Turning the steering wheel in your car allows you to control the wheels, but in order to be able to do this easily with your bare hands, there needs to be something to facilitate the process of turning wheels carrying more than a ton of metal. This is where the power steering system comes in. This involves the hydraulic pressure of power steering fluid, but if something goes wrong it can be near impossible to turn the wheel - a dangerous threat. For this reason, it is important to know the signs of power steering issues.
Regular fluid changes are key
Just as you should change the oil on a regular basis, you need to do the same for the power steering fluid. However, you don't need to do so nearly so often. A good rule of thumb for this is to do so every few years (approximately 45,000 - 60,000 miles). This doesn't mean you can forget about the fluid all together. You should peek inside the reservoir from time to time, perhaps when you get the oil changed. Make sure there is enough fluid, as lower levels may indicate a leak. It is a good idea to remove the reservoir cap and check the fluid for signs of contaminants. If you see any, have the system flushed.
Detecting a leak
When you notice you have been having steering trouble, low fluid levels are the most common cause. You can add more fluid and check back in a few days to see if the level has dropped noticeably. Inspect the power steering pump for signs of leakage around the seals, and check the hoses coming from the pump to see if there is any visible damage, such as tears or holes. Some of the hoses involved can only be inspected when the car is lifted off the ground. If you do not own a car jack or don't feel comfortable hoisting your ride in the air, this part may be best left to a professional.
Power steering pump problems
If you hear a distinct squealing sound when you turn the steering wheel, this is a telltale sign the power steering pump is failing. You may also hear this noise when driving at low speeds. Listen carefully the next time you start your car for a clunking noise coming from the engine bay. These two sounds are commonly associated with the steering pump, and if there is a problem, you will likely need to replace the part.
A faulty drive belt can be troublesome
The drive belt is in charge of delivering power to many systems in your car, including the power steering. If this belt is at all worn or loose, it may result in a loss of power to the steering pump. You will notice the steering wheel vibrating while you're idling, and when you try to drive, the steering will be erratic and shaky. Keep an eye on your drive belt, inspecting it regularly for signs of wear to prevent further issues.
Watching out for signs of power steering trouble and knowing the symptoms will alert you to problems early on. This can help you avoid costly repairs and part replacements. Plus, your risk of losing control over your steering wheel will be greatly reduced if you're able to fix an issue as soon as it occurs.