaking fluid or whining noise, you should have your car checked before the pump fails entirely.
Maintenance Tips To Avoid Power Steering Leaks
One of the best things you can do to avoid power steering leaks is to perform regular power steering fluid flushes. Your old fluid can become contaminated with debris, and this debris can cause parts of your power steering system to fail. Flushing the old fluid from the system and replacing it with new fluid ensures that the fluid is clean and is lubricating the system’s parts properly.
You should also keep a regular check on your power steering fluid level. If your car does develop a leak, you should address it immediately. Allowing the leak to continue might result in low fluid levels, and low fluid levels can cause damage to other parts of your system. Repairing leaks before they cause additional damage is one key to avoiding large repair bills.
The Bottom Line
Power steering fluid leaks can make your car difficult to steer, and they can lead to the failure of your power steering pump. If you notice drops of fluid under your vehicle or hear your power steering pump whining as you turn, you should get the problem corrected right away. You might be able to fix the leak with a bottle of power steering stop leak, although more serious issues will require the replacement of parts. Replacement of a power steering line is not that difficult, although replacing a power steering pump is more complex. Expect the job to cost you $500 or more. Performing regular maintenance on your system and keeping a close eye on your fluid level can extend the life of your power steering system and help you avoid expensive repairs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you drive with a power steering fluid leak?
Yes, you can drive with a power steering fluid leak in most cases. However, you should get the leak repaired as soon as possible. Driving with a fluid leak can make it difficult to steer your vehicle, and the leaking fluid can lead to low fluid levels. Low fluid levels will cause other parts of your power steering system to fail. Even a small leak will get worse over time due to the amount of pressure in your power steering system. Though you might not think much fluid is leaking when you look under the hood, the leak typically gets much worse when you turn the steering wheel.
How serious is a power steering fluid leak?
A power steering fluid leak is a fairly serious issue that you should repair as soon as you can. Although you can drive your vehicle with a leak in most cases, doing so could be dangerous. Difficulty steering could lead to an accident, and leaking fluid will eventually cause other parts of your power steering system to fail. Failure of your power steering pump is likely to cost you over $500, so you should not ignore a fluid leak.
How can I tell if my power steering fluid is leaking?
There are a few ways you can tell if the power steering fluid is leaking. The most obvious is noticeable drops of fluid underneath your vehicle. You might also be able to pop the hood and see power steering fluid dripping from the power steering lines or directly from the pump itself. Similarly, you may hear a whine from the power steering pump as you turn the wheel, or the steering wheel might be very difficult to turn. Any of these signs point toward a power steering fluid leak, and you should get the problem corrected soon.
What is the best way to fix a power steering leak?
The best way to fix a power steering leak depends on the source of the problem. If the leak is a result of old O-rings or seals, you can start with a bottle of power steering stop leak. This additive can help condition old seals, and it will stop the leak in many cases. If that does not work, you will need to repair the source of the leak. That might require replacing a power steering line or rebuilding the power steering pump. A qualified mechanic will be able to diagnose the problem and tell you exactly what is needed to stop the leak.