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What does brown power steering fluid mean?

Power steering fluid is a hydraulic oil that works to transmit power in the steering system, allowing the driver to more easily steer the wheels. This vital fluid is typically clear, pink, red, or amber in color when new. However, over time and with use, the fluid can become darker. Brown power steering fluid is often an indicator that the system needs maintenance and possibly flushing.

What Causes Brown Power Steering Fluid?

There are a few key causes of brown power steering fluid:

Normal Aging

As power steering fluid ages, exposure to heat and air can cause it to oxidize and turn brownish in color. This is a normal part of the aging process as components in the fluid break down over time.


Contaminants entering the system is another source of discoloration. Dirt, debris, and road grime can make their way into the reservoir and mix with the fluid. This speeds up oxidation and causes a brown tint.

Leaking Seals

Worn seals and internal leakage in the steering system can allow fluid from the transmission or engine to mix with the power steering fluid. Transmission fluid is typically red/brown, which can discolor the steering fluid when blended.


Excessive heat breaks down the chemical composition of power steering fluid more rapidly. The byproducts of this process can turn the fluid brown. Overheating can be caused by low fluid levels, a malfunctioning component, or a clogged system.

Is Brown Power Steering Fluid Dangerous?

Discolored fluid itself is not necessarily dangerous, but it can indicate issues brewing in the steering system that should not be ignored. Here are some potential risks of brown power steering fluid:

  • Reduced lubrication – contaminants and byproducts of aging fluid can make it less effective at lubricating internal components
  • Increased wear – poor lubrication leads to faster wear on seals, bearings, pumps and other parts
  • Loss of fluid pressure – degraded fluid may not maintain adequate pressure for steering assist
  • Corrosion – some contaminants promote corrosion inside the system
  • Pump cavitation – aerated, oxidized fluid is prone to forming bubbles which leads to pump cavitation and noise

If left unchecked, these factors can lead to complete failure of the power steering system. Once air enters the system due to a leak, it becomes inoperable. Catching issues early by paying attention to fluid condition can prevent more extensive repairs down the road.

When to Change Brown Power Steering Fluid

Here are some guidelines for when to change brown power steering fluid:

Condition Action Needed
Dark with burnt odor Drain, flush, and refill fluid immediately
Brownish tint, slightly degraded Change fluid and monitor condition
Normal aging brown after 2-3 years Routine fluid change per maintenance schedule

If the fluid is very dark, has a burnt odor, or debris is visible, immediate action is required to prevent damage and unsafe conditions. Mild discoloration may only need a fluid change. For optimum performance and longevity, fluid should be changed periodically as part of scheduled maintenance.

How to Change Brown Power Steering Fluid

Here are the basic steps to change contaminated power steering fluid:

  1. Raise front of vehicle and support it safely on jack stands
  2. Locate power steering fluid reservoir near driver side front wheel
  3. Remove cap and use a turkey baster to suck out old fluid
  4. Pour new, clean fluid into reservoir until it reaches full line
  5. Start engine and turn wheels full left and right to bleed air from system
  6. Recheck fluid level and top off as needed
  7. Replace cap and lower vehicle
  8. Dispose of old fluid properly

Be sure to use fluid that meets the vehicle manufacturer’s specifications. Flushing the system by cycling new fluid through it may help remove contaminants. Consult a service manual for complete steps if attempting this.

When to Seek Professional Help

While a simple fluid change is possible for many DIYers, there are some instances when the system should be inspected by a professional:

  • If the source of contamination is unknown
  • If other steering system repairs are needed
  • If flushing the system is required
  • If the fluid reservoir or pump needs replacement
  • If you do not feel comfortable performing the work

A technician can diagnose the root cause, thoroughly flush all components, replace damaged parts, and test for proper operation. This helps ensure any hidden issues are addressed and steering safety is restored.

Preventing Future Power Steering Fluid Discoloration

Once fresh fluid is circulating in the system, here are some tips to keep it from turning brown again:

  • Check fluid level and condition regularly per maintenance schedule
  • Change fluid at recommended intervals
  • Fix any leaks immediately to prevent contamination
  • Do not overfill the reservoir
  • Allow proper warmup before operating vehicle hard
  • Listen for pump noise which could indicate issues
  • Install a larger transmission fluid cooler if towing or hauling heavy loads

Power steering systems work hard under all driving conditions. Make sure the fluid stays in optimum condition to maximize component life and steering reliability.

Signs of Additional Steering System Issues

Along with checking the power steering fluid, be alert for these other signs of potential steering problems:

  • Groaning noise when turning steering wheel
  • Steering wandering, loose feeling, or pulling
  • Tire wear uneven on inner or outer edge
  • Reduced power assist from steering pump
  • Low fluid level in reservoir
  • Leaking fluid around hoses, pump, or gear

Investigate any suspicious symptoms right away before bigger issues arise. Catching problems early saves money and keeps your drive safe.

The Bottom Line

Brown power steering fluid is a warning sign not to ignore. Have the system inspected and change the fluid as soon as possible. With proper maintenance and operation, power steering components can last for years. Keep a watchful eye on this critical system and respond promptly to any color changes or performance issues. Proper care ensures safe, reliable steering response you can count on mile after mile.