Drivers who perform their own auto maintenance are probably used to keeping close tabs on various fluids in their car, such as oil or radiator coolant. However, one liquid that doesn't need to be checked as often is the vehicle's power steering fluid.
This fluid is generally built to last for the life of the vehicle, but that doesn't mean a driver should simply forget about it. While power steering fluid won't need to be tended to as often as oil or coolant, it pays to keep this fluid in mind, especially when assessing steering problems.
If you notice that the steering wheel is becoming difficult to turn or simply feels stiffer than usual, power steering fluid may be the culprit. Ideally, the steering rack and pump are built to prevent metal and rubber from contaminating the fluid, but this doesn't always happen.
Check your owner's manual to locate where the power steering fluid is located. Typically, the reservoir is located somewhere in the engine bay and will have a red cap, as well as lettering that indicates it houses the steering fluid. Some reservoirs are easy to look inside and see the fluid, while others may be difficult to view. If you can't quite see the fluid, use a paper towel to take a small dab and look at it that way.
The color of normal power steering fluid varies depending on the type that your car uses - check the owner's manual in order to know which type you should be looking for. Common colors are reddish-pink, amber or completely clear. The telltale signs of contaminated power steering fluid are a dark brown or black coloration. This means that pieces of metal and rubber have gotten into the power steering fluid, which will affect your performance over time.
Although power steering fluid is meant to last for the life of the car, this isn't all that uncommon in older vehicles, especially those that have outlived the manufacturer's warranty. However, discolored power steering fluid could potentially signal an issue with the steering rack or pump. These are complicated repairs that will likely need to be performed by an expert.
Besides simply looking at the color of the fluid, drivers should also be checking to see how much they have. A major power steering leak will likely be pretty easy to spot, as it will become almost impossible to drive the car and you'll likely find buildup underneath your vehicle. However, a minor crack or leak in the system can bleed the fluid over time and may be difficult to notice. The system may also be leaking internally, so while you may not see the fluid outside of the car, it still isn't getting where it needs to go.
On the other hand, power steering fluid may also naturally decrease over time. In this case, you can buy replacement fluid at an auto parts store, making sure to buy the type of fluid that matches your particular system. The reservoir should have two lines indicating the minimum and maximum amount of fluid that should be in the system. Fill up the reservoir with your new fluid until the level comes somewhere in between the two lines.
Anytime you fill up your power steering fluid, be sure to monitor the system over the next few days or weeks. If you have difficulty steering or notice that the levels have gotten low again, it's time to bring the vehicle in to an expert who can find a leak or possibly replace one of the steering components.