Rack and pinion steering has been commonly used in cars, small trucks, and SUVs for years. It is basically a circular gear with a linear gear. It works by converting rotational motion into linear motion. By turning the steering wheel, it also turns the steering column which rotates the steering shaft and the pinion or the circular gear. The pinion is attached to a toothed metal bar called the rack. As the pinion turns, depending on where you turn the steering, the rack moves either left or right. It is the one that causes your front wheels to move the vehicle. If one of them fails, it will be hard to steer or you will completely lose control of the steering. It can compromise your safety. Like any parts of the vehicle, rack and pinion are also susceptible to wear and tear over time as they are constantly used in steering and driving. Rack and pinion leak can happen. If it does, it can lead to a number of problems.
What Can Cause a Rack and Pinion Leak?
There are several things that can contribute to a rack and pinion leak. One is the hoses and the linings in the vehicle’s power steering system. The hoses and the linings are made of flexible rubbers that are prone to cracking and leaks could start there.
Then there are also seals between the steering wheel and the rack and pinion assembly and the seals around the tie-rod connections. These seals can also deteriorate, dry out, crack, dislodge, or shrink that can cause leaks since these seals not only make the steering column to rotate and the tie-rods to move, they also hold in the high-pressure power steering fluid.
Loose fittings or connections can also cause a leak. The fluid will drip if the system’s gears don’t have a good fitting. Always make sure that the rack and pinion assembly are perfectly sealed and are firmly fitted.
Another thing to look out for is the gasket. It can also wear out and be damaged causing a power steering fluid to leak. Gaskets are not too expensive and are easy to replace. You might want to have it replaced before the problem gets worse.
While rack and pinion leak generally happens to older cars, bad driving habits and other environmental conditions can also be attributed to it.
Rack and Pinion Leak Symptoms
One should know and be aware of the common symptoms of a rack and pinion leak so you can take actions immediately before it could lead to a more serious problem. Here are some of the common symptoms of a rack and pinion leak.
- Burning Oil Smell. This is probably the first thing you will notice when you experience a rack and pinion leak. The power steering fluid emits a burnt oil smell and it is usually more obvious when the steering gearbox is hot. To make sure that it is really the rack and pinion that is causing the leak, you can check it by putting a paper under the boots. If you can spot oil drippings there, then it’s positive that there’s a leak.
- Pink or Red Fluid. A car has lots of different kinds of fluids such as coolant, brake fluid, oil, transmission fluid, and the power steering fluid. The power steering fluid has a pinkish or reddish color that drips from the back of the motor. If you see a leak with that color, it must be from the rack and pinion assembly. It is often followed by a burnt oil smell.
- Very Tight Steering Wheel. Most modern cars’ rack and pinion steering systems are being reinforced by a power steering unit. It uses a hydraulic pressure which makes your steering easier and quicker. It is made possible by the supplied power steering fluid. If there is a leak, the power steering fluid will be reduced and it could cause a loss of hydraulic pressure. This makes the steering wheel feel tight and will be more difficult to turn than usual.
- Grinding Noise When Steering. If you can hear a grinding noise every time you steer, it could be due to a lack of lubrication that is caused by the rack and pinion leak. The absence of proper lubrication results in metal to metal contact that creates a loud grinding noise every time you turn the wheel.
- Steering Wheel Does Not Return to the Center. The steering wheel is made to assist the driver when turning. When you let go of the steering wheel, the weight of the car pulls it back to its original position. When it doesn’t go back to the center, it might be because of a rack and pinion leak.
How to Find the Rack and Pinion Leak
The steering system can have leaks that may drip onto the rack and pinion. This might lead you to believe that it is the rack and pinion that is leaking. You have to make sure where the leak is from to fix it. Fortunately, the rack and pinion assembly have fewer parts that can go bad making it easier to locate compared to the older vehicles’ steering gear setup. The rack and pinion leak is also easier to spot since there are only a few possible locations where the leak could occur. You can begin by cleaning the steering mechanisms and have someone help turn the steering wheel as you check the possible locations of the leak.
One of the possible leak locations is the high-pressure line. The power steering pump supplies power to the power steering rack. It pumps down the pressurized fluid through the high-pressure line. Since it handles an extremely high pressure fluid, it would cause a leak if the line is not properly attached to the rack and pinion or if it is worn or damaged. If this happens, you will have to replace it to stop the leak. Although the line is not that expensive to purchase, installing it will be a challenge because of where it is placed.
Next possible location for a leak is the steering column input. The steering column is where your steering wheel is attached to. It rotates as you turn the steering wheel. Its input shaft has a seal that contains the high-pressure fluid as it rotates. Its seals wear out eventually from use, like any other parts of the vehicle. A dirty power steering fluid can also cause it to wear out. That is why keeping up with the vehicle’s scheduled maintenance and service can really extend the lives of all the moving car parts.
Another possible location for a leak are the output seals. The rack and pinion makes the rotational motion of the steering wheel into a linear motion of the rams. This linear motion of the rams rotates the tie-rod which then makes the vehicle’s wheels turn. The rams located on each side of the steering rack are susceptible to leakage since they have to seal a linear motion instead of a rotational one. When you spot a dripping fluid coming from the ends of the accordion boot, that means that you probably have a large leak inside it at the output seal.
How to Repair a Rack and Pinion Leak
A rack and pinion leak is usually expensive to fix since seals are very hard to service even by the professionals. Most of the leaks are fixed by replacing the whole rack and pinion assembly even if some of its parts are still working fine. This is done to make sure that the whole assembly functions properly.
There is an alternative fix, an additive called the power steering stop leak. While it can be a good solution, keep in mind that it is only a temporary fix that will only last for a while. The power steering stop leak product can help fix your rack and pinion’s seals quickly without removing it. It is designed to expand and soften seals and gaskets that puts an end to the rack and pinion leak. All you have to do is add the product to the power steering reservoir and it will immediately seal the leak. It does not repair any serious damage and it only stays in the system until the next scheduled power steering flush.
Can I drive with a leaking rack and pinion?
When you experience a rack and pinion leak, chances are, you will also lose the control of steering. Though it might not be very obvious when you drive on a straight road, but when you have to turn right or left, it is a different story. It will not be safe or easy, especially when you are going at speed. It will be dangerous for you and your vehicle. Rack and pinion leaking might not directly cause a crash, but losing the control of the steering can cause it especially if the driver does not have enough strength to maneuver a heavy steering. Also remember that a leaking power steering system can cause overheating of the steering rack or gearbox and it can lead to a more serious problem.
Rack and Pinion Leak Repair and Replacement Cost
When your rack and pinion leaks, you will have to have it repaired or replaced immediately since driving with a leaking rack and pinion is not advisable and can compromise your safety. It has been stated above that its repair or replacement might cost you much. You will have to make a decision and consider what is the best option for you on how to handle the said leak of your vehicle. Here is the estimated cost of a rack and pinion repair and replacement.
The repair cost of a rack and pinion leak is somewhat costly as it would take a lot of effort from the mechanic to access the location of the rack and pinion assembly. They will also have to replace all the O rings and the oil seals to repair it. When the repair is done, a front wheel alignment will be necessary that adds more numbers to the total bill. It will probably take them around three to five hours to get the job done making the labor costs add up as you wait. The estimated repair cost can be somewhere between $500 to $600.
The jobs done for this repair include the removing of the steering rack from your vehicle, replacing the O rings and the seals, checking the steering rack bushing, checking the tie rods, replacing the steering boot, putting the steering back on the vehicle, refilling the steering rack fluid, and the wheel alignment. If there are any other worn out or damaged parts in the steering rack, the mechanics will have to replace it.
Sometimes the only way to fix the leaking problem of the rack and pinion is by replacing the whole assembly. The total cost of replacing the whole assembly can start from $1400 and can go up to $1800. The price varies and it depends on the model and the make of your vehicle. The labor could cost from $180 to $360 and you also need to consider the fees and the taxes. A wheel alignment is also done after replacing the rack and pinion assembly.
It is always a best practice to take immediate actions when you notice the first signs or symptoms of a rack and pinion leak or any other problems that your vehicle might have. Driving with a leak is not recommended since it can be dangerous for you and your car. Your safety should always be a priority. There are things you can do to extend the life of your rack and pinion. One is by doing the scheduled preventive maintenance and service and not delaying it and second is by improving your driving habits. As you take good care of your car and understand what it tells you, your car will also take good care of you.