The Drive’s Garage Guide To Power Steering Fluid
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Have you ever stopped and wondered why it’s so effortless to turn a 5,822-pound Cadillac Escalade using a single finger? It’s not the result of your semester stint as a high school athlete, it’s the result of the genius engineering behind power steering.
Power steering is an electric or hydraulic system that provides steering assistance at low speeds, with decreasing aid as speeds increase for better stability. It’s what allows you to quickly and painlessly maneuver around a parking lot, take easy corners in town, whip the wheel during parallel parking, and keep from flying off a cliff when driving Utah’s 80 mph speed limits.
On vehicles with hydraulic power steering, inspecting and changing power steering fluid is a key checkbox in a car’s regularly scheduled maintenance. If you’re unsure what that means or nervous about tackling the task yourself, no worries. The Drive has put together a handy guide to explain how to examine your system, how to check your fluid, how to flush your fluid, and how to stay safe throughout. Let’s go!
What Is Power Steering?
Power steering is an automotive steering system that utilizes electric or hydraulic power to ease the effort required to turn a steering wheel. Traditional hydraulic systems have been used for decades, but electric systems have gained popularity in recent years.
A hydraulic system is directly linked to the steering rack and is powered by an engine belt-driven pump that pressurizes power steering fluid. Hydraulic systems are praised for their lively and direct steering feel but criticized for their maintenance, bulk, and energy consumption.
Electric systems save size, weight, and complexity by eliminating the need for a pump, a pulley, a belt, hoses, or power steering fluid. Instead, an electric motor attached to the steering rack or steering column provides the steering boost. Thanks to speed, torque, and motion sensors, electric power steering systems instantly and automatically make adjustments. However, electric systems are often criticized for inconsistent steering ratios and a numb or disconnected steering feel.
An electrohydraulic system combines properties from electric and hydraulic systems. Rather than using a pump driven by the engine, these systems often use electric pumps to pressurize the hydraulic fluid. Certain electrohydraulic systems can also shut the electric pump off when not in use to conserve energy. Gunther Werks’ reimagined 911 uses an electrohydraulic system.
What Is Power Steering Fluid, and What Color Is it?
Power steering fluid is the liquid that runs through a hydraulic power steering system and is the key ingredient in its functionality. Power steering fluid is typically clear, amber, or pinkish. Some manufacturers call for the use of automatic transmission fluid, which is usually red.
The Drive’s Garage Guide To Flushing Steering Fluid
Time to get dirty! If you check the power steering fluid and see a dark murky color, it likely needs to be changed.
Power Steering Replacement Basics
Estimated Time Needed: About an hour
Skill Level: Beginner
Vehicle System: Steering
Power Steering Fluid Safety
Working on your car can be dangerous and messy, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to ensure you don’t die, get maimed, or lose a finger.
Everything You’ll Need To Check and Change Power Steering Fluid
We’re not psychic, nor are we snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to get the job done.
- Needle nose pliers
- Locking pliers
- Drain pans
- Socket set (for select hose clamps)
- Flathead screwdriver (for select hose clamps)
- Something to plug a hose
- Rags or towels
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.
How To Check Power Steering Fluid
This won’t take long.
- Pop the hood and locate the power steering fluid reservoir. Some reservoirs are right above or next to the power steering pump while systems feature “remote reservoirs” located in a different position in the engine bay.
- Clean off the reservoir cap and remove it.
- Most caps will have small dipsticks with indicators of appropriate levels. If the dipstick is wet at the appropriate level, you’re good to go.
- If the levels are low, add more fluid.
- If the fluid is dark, brownish, or blackish, you likely need to flush and replace it.
How To Flush and Change Power Steering Fluid
Find a level, well-lit area, grab your manufacturer-recommended fluid, and let’s get into it.
- If necessary for access underneath the vehicle, jack up the front of the car and insert jack stands underneath.
- Locate the return line for the power steering fluid. The power steering system goes in a loop, and the return line is the soft hose that connects the hard line to the reservoir.
- Remove the hose clamp near the hard line and release the hose. Some fluid will likely spill out, so have a rag or catch ready.
- Plug the hose with a bolt or old spark plug or kink it and clamp it to prevent leakage. Place the hose above the height of the reservoir.
- Attach your spare hose to the hard line and direct the other end of the hose into a container or drain pan. Additionally, remove the reservoir cap.
- From here, there are two options.
- Manually pump the fluid out. Turn the ignition to accessories to release the wheel and turn the wheel lock to lock until the liquid has been pumped out. To clear the lines, pour new fluid into the reservoir. Turn the wheel again to pump the new fluid through the system and help clean out any remaining dirt or contaminants. To avoid introducing air into the system, continue to pump new fluid through the system. Once the exiting fluid turns from old and cruddy to new and clear, the system is flushed.
- This second method involves a risk of running the power steering pump while dry and introducing air into the system. We recommend doing it manually, but you can turn the engine on for just a second or two. The pump should theoretically pump the system dry. There is a slight chance this could potentially damage the pump.
- Continuing from Step 6’s part A, turn the vehicle off and remove the key.
- Remove the spare hose from the hard line, and reconnect the return line hose.
- Find the manufacturer-specified capacity and fill the reservoir.
- Get back in the car and turn the wheel back and forth to fill the system with fluid. This should deplete some of the fluid in the reservoir.
- Repeat steps 9 and 10 until the system is full
- Replace the reservoir cap.
Well, done, you’re finished!
How To Quickly Refresh Power Steering Fluid
Although flushing the system is the most complete way to change power steering fluid, there is a much less involved method to remove most of the old fluid and replace it with new fluid. We’ll tell you how:
- Pop the hood and remove the cap on the power steering fluid reservoir.
- Using a turkey baster, a manual vacuum pump, or a siphon pump, remove the liquid from the reservoir and store it in an old container or drip pan.
- Turn the key to accessories and turn the steering wheel lock to lock. This should push more fluid into the reservoir as it moves through the system.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the reservoir stays empty.
- Find the manufacturer-specified capacity and fill the reservoir.
- Turn the steering wheel lock to lock to push the new fluid through the system.
- Repeat steps 5 and 6 until the fluid reservoir level is correct.
Get Help With How To Check Power Steering Fluid From a Mechanic On JustAnswer
The Drive recognizes that while our How-To guides are detailed and easily followed, a rusty bolt, an engine component not in the correct position, or oil leaking everywhere can derail a project. That’s why we’ve partnered with JustAnswer, which connects you to certified mechanics around the globe, to get you through even the toughest jobs.
So if you have a question or are stuck, click here and talk to a mechanic near you.
Power Steering FAQs
You’ve got questions, The Drive’s informational team has answers!
How Often Do You Need To Check Power Steering Fluid?
Owners can assure the health and safety of their vehicles by checking the power steering fluid roughly once a month. Replace it roughly every 30,000-60,000 miles, or about every 3-5 years.
Can I Add Power Steering Fluid?
Yes! Locate the power steering fluid reservoir, take off the cap, and add fluid to the manufacturer-specified level.
How Long Can You Drive Without Power Steering Fluid?
We do not advise driving without power steering fluid.
How Long Does Power Steering Fluid Last?
Replace it when you notice it’s old and dirty, or roughly every 30,000-60,000 miles.
How Much Does It Cost To Flush Your Power Steering Fluid?
A quart of power steering fluid typically costs roughly $5-20, depending on the type.
What’s the Difference Between Power Steering Fluid and Automatic Transmission Fluid?
Some power steering systems call for a specific type of power steering fluid, while others call for automatic transmission fluid. The differences between the two typically come down to chemical makeups, the use of additives, and the colors. Automatic transmission fluid is red, and power steering fluid is typically clear, amber, or light pink. There might be some exceptions to this.