Have you ever wondered what happens if your steering wheel is off center? It can be really annoying to drive a vehicle in this condition, how much more when the vehicle does not pull to either direction. This condition can be really confusing to the human mind. How can the vehicle keep going straight when the wheel is turned? But the culprit for a steering wheel turn, as well as the ensuing fix is believe it or not, is fairly simple once you realize what went wrong.
What causes a steering wheel to be off center?
There are various reasons for the steering wheel to go off-center. It could occur due to inferior engineering and design. It may be uncommon but it is not unheard of. Most people can’t detect this issue, but a vehicle can come out of the factory with the steering wheel tilted or off center.
It may occur when the suspension got bumped after hitting a pothole. Such quick and sharp jolts can displace the parts from their original factory-set placements. A similar issue will occur when spending too much time off road. When driving on unpaved roads for a long period of time, the numerous bumps and impacts will displace the steering wheel a bit off center.
Another factor for the steering wheel’s position is the thrust angle of the vehicle. The angle between the thrust line and the centerline is affected by the misalignment of the rear wheel or axle. The outcome is a crooked wheel.
Dialing Out the Turn
Considering that this is a problem with rear wheel angle, you need to adjust it first. The easiest way is to take your vehicle to an alignment shop and have them carry out a four-wheel alignment. If you are doing it yourself, you have to get the rear wheels pointed perfectly straight first. You should not do it unless you have got the right equipment for the task. Next is you will have to start the engine, turn the wheel a few times to ease the pressure from the power steering system. Be sure to lock the wheel in a 12-o’clock or straight-ahead position before you shut the vehicle down. Lastly, to get the wheels straight, you will have to adjust the front tie rods. At this point, the issue is basically fixed and your vehicle is once again pointed straight, however you are not quite done yet.
All steering wheels are connected to a steering column. At the end of a column is a gear called pinion, and the pinion meshes onto complementing teeth atop a flat bar called a rack. By turning the pinion, you are pushing the rack to the left of the right. The ends of the rack are connected to tie rods, which in turn attach to arms extending backward from the hub assembly. There is a threaded collar on the tie hubs, and turning it makes the tie rod longer or shorter, which in turn angles the wheel inward or outward. Naturally, this describes exclusively a rack and pinion system, however, most steering systems are practically identical where the steering linkage is concerned.
Surprisingly, a fairly common complaint following a front-wheel alignment is an off-center steering wheel. In the course of an alignment, the technician will adjust the front tie rods to whatever angle or degree needed to get rid of any pull on the steering wheel. During this process, he will end up changing the position of the wheels relative to the steering column just to make sure they stay pointed in the same direction as the rear tires. Although this gets rid of that sideways pull, it will also permanently cock your vehicle sidaways. This condition is called “dog-tracking” or “off-tracking”, and is dangerous as it changes your vehicle’s low and high-speed handling characteristics. It reduces fuel economy by exposing the broad side of your vehicle to the wind.
Setting the Toe
Although it might sound strange, most vehicles are not going down the road with all four wheels pointed straight forward. Many have a specific degree of front or rear “toe.” Toe-in signifies that the front of the wheels point inward, you can consider it as sort of cross-eyed. On the contrary, toe-out means they point a bit outward. Different automakers and drivers prefer different degrees of toe-in or toe-out for a given vehicle. Toe-in helps the axle become more stable on the highway and under braking as it causes the wheels to constantly try to turn toward each other. Toe-out makes the axle change direction more quickly, which in turn sacrifices stability. In the same sense, having a zero-toe or no toe setting does nothing for directional stability, but it is the best setting to achieve optimum fuel economy.
Setting toe is important for your vehicle’s performance and safety, and it is rather difficult to measure without the proper equipment. These sorts of alignment settings are best left to certified technicians, unless you really know how to do it.
Steering and Rear Toe
A lot of vehicles have a second bar running from side-to-side in the rear, and those that do not normally have some provision to turn the axle one direction or the other. Although it may sound a bit odd, the rear axle and its tie rods, like the front, are also responsible for steering your vehicle. There is a distinction though, it’s that the rear axle only turns the rear of the vehicle. You will need to turn the wheel in the same direction as the rear tires to make sure that the vehicle is pointed down the road, if your rear alignment settings—via the axle alignment or tie rods—are off. This alone can be the reason for your steering wheel to go off center as the vehicle will actually go down the road slightly sideways.
How do you diagnose a steering problem?
Steering problems typically gives you plenty of signs that something is wrong, unlike other mechanical problems, and the warning signs will not go away until the system fails or the problem is fixed.
According to experts, if you ignore these warning signs, it could cause an accident that may not be covered by your vehicle insurance. So if your steering is showing any of the following symptoms, take it to a mechanic for inspection and repair:
- Screeching noise every time you turn the wheel. This is often due to a worn or loose power steering belt. This is the belt that links the power steering pump to the engine. As mentioned before, the screeching noise could also be an indication of lower power steering fluid levels.
- Too much play in the steering wheel can also be an indication of a worn or faulty steering gear. You can be really certain that there is a problem with the steering gear, if you have to turn the steering wheel more than an inch before the wheels start to turn.
- Too much steering wheel vibration when you accelerate or turn a corner. This is typically caused by worn or faulty tie rods. If not resolved immediately, it will cause the whole vehicle to vibrate and eventually lead to loss of steering, so it should be addressed as soon as the problem is detected.
- Steering wheel slips when you try to turn or hold it in a turned position. This is another common symptom of a failing power steering. Other causes of power steering failure aside from leakage include worn steering rack mounts, worn steering belts, and faulty pumps.
- Turning the wheel becomes difficult. If you have power steering, like most vehicles these days, then this could mean that the system has a problem. If this is the case, you will have to check if the fluid reservoir is full. If it is not, fill it up. And the next time you check, if you see that it has gone down again, check under the vehicle for any signs of fluid leakage. Leaks can be in the hoses, steering rack, or the steering pump.
- Discolored or foaming power steering fluid. This means that the air or water has gotten into the system and the fluid is not lubricating the parts properly.
- Grinding noise every time you turn the steering wheel. This is yet another sign of a steering gear problem.
- Vehicle strays or pulls to one side. This is often a revealing sign of a problem with a worn steering gear. Premature steering gear wear can be due to lack of lubrication from power steering fluid, so you should keep an eye out for any power steering leaks when replacing a worn steering gear.
- Steering wheel is too loose. This is usually due to worn tie rods and steering racks.
- Steering wheel vibration. Although this is often a sign of wheel alignment problems, steering wheel vibration can also be a sign of a power steering problem. If the steering wheel pulsates or vibrates when the wheel is turned fully in one direction or another, it can be caused by a build-up of contaminants in the system. A power steering flush would normally solve this problem.
By keeping an eye out for any of the warning signs mentioned above and by having your vehicle regularly serviced and free from general wear and tear which is a requirement of most car insurance policies, you will have a much better chance of finding and fixing a steering problem before it results in accidents or pricey repairs.
Is a loose steering wheel dangerous?
Since it makes it difficult to determine the accurate position of the front wheels, a loose steering wheel can cause trouble for any driver. Driving with a non-responsive steering system or having little control over your wheels can be risky during rush hour when highways are full of vehicles. Driving becomes more dangerous when driving down a winding road where you need to be fully in control of your vehicle.
Steering wheels need to be both dependable and responsive. If you move your steering wheel more than one and a half inches and the tires remain in the same position, then this indicates you have a loose wheel on your hands. Most modern vehicles come with two different types of steering systems and these systems help the driver control the movement of the vehicle. Vehicles like cars, SUVs, and small trucks have what is known as rack and pinion steering while larger vehicles come with recirculating ball steering. These systems have parts that eventually fail or become worn over time and this can result in a loose steering wheel.
How do I center my steering wheel?
When rectifying a bent wheel, you have to work on three angles, such as caster, camber, and toe.
It refers to the forward or backward tilting of the top of the steering axis. It regulates the directional control of the steering.
In accordance with the measurement, the forward tilt is considered negative (-) and the backward tilt is positive (+).
It has control over the tire wear and the directional operation. The angle has something to do with the bending of the wheels from the upright position. It becomes a positive angle when the wheel’s incline at the top is outward. It will be negative when it angles inward.
It has to do with the extent of the angle the front or rear wheels are turned in or out. The toe angle is positive (+) if the wheels are turned in and it is negative (-) if they are turned out.
The two most common ways to mend steering wheel off center problem are:
While it is the easiest method, you still need to have some technical knowledge about the mechanism of a vehicle. You should also have the right tools or equipment as it involves removing the steering wheel from its case.
You can simply take it out and set up again in the right position. It is also possible to rectify the alignment without removing the wheel. However, the process involves more time and cost.
When there is excessive tilting, you should take the vehicle to a service facility or shop. The mechanics use a machine for the alignment that takes care of the thrust angle and all four wheels. They should also check the caster, camber, and toe angles to make certain that the steering wheel is in the right position.
Drivers should not disregard or delay servicing their steering wheel when it is off center, as it can put themselves and their passengers at risk and can also result in a costly repair job.