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Bad Tie Rods and Ball Joints – How To Know When It’s Time to Replace Them

Rod Knock

Whether you’re turning left, right, or keeping straight the ability to steer in the direction you choose is important. Steering linkage along with a few other suspension components is what connects the steering wheel to the wheels on the road. Tie rods and ball joints are one of those critical components that can compromise steering ability. Bad tie rods and ball joints should be replaced as soon as possible. That’s why it’s important to know the signs of the tie rod and ball joint failure.

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What Are Tie Rods?

Did you know that when you are steering your car you are essentially engaging the tie rods or your vehicle as well? Yes, a tie rod is a structural component that connects both of the front wheels. They also tie the vehicle’s steering rack to the steering arm. 


They are made up of two parts; the inner tie rod and the outer tie rod. An adjusting sleeve sits right between the inner and outer tie rod ends. The tie rod works along with other vital suspension components. The outer tie rod connects the inner tie rod to the wheel assembly. As you steer left or right the steering gear pushes the tie rods in whatever direction the driver is steering. 

What Are Ball Joints?

Ball joints and tie rods are terms that are often used interchangeably. Yet, they are two different automotive parts. This component links the wheels to the steering wheel and allows them to move together. Ball joints have a ball in socket design that connects the control arm to the steering knuckles. This flexible ball and socket design allow the suspension to move as the wheels are being steered. 


Depending on a vehicle’s suspension system, there may be multiple ball joint assemblies on a suspension system. Like the suspension system, the ball joints can move in two different directions at once.  


How Do the Tie Rods and Ball Joints Work Together?

While both the tie rods and the ball joints are part of the front suspension of a vehicle they aren’t connected to each other. Yet they are both connected to a mechanism referred to as the spindle. The spindle links to the front wheels of your vehicle. The ball joints are situated on the top and bottom of the spindle and the tie rods are connected to the spindle to control its pivot as it’s steered. 


How exactly do they work together? The ball joints help support the weight of the vehicle and allow the steering to be turned right, left, up, and down. The tie rod relies on the ball joints to take on the weight of the vehicle as it allows the front wheels to pivot left or right. 

Bad Tie Rods and Ball Joints – How Do They Fail?


Ball joints and tie rods can last for several years. In fact, some drivers may never have to replace the ball joints and the tie rods on their vehicle. However, just like any other mechanical component on your vehicle, tie rods and ball joints are subject to normal wear and tear. Driving on poorly maintained roads and in harsh conditions can affect their longevity and cause them to wear at a faster rate. 


Even small accidents can cause the tie rods to shift out of alignment and not work properly. Hazardous road conditions such as speed bumps and potholes can cause the tie rods to some of their lubrication which causes premature wear. 


Ball joints deteriorate when impurities such as dirt and grit get inside the socket. When grease starts to escape, the ball joint loses its lubrication causing them to completely fail. Also, the ball joints become compromised when they begin rusting which causes debris and water to make their way inside of the socket. 


Most Common Signs of Bad Tie Rods and Ball Joints

As the tie rods and ball joints began to degrade you’ll notice a major decrease in your car’s handling quality. When your ball joints and tie rod fail it’s important to have them repaired before your car loses all its steering ability. Here are the most common signs of bad tie rods and ball joint failure :

  1. Steering Wheel Vibrations or Clunking Noises

When your tie rods first start to go bad you’ll likely experience steering wheel vibrations or a shaking sensation as you steer. You might also hear clunking or rattling noises coming from your car especially when you are turning at low speeds. 


When tire rods start to wear they eventually become loose and begin to rattle the joints and linkage areas. When the ball joints wear out the ball in the sockets will move up and downing which causes the squeaking or popping sound. 


Once the tie rod’s lubricated joints are completely damaged dirt and debris from the road making their way in and it causes a weird grinding sensation while you are steering. Once you start experiencing this grinding sensation you should have your tie rods and ball joints inspected and replaced as soon as possible. 


  1. Unresponsive steering


            Perhaps one of the most common signs of bad tire rods is that your steering wheel will start to feel incredibly loose and you'll lose some of your steering ability. When this happens you may find yourself having to turn the wheel slightly before making a full turn. Also, when you are steering your car has a hard time staying in a straight line and you have to maintain a tight grip on the steering wheel. 


  1. Uneven tire wear

When all of the components in the suspension system are working properly the vehicle’s weight is well-balanced. The weight of the vehicle is spread out evenly amongst the tires so that they last longer. When the tire rods are in bad shape the car's alignment takes a big hit and the tires will start to wear unevenly. You’ll find yourself having to cough up money for new tires regularly. 


  1. Poor Vehicle Alignment

Excessive tire wear occurs when your vehicle is out of alignment. The tire rods help your vehicle keep your track straight when your steering is centered. Bad tire rods and worn ball joints force the wheels out of alignment. You may notice that your car will start to pull to one side while driving forcing you to have to make last minute corrections to your steering. 


  1. The Wheels Feel Loose

The best way to check to see if you have bad tire rods is to jack the front end of your car up. Once you get up off the ground you’ll need to grab the front tires with your hand at about a 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock angle. Does the wheel shake when you move it from side to side? Now grab the wheel at a 6 and 12 o'clock angle. Does the wheel move loosely up and down? You shouldn’t be able to move the wheels so if they are indeed loose then chances are you have bad tie rods. 


How Much Does It Cost to Replace Bad Tire Rods and Ball Joints?

      How much should you expect to pay to replace the tire rod or ball joints on your car? On average installing new tire rods approximately $150 -$300. For the part alone you should expect to pay around $20-$100 for the inner or outer tie rod. Installing new outer tie rods is a fairly simple process so the labor shouldn’t cost more than $100. However, removing and installing a new inner tie rod is slightly more complex so the labor costs will be more expensive. However, some mechanics will recommend that you replace the inner and outer tie rod together. 


So if you need an inner tie rod replacement although it’s not always necessary you should replace the inner tie rod as well especially if it’s an original part. To replace the inner tie rod the mechanic will have to remove the outer tie rod. Having both of the tie rods replaced at the same time will save time and money. You also won’t have to worry about any further issues.


The ball joint is one of the smallest parts of your vehicle. The part itself will cost between $20-$150 depending on the type of vehicle you own and the brand you decide to purchase. When you include labor costs, the overall cost for a full ball joint replacement can cost you between $100-$400.


In some instances, the cost of replacing the ball joints can be on the higher end because of the vehicle’s suspension design. The ball joints on some vehicles are located in the rear of the vehicle instead of the front. Also, the control arms have to be removed during a ball joint replacement.


Do I Need A Wheel Alignment After Ball Joint and Tie Rod Replacement?

After a ball joint and tie rod replacement, you’ll notice improved handling. However, if you didn’t get a wheel alignment your car might still be out of whack. Since bad tie rods and ball joints have a really bad impact on the alignment of your vehicle it’s a good idea to have it realigned after repairs have been made. 


If you had previously had a wheel alignment before your ball joints were compromised it might not be necessary to get a wheel alignment depending on the extent of the damage sustained. However, after a tie rod replacement, most mechanics will recommend that you have a wheel alignment performed to bring the suspension and steering angles back within manufacturer specifications. 


Wheel alignments are performed using special machinery that ensures that your tires meet the road at the proper angles. The tires on your vehicle should be pointing straight and the tires are centered in the wheel well. A wheel alignment improves your vehicle’s fuel economy and prevents uneven tire wear. 


Is It Safe To Drive With Bad Tie Rods and Ball Joints?

While you might be able to get away with driving on bad tie rods or ball joints for a little bit you shouldn’t plan on driving when a vehicle with degraded tie rods or ball joints. This can be very dangerous. 


When the tie rods fail the car will lose its steering ability because it will break free from the steering assembly. You will need to have your car towed home or to the nearest mechanic. It can be difficult to properly control your car and adjust to changing road conditions when you are driving on bad tie rods. 


If you drive on bad ball joints the worst thing that can happen is that the ball joints will break off. When this happens the wheel can move in any direction. In most cases, the wheel ends up falling inward and slamming against the front fender. The tire will drag until the driver activates the brakes.


Driving on failing tie rods and ball joints can cause a bad accident. You don’t want to risk your life or the life of other motorists on the road. 


Maintaining Tie Rods and Ball Joints

Regularly maintaining your vehicle’s suspension system can ensure that your ball joints and tie rods last for many years to come. Ball joints are serviceable. When you take your car in for its regular oil change you can have your mechanic lubricate the ball joints. Periodically lubricating your ball joints will help them last longer. The tie rods also have a metal stud which needs lubrication to keep the tie rods in good condition. 


Maintaining other components of your suspension system such as the shocks or struts is crucial for extending the life of your car’s ball joints and tie rods. Every car is equipped with shocks that absorb impact and controls the movement of the suspension system. When the shock becomes weak and they haven’t been replaced the ball joints and the tie rods will have to work harder. The harder these components have to work the faster they will wear. Therefore, staying on top of important repairs will keep the ball joints, tie rods, and your entire suspension system in good shape.


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