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What does bad power steering fluid look like?

Power steering fluid is a hydraulic fluid that works to make turning the steering wheel an easy task. It allows you to smoothly turn the steering wheel with minimal effort, even at low speeds or when stopped. Over time, power steering fluid can degrade and cause problems in your power steering system.

What are the Signs of Bad Power Steering Fluid?

Here are some of the most common signs that your power steering fluid needs to be changed:

  • Whining noise when turning the steering wheel
  • Difficulty turning the steering wheel, especially when stopped or at low speeds
  • Leaking fluid around the power steering pump
  • Steering wheel vibration when turning
  • Low fluid level in the power steering reservoir

These symptoms indicate that the power steering fluid has broken down and can no longer protect the internal components properly. The fluid may be low, contaminated, or old.

Changes in Color

One of the easiest ways to identify bad power steering fluid is by checking its color. Here’s what different colors can indicate:

  • Light brown or tan: This is the normal color of healthy power steering fluid.
  • Dark brown or black: Fluid that is very dark can indicate the presence of debris, dirt, or oxidation from heat. It needs changing.
  • Milky or cloudy: Cloudiness or a milky color means there is probably water contamination in the fluid. This significantly reduces lubrication.
  • Metallic flakes: Tiny metal particles in the fluid are a sign of internal wear and tear. Time to flush the system.

Changes in Smell

Power steering fluid that smells burnt or acrid indicates overheating problems. This smell means the fluid has likely broken down and is not protecting the pump and other components properly. Any Smokey or burning odor is a definite red flag for bad power steering fluid.

Changes in Texture

The texture or viscosity of the fluid is another diagnostic clue. Here is what to look for:

  • Thin and watery: If the fluid looks thin and has low viscosity, it may be contaminated with water or a leak is diluting it. Low viscosity can make it inadequate for lubrication.
  • Thick and syrupy: On the other hand, if the fluid is very thick and syrupy, it could mean that oxidation or high heat has broken it down. This change in texture means it needs replacing.
  • Foamy: Foam or bubbles in the fluid indicate the presence of air in the system. This can occur from low fluid levels or a leak.

When to Change Your Power Steering Fluid

Most vehicle manufacturers recommend flushing and replacing your power steering fluid every 30,000 to 50,000 miles as routine maintenance. However, you may need to replace it more frequently if you notice any issues with the power steering performance or see signs of degraded fluid.

Any time you replace your power steering pump or gearbox is also a good opportunity to flush the system and refill it with fresh fluid. Changing it periodically helps extend the life of your power steering components.

How to Check Your Power Steering Fluid

Checking the condition and level of your power steering fluid regularly is the best way to stay on top of any potential problems. Here are some step-by-step instructions:

  1. Make sure the engine is cold before you begin.
  2. Locate the power steering fluid reservoir, which is usually near the front of the engine bay. It has a cap labeled “Power Steering Fluid”.
  3. Wipe any dirt or debris from the reservoir cap before opening it.
  4. Unscrew the cap and examine the fluid level. It should be between the “Min” and “Max” lines.
  5. Inspect the color and smell of the fluid for any signs of degradation.
  6. If necessary, top it off to the proper level with the recommended type of fluid.
  7. Replace the cap, being careful not to overtighten it.

Checking this reservoir occasionally makes it easy to identify potential power steering problems before they lead to major repair costs. Changing degraded fluid right away can significantly extend the life of your system.

Flushing Power Steering Fluid

If you determine it’s time to drain all of the old fluid and replace it, follow this process:

  1. Raise the front of the vehicle and support it on jack stands.
  2. Locate the return hose where it enters the power steering reservoir.
  3. Carefully detach the hose and drain the old fluid into a drain pan.
  4. Once drained, reattach the return hose.
  5. Refill the reservoir with fresh, recommended power steering fluid.
  6. Start the engine and let it idle. Turn the wheel from side to side to circulate the fluid.
  7. Recheck the fluid level and add more if needed.
  8. Dispose of the old fluid properly.

Pumping the steering wheel helps remove any remaining contaminants and makes sure fresh fluid circulates fully. This thorough flush helps prolong the life of the entire system.

Signs of Specific Power Steering Problems

In addition to degraded fluid, issues with certain power steering components can develop over time. Here are some specific problems and symptoms to watch out for:

Leaking Power Steering Pump

  • Fluid drips under the vehicle
  • Low fluid reservoir level
  • Whining noise from the pump
  • Reduced power steering assist

Damaged Steering Rack

  • Excess play or looseness in the steering wheel
  • Uneven tire wear
  • Leaks around the rack seals
  • Knocking or grinding noises during turns

Failing Power Steering Hose

  • Cracked, swollen, or soft hoses
  • Leaks at hose connections
  • Tight steering wheel action
  • Groaning noise from the steering column

Worn Steering Gearbox

  • Looseness or play in steering wheel
  • Stiff steering action
  • Clunking or popping noises during turns
  • Leaking fluid around seals

Preventing Power Steering Problems

You can help minimize wear and tear on your power steering system with proper maintenance:

  • Check power steering fluid level and condition monthly.
  • Change fluid and flush the system every 30,000-50,000 miles.
  • Use only the manufacturer’s recommended fluid type.
  • Inspect hoses and seals for cracking or leaks.
  • Have rack, pump and gearbox inspected regularly.
  • Replace any deteriorated components immediately.

Catching issues early is crucial. Even small leaks or worn parts can degrade fluid and lead to bigger repair costs if ignored. Investing in routine maintenance pays off by keeping your power steering working smoothly for years.

When to Seek Professional Help

While you can inspect your own fluid and top it off, seek help from a certified mechanic if you notice any of the following:

  • Significant steering wheel vibration or looseness
  • Groaning noises from steering column
  • Binding sensation when turning wheel
  • Leaks in steering components
  • Rapid fluid loss or need for frequent top-offs

These symptoms likely indicate component damage or other serious issues. Continuing to drive could make the problems worse. Have your power steering inspected right away by a professional technician.

The Bottom Line

Clean, amber colored power steering fluid is vital for proper system operation. If you notice dark, murky fluid or the smell of burning oil, have it changed immediately. Catching problems early on by inspecting fluid condition regularly will save you money and prevent further damage down the road.

Maintaining your power steering fluid properly helps ensure safe steering performance and extend the life of your vehicle. Learn the signs of contaminated or degraded fluid so you can keep your steering system in good working order.