How to check the power steering fluid

Remember those times when vehicles had unassisted steering, and parking was quite the workout? Luckily, newer cars are different.

The power steering system allows a driver to steer their car without considerable effort. To maintain this high level of driving comfort, vehicle owners should regularly inspect their power steering system.

Read the following guide to learn everything you need to know about one of its main elements – the power steering fluid.

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The best way to check the power steering fluid

The latest cars have an electric power steering system, which is maintenance-free. However,  older vehicles have a hydraulic power-steering system and occasionally require work.

Locating the reservoir

Finding a power steering fluid reservoir is as simple as topping up the windshield washer fluid.

Once the engine bonnet is open, look for a cylindrical reservoir. Depending on the vehicle’s manufacturer, the cylindrical reservoir could have a black, red, yellow, or even green cap. Several manufacturers also use caps with steering-wheel icons or “Power Steering Fluid” inscriptions.

Evaluate the fluid level 

Regularly checking your car fluids is a part of owning any sort of vehicle. The correct engine oil or coolant level is critical to the engine’s longevity. And as you’re checking the engine oil, do yourself a favor and evaluate the fluid level in the power steering reservoir.

Power steering fluid levels can be checked in 2 ways. Some reservoir cylinders are made of translucent plastic, so you can evaluate the level without getting your hands dirty.

Alternatively, open the reservoir cap and use the dipstick to quickly evaluate the fluid level. Here’s how you do it.

Use a dipstick to locate the level of power steering fluid

When using a dipstick to check the power steering fluid level, remove the dipstick from the cylinder, wipe off any excess fluid, reinsert it, and then pull it out to inspect the markings.

Due to the properties of the power steering fluid, some vehicles have more detailed dipstick markings, showing hot and cold levels. Power steering fluid expands and becomes hot in higher temperatures, meaning its level will also change. If you’ve just finished your journey, always follow the “hot” reading. In all other situations, observe the “cold” reading.

If the recommended fluid level is below the mark, the system needs a refill. Just make sure there’s no leak under the vehicle before doing so.

The steering fluid color indicates the health of the system

If the power steering system is in good working order, the color of the fluid should be either red, pink, or clear. However, as dirt and impurities accumulate, the fluid will darken, signaling that it’s time to change it. 

A more significant repair bill could appear if the power steering fluid is yellow or milky, which indicates that it’s contaminated with water or air.

What kind of power steering fluid do I need?

Power steering fluid technician
Source: Artem Podrez / Pexels.com

Like many other vehicle fluids, power steering fluids aren’t all the same. Using the incorrect fluid type will impact how well the power steering system works and could harm the power steering pump.

Use fluids that meet the specifications in your owner’s manual

An important part of car maintenance is finding information about your vehicle in the owner’s manual. Following manufacturers’ recommendations eliminates all room for speculation.

If you don’t have the owner’s manual, you can find it online. Alternatively, the power steering fluid packaging usually contains information about specifications and compliance with the standards of different car manufacturers. 

Synthetic vs conventional steering fluid

There are 3 most popular power steering fluid types: ATF transmission fluid, synthetic-based fluid, and universal power steering fluid. Choosing the correct one is critical because each type has unique characteristics.

ATF transmission fluid

The power steering system and automatic transmission require hydraulic system fluids. While the fluid for power steering and automatic transmission has the same purpose, the ATF fluid for power steering systems could differ in terms of characteristics. 

Synthetic hydraulic fluid

Due to its superior properties, synthetic hydraulic fluid is recommended for most Japanese and European vehicles. Synthetic fluid improves pump lubrication and extends the life of the power steering system at low and high temperatures.

Mineral power steering fluid

The fact that mineral power steering fluid only offers a small working temperature range makes it a poor choice. The majority of mineral power steering fluids function flawlessly in the -40 °F to 194 °F (-40 °C to 90 °C) temperature range. However, mineral power steering fluid loses lubrication properties at lower and upper limit temperatures, increasing the risk of power steering system wear and overheating.

The power steering flush

The parts of a traditional hydraulic system – such as the o-ring, seals, and the power steering pump – may wear out naturally or become contaminated with pollutants.

These parts could become a reason for leaks and expensive repair bills, especially if you end up needing to change the power steering pump. Routinely checking the power steering system and flushing it is necessary to keep your vehicle in good condition.

It takes technical expertise to flush the power steering system

Changing light bulbs, checking the tire pressure, replacing the windshield wipers, and adding new power steering fluid are part of regular maintenance and don’t require much knowledge. However, flushing the power steering fluid can be messy and requires some technical expertise, especially if the draining plug isn’t easily accessible.

Why do air bubbles form in the power steering system?

It may be difficult to notice if your power steering system contains air bubbles. Fortunately, if you pay great attention, you can detect early warning signs.

Air bubbles can form in various ways. Most air pockets appear due to mistakes in car maintenance, a leak in the steering fluid pressure hoses, or a crack in the fluid reservoir.

How to change the power steering fluid

Power steering fluid vintage car
Source: Serjan Midili / Unsplash

Changing the power steering fluid takes patience, a few tools, and at least an hour of your time. If you want to change it on your own, take the following steps:

  1. Lift your vehicle using a jack, locate and remove the catch tray under the power steering system.
  2. Place a disposable pan right under the location of the low-pressure line to capture fluid as you flush it.
  3. Disconnect the low-pressure line to drain the power steering fluid.
  4. Fill the power steering reservoir and add around 1/2 of the quantity recommended by the manufacturer to remove air bubbles and push out the remaining fluid in the hoses.
  5. Turn the wheel back and forth until all the fluid has been removed. Reattach the low-pressure line as quickly as possible.
  6. Close the cap after filling the reservoir to the recommended level.
  7. Test drive and inspect the power steering fluid level.

Does the power steering fluid need changing?

Most vehicle owners change the fluid only when the power steering system develops specific faults. However, it helps to change it regularly.

Most carmakers recommend changing the power steering fluid every 2 years or 50,000 to 80,000 miles (80,000 to 130,000 km), whichever comes first.

Change vs refresh the power steering fluid

Although power steering fluid doesn’t burn away like oil, it can become contaminated. Debris and sludge may clog the power steering pump, thus changing the fluid regularly is a must.

Power steering fluid safety

You should follow the necessary safety precautions if you want to change the fluid in your power steering system on your own.

It’s recommended to wear gloves and eye protection. In addition, once the job is done, dispose the old power steering fluid at any recycling facility.

Why change the power steering fluid?

Power-steering components deteriorate over time and may crumble into tiny pieces, contaminating the fluid and the pump.

You may avoid damage to the pump and other power steering components by changing the power steering fluid and monitoring its level.

Knowing your car’s mileage will help you avoid issues in the power steering system

Steadily growing mileage found in car history report

High mileage affects all the components of a vehicle, increasing wear and tear. While this is a natural process, a lax approach to car maintenance may lead to a breakdown. When various components start to fail, many owners decide to sell their car for an attractive price. 

Regardless of a vehicle’s mileage and production year, be vigilant when searching for a second-hand car. Before making an impulsive purchase, use a carVertical history report to learn a vehicle’s real mileage and more. Doing this will help you make decisions based on solid evidence and avoid buying a lemon.

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FAQ

Can you just add power steering fluid?

Yes. It’s possible to add power steering fluid on your own. However, make sure you have the correct fluid.

How do I know if my power steering fluid is low?

The very first sign is difficulty turning the wheel. Also, keep your ear out for strange sounds while turning the steering wheel.

How do I know what type of power steering I have?

A hydraulic steering system has a pump and reservoir close to the engine. Vehicles with electric power steering have a module below the steering rack.

Do I need to service a vehicle with electric power steering?

Yes. However, you don’t need to maintain its power steering system.

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Article by

Aivaras Grigelevičius

Aivaras has been excited about cars since he was a little kid. Later, this passion for drivable objects (and everything that surrounds them) grew into work as an automotive journalist. Since then, Aivaras has written for several different magazines, covering anything with an accelerator pedal. He has a soft spot for cars with an Alfa Romeo badge.

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