Clunking, humming, squeaking, rattling, buzzing… The list of all the different sounds your car can make when one of its parts is failing is unending. You may think that what’s coming from under your hood is the power steering pump noise. The good news is that you don’t have to rush to the mechanic to find out if your suspicions are right.
If you follow my detailed guide, you will learn what the power steering pump is, how to check if it is faulty, and what most likely caused the problem. I will show you what signs to look for to confirm that your pump needs fixing, and how to go about it. I will also tell you how to properly take care of your power steering system to prevent it from making the same noise again.
What Is the Power Steering Pump and What Does It Do?
Your car’s steering mechanism consists of the steering rack and the power steering pump. The steering rack changes the trajectory of your wheels. The pump is what makes your steering wheel feel light and easy to maneuver in even the sharpest of turns. It is located next to the engine. To find it, lift the hood, follow the engine belt, and you will see the steering pump nearby.
In simple terms, the steering pump works on the same principle as the water pump, except that it uses steering fluid instead. It spins and pressurizes the fluid to send it to other parts of the steering system. As a result, you are able to turn your wheel with ease when you are driving.
How Does the Power Steering System Work?
In technical terms, the steering pump mechanism works like this. Once you start your car, the engine sends power to the rest of the automobile, including the steering pump. The belt that runs from the engine to the hydraulic steering pump transmits the engine’s energy to the pulley, which starts the pump. In turn, the pump draws the steering fluid from its designated reservoir through a rubber hose that connects the two.
The pump itself has several centrifugal vanes that rotate at high speed inside the oval pump housing and thus pressurize the fluid. The fluid then proceeds through a pressure control valve to the steering rack’s two hydraulic chambers.
When you want to turn right, the left rack chamber receives more pressurized fluid. That makes it stronger and pushes it to the right, allowing you to steer the car in that direction.
That is how the fluid reaches all of the components of the steering system, and that enables the power assist feature of your car. As a result, your steering wheel turns so easily that it feels as light as air.
What Are the Signs of a Bad Power Steering Pump?
If there is an unusual sound coming from under your hood, it could be that your car’s power steering system is making it. Several symptoms point to a bad power steering pump:
- Whining sounds. If you can hear a whining noise when your car is turning, it is usually a telltale sign that there is an issue with your power steering pump.
- The delayed response of the steering wheel. If you notice that your steering wheel is slow and there’s a delay in the turning of your car, it also points to the pump.
- Stiff steering wheel. Another common symptom of a malfunctioning steering system is the difficulty in turning the wheel.
- Squeaking sounds. Although there are several reasons why a car squeaks when turning, if it also happens within the first minute of starting the vehicle, the chances are that the noise is coming from the power steering pump.
- Groaning sounds. When there is groaning coming from under your hood, it probably means that your pump is severely damaged and needs your prompt attention.
However, don’t despair if the issues above sound familiar to you. There are many things you can do at home to check the state of your power steering pump and fix it if necessary. That will successfully eliminate the annoying noise the pump is making. Only if you determine that your pump is completely broken will you need to take your car to the mechanic and have the pump replaced.
But before we get round to getting our hands dirty under the hood, let’s see what causes the system to break down and make the power steering pump noise in the first place.
What Causes a Noisy Power Steering Pump?
If you can hear a whining sound, it typically means that there is a problem with a part of your steering mechanism. Most likely, the issue is inside the pump and is closely related to the steering fluid. These are the standard causes of power steering pump noise:
- Worn-out steering fluid
- Air bubbles in the steering fluid
- Cracks and leaks in the system
- Low steering fluid level
- Clogged hoses
- A broken power steering pump
Common Causes Explained
In layman’s terms, the whining sound that you can detect is either caused by a problem with the steering fluid that is running through your system or one of the components.
Most likely, you have been using the same fluid for too long. If that is the case, the fluid has started to lose its physical properties, or the essential additives from its composition have broken down. That would mean the fluid’s viscosity has changed, and the pump is having difficulties moving it around.
Alternatively, tiny air bubbles may have formed in the fluid, causing it to foam when the vanes are spinning it. Such fluid would make the vanes vibrate and let out whining sounds.
Another common cause of the power steering pump noise is a loose or cracked hose. That would not only lead to the fluid filling up with air bubbles but also allow it to leak from the system. Eventually, that would cause the steering fluid levels to drop significantly, preventing the pump from working as it should. The pump could be emitting whining sounds due to the lack of fluid in the system.
On the other hand, the rubber hose leading from the steering fluid reservoir to the pump may be clogged. If that is the case, the pump would be unable to draw enough or any fluid and pass it to the steering rack. That would make your steering wheel feel slow and stiff.
Lastly, your pump may not be working at all. You can usually hear loud, groaning sounds coming from your steering system if that is the problem at hand. At that point, you would need to consult a professional, who would determine whether to repair or replace the pump.
Do They Break Down Often?
Generally speaking, you should expect your power steering system to work without issues for at least 100,000 miles. If you follow the maintenance tips in your owner’s manual and the ones I give you below, you will prevent leaks and holes from forming and hinder any mechanical failures of the pump.
Can I Drive My Car With a Faulty Power Steering Pump?
If the problem is a tiny crack in the hose that is leaking small amounts of fluid, you can continue to drive your car until you get round to fixing the issue. It surely won’t leave you stranded on the side of the road. However, keep in mind that the hole is unlikely to stay small for long and is bound to expand. That will put you in danger of losing too much fluid, and, as a result, damaging the entire steering system.
If you disregard the sound coming from your steering pump, it could fail, and even damage the steering mechanism. That will lead to costly repairs at the mechanic that could have easily been avoided. Not to mention that not being able to properly steer the vehicle potentially puts you at risk of having an accident, or worse.
The cause of your power steering pump noise could be the fluid or something else. Either way, you will be able to tell how serious the problem is by how loud the whining sound gets. The louder it is, the sooner you need to tend to it. As I said before, if it becomes more like a groan, the chances are your steering pump broke down completely.
How to Fix the Power Steering Pump Noise
There are a couple of things you can do to fix the power steering pump noise. It all depends on what’s causing the problem.
- The steering system may be making the whining sounds if it needs more fluid. So the first thing you should do is check the steering fluid level. Unscrew the cap on the reservoir, and if the level is low, top it up. Make sure to use only top-quality steering fluid to ensure the longevity of your system.
- While you are at it, check the quality of the fluid inside the reservoir. If it looks like it has lost its consistency, it means you haven’t changed it in a while and should do it now. If you can see foamy residue, it points to air bubbles, which also means it’s time you poured some fresh fluid in your steering mechanism.
- Next, inspect your system for leaks. Although cracks can happen anywhere, the usual suspect is the fluid hose. It is made of rubber and susceptible to damage. If the hole is small, you will need to seal it with a stop leak. In case it is substantial, you’ll need a replacement hose.
- In case of a clogged hose, you may attempt to unclog it yourself. But if you are unsure of your mechanical skills, it’s best to turn to a professional. To do it yourself, place a drain pan right below the hose as some oil will drip from it. Replace the old hose with a new one following the instructions in your user’s manual, as they may differ from model to model.
Maintain Your Power Steering Pump
Once you get rid of the power steering pump noise and your system is working fine again, you will want to take all necessary precautions so that this issue doesn’t come back. To keep your steering pump in order, you need to:
- Check the steering fluid level every month. The reservoir is usually see-through enough to see how much oil there is inside.
- Use good-quality oil in your system. It will last longer, and it will leave no residue that can build up and lead to clogs.
- Keep an eye on leaks. Take a look under the hood every once in a while and look for drops under your car.
- Go to regular checks at the mechanic. They will identify any issues early on and help you avoid costly major repairs.
If your car makes an unusual sound, it is a telltale sign that there is something going on with it. Unless you tend to it soon, it will get louder and louder, and more costly to repair later on.
If you hear a sound coming from the power steering pump, there are ways to fix the issue without spending a fortune at the auto-shop. It all revolves around checking the pump fluid levels and looking for possible leaks, clogged hoses, or trapped air bubbles.
The tips above will help you get rid of the annoying power steering pump noise. If you are having other noise issues, make sure to check out my posts about squeaking wipers and what to do if your car squeaks when braking.