In a hydraulic power steering system, which is what the vast majority of cars on the road today use, fluid must be pumped through a series of lines and hoses to the steering rack. That is done by the power steering pump – without it, there’s no way to move fluid, or provide power steering assist.
The power steering pump is located on the side of the engine near the power steering fluid reservoir. It is turned by the serpentine belt that also supplies power to other engine accessories, including the alternator, A/C compressor and more.
Your car’s power steering pump operates at all times if the engine is running, but it is put under an additional load when you turn the steering wheel (when it forces high-pressure fluid into the lines to the rack in order to provide the steering assist you need). There is no real lifespan for these pumps and in theory, yours could last the life of the car with the right maintenance. With that being said, they generally don’t last longer than 100,000 miles and pump failures at lower mileage aren’t uncommon.
Other problems that can be confused with power steering pump failure include a stretched, worn or broken serpentine belt, low power steering fluid and damaged/seized pulley bearings (the pulley that operates the power steering pump).
If the pump fails, your entire power steering system will be disabled. This isn’t as dire as it might sound, as long as you’re prepared for it. You will still be able to steer the car. It will just require more effort to turn the wheel, particularly at lower speeds. Of course, that’s not something you really want to experience, particularly if the pump fails and catches you unaware. Therefore, it makes sense to know a few signs and symptoms to watch for that might indicate your pump is on the verge of failing. These include the following:
- Whining from the pump when turning the steering wheel (it may be more pronounced at lower speeds or higher speeds)
- Knocking from the pump
- Grinding or groaning from the pump
- A noticeable lack of power steering assist when turning the steering wheel
If any of these symptoms are present, it’s important to have your pump checked and replaced if necessary. A certified mechanic can help inspect your power steering system, and replace or repair the power steering pump pulley if needed.