The power steering pump in your vehicle is responsible for moving fluid from a reservoir into the steering gear. That governs the pressure of the fluid which in turn allows you to move your steering wheel easily and smoothly. If your power steering pump is not working correctly you're going to notice it in the way that your steering wheel feels and handles in your hands.
You may not have spent a lot of time thinking about your power steering pump, but the importance of power steering really can't be overstated. Remember that your car likely weighs somewhere between 2000 lb and 3000 lb. If you have a truck, it's going to weigh even more. That's a lot to try to control with just your bare hands. Power steering allows you to do that. If it fails, it becomes remarkably hard to get your wheels to work.
These days there are actually three kinds of power steering including hydraulic, electric, and electro-hydraulic. It's the hydraulic system that needs a pump to circulate that pressurized fluid. The others rely on a motor to get the job done.
How Does a Power Steering Pump Work?
In your hydraulic power steering system, you have a steering rack and the pump. The power steering pump is a hydraulic pump that pressurizes the fluid by rotating at high speeds. That creates the pressure differential which makes the power assist in your power steering function. As it spins, the fluid gets placed under extreme pressure and then the steering system is able to use that pressure to translate the force you apply to the steering wheel into the actual wheels of your vehicle when you move it.
The pump itself is located near your car's engine. It's powered by a drive belt but if you can't find it on first glance you may need to Google the make and model of your vehicle to track it down if you're interested in seeing what it looks like.
Signs and Symptoms of a Bad Power Steering Pump
When your power steering pump goes bad there are a handful of signs and symptoms that you need to be aware of that can alert you to the fact that this is the problem you're experiencing. If you are having issues with your steering and any of these symptoms have popped up in your vehicle, you're going to want to get to a mechanic as soon as you can so they can inspect it and make repairs as necessary.
Your vehicle makes a lot of noises that you are hopefully familiar with at this point. Noises are a great way to diagnose problems when they come out of the blue because obviously your car shouldn't be making any strange and unpredictable sounds at any given moment. When it comes to power steering, as it starts to go bad, you may notice a whining sound coming from the power steering unit as you turn the wheel. This is typically the result of a leak in the power steering pump or just low fluid levels in general. You don't want to let your power steering go with low fluid levels for too long as it could end up damaging the entire power steering system.
You may also be noticing the whining sound in conjunction with how your vehicle is performing. That is to say if you accelerate the whining sound accelerates along with you. It mimics what your engine is doing which, of course, makes sense because the power steering pump is connected to the engine by a drive belt. As your RPMs increase then the pitch of the whine from the power steering pump may increase as well
Stiff Steering Wheel
The whole point of power steering is to make steering easier on you. Moving the wheel without power steering is an incredibly difficult task. So if you're finding that the steering wheel is slow or locks in your grip or it's very stiff and hard to move, that's a good sign that your power steering is failing on you. Your pump may be dying and unable to circulate that power steering fluid the way you needed to in order to allow the wheel to turn smoothly and easily in your hands.
Slow Steering Wheel
Similar to a stiff steering wheel, if you're noticing that as you take corners in your car the steering wheel seems to be lagging behind what you wanted to do then that's a good sign that your power steering pump may have started to go bad on you. Typically, you'll notice this along with that whining sound that we mentioned earlier.
There are any number of fluids that can leak from the engine compartment of your vehicle if something goes wrong. Anything from transmission fluid to motor oil to brake fluid has the potential to drip out on to your driveway. In the case of power steering fluid, your power steering pump has some seals that could potentially develop a leak which can cause all of the problems that we're talking about.
Since low power steering fluid could damage the pump and lead to some more extensive repair bills it's good to check to see if you notice the fluid coming out anywhere. The fluid itself will likely be red or light brown so if you see that accompanied by any of these other symptoms, the power steering pump is definitely a place to check. Red fluid is typically only the transmission fluid in your vehicle, so it should be easier to identify than some other mysterious leaks.
Squealing on Startup
This is different from the whining sound that you're going to experience once you're actually driving the car and taking those turns. In this case you're going to notice an annoying, loud squealing noise when you first start your vehicle. It's a potential sound you may hear during sharp turns but that's generally more of the whining sound we mentioned earlier. The sound will be coming from under the hood in the engine compartment of your vehicle and it's an indication that your power steering pump is failing as the engine starts up and the belt starts rotating to power the pump.
Obviously, this is a harder symptom to identify unless you take the time to check out your power steering fluid reservoir. Your power steering fluid is pressurized so the system should be sealed and contained but that doesn't mean it's always free from contamination. For instance, if your power steering pump is damaged it may start shedding tiny metal shards as it grinds. These little metal bits can flake off into the fluid and contaminate the system further making the pump struggle to perform.
This is an extremely weird description but it's really the best word to describe the sound that you'll hear in this case. Groaning noises don't happen at any particular time, such as on start-up, but you may notice when you're taking turns in your vehicle. This is a sign that your power steering pump is really on its last legs, but the noise will get worse the worse the pump itself gets. This is caused by the lack of power steering fluid and if it's allowed to continue the steering rack and lines are going to suffer some extensive damage as well.
Can You Drive a Car with a Bad Power Steering Pump?
Is it possible to drive your car without power steering? Absolutely. Do you want to do that? Absolutely not. Even if you can drive with a bad power steering pump, meaning essentially you were just using your own brute strength to turn the wheel and get your wheels to rotate, it's not a good idea. The longer you let something like that slide, especially if there's a leak, the more likely it is to cause extensive damages that brings with them big repair bills.
The fact is power steering makes it easier to use your vehicle. Your steering is less responsive without it and harder to manage. That means if you find yourself in a sticky situation where you need to react quickly, you're going to be in trouble if you have to use all your upper body strength to try to turn the wheel. Older vehicles didn't have power steering, but they weren't designed to have power steering either. Your car was designed with power steering in mind, so if you try to use it without that system the risk of damage and injury is high.
Power Steering Pump Repair Cost
If your power steering pump has given up on you completely and you need to get a new one, you can expect that you're going to have to pay somewhere between $200 and $350 to get it replaced at a mechanic. As with most repairs it will of course depend not just on what mechanic you take it too but the make, model, and year of your vehicle as well. For instance, if you want to get the power steering pump in an Audi A4 replaced, the cost jumps considerably to about $650 to $950.
If you want to save yourself a bit of cash, you can always try your hand at repairing and replacing the power steering pump on your own. This is a job that you can do at home if you're comfortable working under the hood of your car. It's not exactly the easiest repair job that you can pull off on your own, but it is also not impossible either. You'll have to gauge this one based on your own comfort level when it comes to working under the hood to decide if it's the kind of thing that you can handle.
Luckily, there are numerous videos that you can look up on YouTube that will walk you through the process of replacing a power steering pump on your own. This video gives you a pretty clear walkthrough of what you need to do and of course you can always refer back to it while you're doing the job yourself to make sure you get everything done right. That's one of the big advantages of having easy access to the internet these days, you can just bring up a video on your phone while you're doing the job and not miss a beat. That's going to save you a lot of time and money in the long run if you can get it done.
You can head to AutoZone and find a new power steering pump to replace your old one for anywhere from about $40 to $200. Obviously, you want to make sure you get the exact right pump for your vehicle or it's not going to fit. But, you can potentially save yourself a lot of money by buying the part yourself and replacing it rather than taking it to a mechanic to get the job done given how much you're going to end up paying in labour fees on top of everything.
The Bottom Line
Power steering is one of those parts of your vehicle that we all tend to take for granted. There's a good chance most drivers aren't even aware of exactly what power steering is, where their power steering pump is located, or what it really does. And for the most part that's okay. If your vehicle works then for most of us, we don't bother thinking about it any more than that. But when your power steering fails on you, then it definitely comes to the forefront of your concerns.
In fact, power steering is a convenience that really makes driving your vehicle easier and safer. So if you're noticing any of the symptoms we mentioned of a bad power steering pump then you're going to want to do what you can to get it fixed sooner rather than later so you don't have to endure the problems related to steering with a faulty power steering pump. Whether that means taking it to a mechanic or trying your hand at getting the pump swapped out on your own, just make sure you don't leave it for too long so that a small problem escalates into a big one.