Steering Wheel Hard to Turn (Causes & Solution)

Is your steering wheel hard to turn? Are you noticing some stiffness and you’re wondering what could be the cause, how to fix it, and prevent it from happening again?

A vehicle’s steering system plays a very important role, in the car’s control mechanism. It gives the car driver control over the direction, in which they’re driving.

If your steering system is not functional, it will cause you to have all types of issues. More importantly, your vehicle will be unsafe for you and everyone else on the road.

This article will explain the major reasons that your steering wheel can be hard to turn, how this issue can be fixed, and how you can prevent the problem from happening.

Let’s get started!

The Steering Wheel Hard to Turn: Here are the Top Reasons

The most common causes of a stiff steering wheel, are some components’ normal wear and tear, and skipping scheduled servicing.

Therefore, the best way to prevent this is to ensure regular maintenance. You may find yourself having a stuck steering wheel while driving on a very busy road, and there will be no immediate solution.

Below are some reasons, why the steering wheel may be getting harder to turn.

1. Fluid Leakage or Low Power Steering Fluid 

The power steering system needs adequate power steering fluid to function. Your steering system requires an adequate quantity of a specific fluid, called the power steering fluid, to function properly. Power is transmitted to the vehicle’s steering mechanism, from your steering wheel through this fluid, for your wheels to turn. The fluid also acts as a lubricant, to protect the system’s moving components from corrosion and overheating.

If there is insufficient steering fluid in a system, the steering wheel will be difficult to turn. This commonly happens, when fluid leaks from a fissure in the hose area under pressure, if this pressurized area becomes loose.

The fluid will leak through the crack, reducing pressure in your system. Your power steering pump will thus, have to work much harder to compensate for the reduction in pressure. Due to this, the vehicle’s steering wheel won’t get enough fluid to let it turn without resistance, and more force will need to be exerted than usual.

A temporary fix for the issue would be to refill the fluid in your power steering tank. This will make the vehicle temporarily drive-able, but the fluid leak must eventually be addressed. Otherwise, the power steering pump will eventually fail, and replacing this pump can be expensive.

2. Damaged Steering Rack

A vehicle’s steering rack consists of the rack and the pinion. Your steering rack is attached to your steering wheel, by a series of shafts and U-joints. Driving your car for a long period will eventually make your steering rack wear out and damage.

You’ll know this is the case if the steering wheel feels tight or stiff only after you start your car. As your engine continues running and starts to warm up, there’ll be an increase in temperature in your steering rack, which will make the lubricant circulate better.

Therefore, as your car continues running, your steering wheel becomes less tight. However, you will still need to replace your steering rack, before the issue escalates.

The cost of replacing the steering rack is between $650 and $1,200, with the parts costing about $350 to $830, and the labor costing about $280 to $360. The cost of parts varies, depending on your vehicle’s particular model and make.

Also Read: Transmission Fluid Leak 

3. Bad Serpentine Belt

A broken or cracked serpentine belt is another common reason your steering wheel is difficult to turn. This belt plays many important roles in the engine, which include operating the power steering pump. Over time, the belt gets worn with age because it’s always functioning when you’re driving the vehicle.

As the belt frays, becomes loose, and cracks, there will be signs of stiffness in your steering wheel. If you delay the replacement or repair, the belt will break, and your steering wheel will go kaput.

If you have a broken or loose serpentine belt, the other components relying on the belt will stop working, like the alternator, water pump, and AC compressor. A broken belt can also damage the pulley, making the car overheat, which is very detrimental to the vehicle.

Replacing the serpentine belt will have an average cost ranging from $110 to $130, with the parts typically costing about $60, while the labor cost about $50 to $70.

4. Faulty Power Steering Pump

Two major parts make up a power steering system: the pinion-and-rack unit and the power steering pump. The power steering pump transfers the power steering fluid, to the pinion and rack unit. When the steering wheel is turned, the system’s control valve lets fluid flow to the pinion, letting you turn the steering wheel without much physical exertion.

The pinion moves against your steering rack as the steering wheel turns, which guides the wheels toward the direction you’re navigating.

Also, the steering pump plays a major role in maintaining an optimum pressure level, in the steering system to ensure that your steering wheel turns smoothly, without exerting much force. If the steering pump malfunctions, the steering system’s “power” part will also fail, and your steering wheel will be difficult to turn.

Although a faulty pump won’t completely lock the steering wheel, it will need a lot more force, which could be risky when you have to turn sharply in a critical situation.

The power steering pump can last for over a thousand miles, even though it can fail prematurely sometimes. Before it fails, a malfunctioning steering pump often makes a groaning or whining noise, especially when navigating a sharp bend. Since a belt drives the pump, as the RPMs of the engine increase, the sound will get louder and be more excessive.

With that said, the pump could fail, if there are damaged or loose connectors to your steering pump. So, before replacing the steering pump immediately, check whether the pump is the problem. Replacing a steering pump will cost between $100 and $200 if you’re replacing it yourself and about $500 if you’re getting a professional.

5. The Power Steering Fluid Is Old and Thick

Like other car fluids, the power steering fluid could thicken over time. Therefore, you must follow the manufacturer’s recommendation when changing the steering fluid, or eventually, it will become very thick and be unable to lubricate the steering system.

Your steering will become tight and harder to turn when driving at a low speed. If you do a quick inspection of the fluid and it is thick and dark, the fluid will need to be flushed and changed without delay.

What Should Be Done When My Steering Becomes Hard to Turn?

1. Examine the Air Pressure of Your Car Tires.

If the steering wheel is difficult to turn when driving at a low speed, you should first check all the tires’ air pressures. All the car’s tires, should stay at the manufacturer’s recommended Pound per Square Inch (PSI), and be filled with equal amounts of air, so that an improper amount of air will not be in the tires, resulting in stiff steering.

Steering Wheel Hard to Turn

2. Inspect the Front-End Parts

Inspect the parts at the front end, like ball joints for lubrication and wear, and the tie rod ends. If the tie rod ends or ball joints have too much wear, it is very dangerous, though your steering wheel will also turn. You need to inspect these components, to ensure that the front-end alignment of your car is proper.

A warning indication would be irregular wear on the front tire, and the car pulling to a side when you’re driving it. Also, you may have stiff steering, especially when turning, if all your car’s wheels aren’t precisely aligned.

3. Inspect Power Steering Condition and its Fluid Level.

If your steering wheel is difficult to turn when driving at a low speed, it could be because of issues related to your power steering, and the level of steering fluid. Therefore, in this case, you have to inspect both the fluid level and the condition of the power steering. (Note: The steering fluid can be easily found in the cylindrical reservoir near the power-steering belt, which is labeled clearly. This cylinder could be a metal or plastic cylinder.)

The inadequate fluid causes the steering to be stiff and hard. Thus, you must ensure that the color of the fluid is dark red, and the fluid stays at a precise full level. If you notice that the color of the fluid is old and dark, it is time for the fluid to be replaced.

4. Inspect the Pulley on the Power Steering Unit.

If it is difficult to turn the steering wheel, you need to inspect the pulley in your power steering unit. Ensure your car’s engine is off, before checking the pulley to ensure safety. Usually, proper tension is not more than three-quarters of play, or one inch. To check the tension, simply press your thumb on your pulley belt. Ensure that the belt condition is adequate and that there are no frayed edges or cracks.

Moreover, you should also visually inspect your car engine as it is running, to ensure that your pulley belt runs well. You could face stiff steering if you notice your pulley belt slipping.

5. Inspect the Power Steering Unit.

The next step is to inspect your power steering unit. If there is any leak from the connecting pressure hoses, there will be a decrease in pressure, resulting in hard steering. Thus, you should visually inspect for any fluid leak.

Also Read: Power Steering Pump Replacement Cost

Frequently Asked Questions – Steering Wheel Hard to Turn

What does it mean when the steering wheel is hard to turn?

A very common reason the steering wheel can be stiff is the low level of power steering fluid in the system. This often occurs when fluid leaks into your system, from your pressurized hose area. The fluid leak is mostly a result of a loose or cracked hose.

What can cause heavy or difficult steering?

Heavy steering is called heavy steering when your vehicle’s steering wheel, becomes stiff and hard to turn. Many factors, such as insufficient fluid oil, tire alignment, and tire pressure, could lead to this.

What does a car sound like when it needs power steering fluid?

A whining or squealing noise whenever your wheels turn means a high chance your power steering fluid has an insufficient amount. This is because the power steering system uses a pump to make the fluid flow, so the steering can be smooth.

Can I drive without steering fluid?

If you drive your vehicle for an extended period without steering fluid, your pump can be damaged. Although nothing physically prevents you, from going ahead to drive your vehicle with a leaking steering fluid, your pump will run dry when there is a drop in the fluid level. This will cause increased heat and friction, and may quickly result in damage that will be very expensive to fix.

How do you diagnose power steering problems?

Inspect the level of the steering fluid. If there is insufficient fluid, it will be difficult to turn the steering.
Check the lines and hoses near your power steering pump, to detect any possible leaks.
Use a jack to lift your car’s front end.
Check if any belt is loose.

Can low oil affect power steering?

If you’re referring to the engine oil, insufficient engine oil may make your engine stop, leading to a loss of power steering.

Conclusion – Steering Wheel Hard to Turn

You want to be able to easily turn your steering wheel, whenever you want to do so. Immediately it becomes hard to turn; you should address the issue.

Although you can muscle past the problem for some time, when there’s a disaster, and you have to run, you will need to have the ability to do so without delay.

Furthermore, the more time you spend delaying, the higher the probability that more parts in your vehicle’s system will break. It does not need to be difficult to fix your car’s steering system. You have to know the right place to look!

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