Here’s Why Your Ball Joint Failed
You should not drive with a bad ball joint. Here’s why, and how to fix it.
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Over time, parts of your fancy new car will start to break down and cause problems. Some of them are easy, some are extremely difficult to do at home, and some are expensive. Ball joints fall right in the middle of that spectrum. They’re not super expensive but may tax the home mechanic’s skills and equipment.
The Drive’s editors have done their fair share of home ball joint repairs, and they’re here to tell you that, unless you are extremely confident in your skills and equipment, it’s best to pay someone the little bit of cash that it’ll take to do the repairs.
But for those still weighing their options, we’re here to answer the question, what does a ball joint do, exactly? Why do they break? And why is it best to entrust someone with the tools to fix it? In this post, we’ll dive into the details and help lay the foundation for your successful repair job. Stick with us, and you’ll have a solid understanding of ball joint basics in no time.
Let’s dive in.
[Ed. Note: This post was modified on 3/25/2021 with added information]
What Is a Ball Joint?
In cars, ball joints consist of a spherical bearing that moves inside a small socket. They are used to connect control arms to steering knuckles. When they start to fail, they can allow movement in directions that are not conducive to safe steering and handling.
What Causes Them To Wear Out?
The underside of your vehicle is exposed to everything. Dirt, grime, oil, salt, and anything else on the road can make its way into the ball joint and lead to a loss of lubrication. Ball joints can also rust and deteriorate, which will cause unintended movement and looseness.
Can I Drive With a Bad Ball Joint?
No. You should not drive with a bad ball joint. Continuing to drive can cause damage to other vehicle components and if the joint fails completely you could lose control of the vehicle, leading to a crash and injuries.
Here’s How To Check Your Ball Joints
Checking your car’s ball joints will require both a road test and a visual inspection, but the process is neither difficult nor expensive.
Estimated Time Needed: 1-2 Hours, Depending on vehicle and skill level
Skill Level: Beginner
Vehicle System: Suspension
- Don’t ignore the symptoms of a failing ball joint. It’s not only unsafe for you to drive with a bad one, it can be fatal for others if you lose control.
- Any time you’re working under your vehicle, it’s important to use jack stands instead of leaving the vehicle on the jack. Stands are designed to hold the vehicle’s weight for an extended period of time, where the jack is only meant to lift the vehicle.
- Wear protective safety glasses and mechanic gloves during this process, as there could be debris or other materials that can damage your skin or get into your eyes.
- It’s vital that you work on a flat surface, away from traffic. If you don’t have a safe spot to work, it’s best to find a professional or locate a quiet parking spot to be safe.
- Even with the vehicle secured on jack stands, don’t yank on the wheels too hard. You can still knock it off the stands, potentially hurting yourself and damaging the car in the process.
Everything You’ll Need To Check Your Ball Joints
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.
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.
Go For a Test Drive
- Take your car out for a drive. Be mindful of steering, turning, and handling feel. Are there any vibrations or noises that you didn’t notice on your normal commute?
- Pay attention to the steering wheel feel. Does the wheel pull to either side? How is steering accuracy? In other words, when you turn the steering wheel, does the car’s direction change as expected? Or is there more random movement than normal?
- Be sure to test the vehicle over bumps and varied road surfaces. Pay close attention to noises and other vibrations that seem out of the norm. Travel at both low speeds and near the speed limit to observe changes.
- Stop the vehicle and turn the steering wheel back and forth. Do you hear popping or grinding sounds as the wheels turn?
Perform a Visual Inspection
Each wheel has multiple ball joints, so it’s important to check each. Typically, you'll see an upper, lower, and lateral joint on both sides up front, but every car is different. Use your owner's manual to locate the joints on your car.
- Make sure the vehicle is off and in park, or neutral with the parking brake set.
- Jack up the front of the vehicle and set it on jack stands. Place chocks under the back wheels. (Read more in our article, How To Use Jack Stands).
- Observe your front tires for uneven wear. If the ball joints are failing, they can allow the wheels to move in ways that cause tires to develop wear in weird places. Are the tire treads worn evenly across? Do the tires’ shoulders show wear that could show uneven camber or toe?
- Grab the top and bottom of the wheel/tire. If you’re able to rock the wheel with either hand, or if you hear grinding or popping sounds, the ball joint may need to be replaced. There will typically be some play left and right due to the steering, but you should be able to tell if something is off/wrong.
- Next, remove the wheel. Take your screwdriver and place it between the lower control arm and steering knuckle, which are joined by the ball joint. If you’re able to observe movement or sounds during this process, it could indicate a bad ball joint.
Ball Joint Terms You Should Know
Learn more about ball joints with these related terms.
Control arms connect the front wheels to the car. One side of the control arm is connected to the wheel assembly and the other is connected to the car’s frame.
CV joints, or constant velocity joints, connect the transmission to the wheels. They are part of the driveshaft and are mostly seen on front-wheel drive vehicles, though they can show up on other drive types as well.
The suspension system in a vehicle is used to keep the ride comfortable while keeping the tires in constant contact with the road. The shocks, struts, and other components all work together to help the vehicle stay planted and safe over rough roads and while driving around corners and curves.
Pro Tips For Inspecting Your Ball Joints
- Don’t cheap out on ball joint repair. If you’re doing the work yourself, opt for the best part you find and afford.
- It’s best to replace ball joints as soon as you notice an issue. Beyond the dangers of driving with a bad one, you could end up burning through tires and other suspension components more quickly as a result of the failing joint.
- Check both front wheels while you have the car up on jack stands. It’s best to replace worn parts together to avoid accelerated wear on other components.
Even if you don’t notice the symptoms of a failing ball joint, check the rubber boots for wear or damage to catch problems before they develop.
FAQs About Ball Joints
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q. Okay, How Much Is This Going To Cost To Fix?
A. Replacing a ball joint won’t break the bank. The joints themselves cost less than $100 each, while the labor to install them can come in as low as $100. Large trucks and high-end vehicles may carry a higher replacement cost, but you’re still not looking at a major repair cost.
Q. Can I Replace a Ball Joint Myself?
A. You absolutely can, but the process can be taxing for beginners, especially since you need a press to get the ball joint into the receiver. If you’re dead set on doing the work yourself, grab a maintenance manual for your vehicle and study the construction, as well as the tools you’ll need to do the job. You can check out the video below for more instructions.
Q: Should I Replace All Ball Joints at the Same Time?
A: Plenty of mechanics will recommend that you replace both the upper and lower ball joints at the same time. They may also recommend checking related components at the same time, such as the stud hole in the steering knuckle.
Q: How Long Should Ball Joints Last?
A: A ball joint’s lifespan will depend heavily on the type of vehicle and the kinds of driving it’s subjected to. In general, you can look to get at least 70,000 miles out of a ball joint before it needs replacement.
Q: Do Some Ball Joints Last Longer Than Others?
A: Yes. Depending on the location of the joint, some may fail more quickly than others. This is especially true if the joint is load-bearing.
Q: Do Ball Joints Need To Be Pressed?
A: They do, but depending on your vehicle and the way it was constructed, you may be able to find ways around it. The Drive’s editors have experience with the workarounds and are here to tell you to have someone else do the work for you, if at all possible.
Q. Do I Need an Alignment After Replacing Ball Joints?
A. You won’t always need an alignment after replacing your ball joints, but suspension systems can vary so wildly from make to make that it’s worth at least having the alignment checked to be sure you’re not missing something.
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