I was driving my car the other day and out of nowhere, my steering wheel became stiff. It was really hard to turn the steering wheel. It felt like I was wrestling with an alligator. When this kind of thing happens to you for the first time, you immediately suspect a flat tire. So, I pulled over and check all of my tires which were fine. Then, I got back into the car and started to turn the wheel left and right, and I could really hear some grinding and whining noises while I struggled to turn it.
Now, if this has happened to you and you want to know what can cause heavy or stiff steering, read on as I go into the most common reasons. This type of issue doesn’t occur very often, but it can happen to anyone. Right after it happened to me, I wanted to educate myself as much as possible before getting ripped by some mechanic. Here is what can cause heavy or stiff steering:
1. Incorrect tire pressure
Incorrect tire pressure can cause heavy or stiff steering. This might seem like an obvious one, trust me, tire pressure is the most commonly overlooked issue. So, starting out with issue number one is incorrect tire pressure. Low tire pressure causes excessive resistance due to higher friction not allowing the steering to move freely. Typically, recommended tire pressure is between30 to 35 PSI. A good generic value is 32 PSI. However, this can vary between vehicles and tire types. The tire pressure specific to your vehicle can be found in your owner’s manual, or on the information tag on your door jamb.
2. Vehicle has been sitting for too long
A vehicle that has been sitting for too long can definitely have issues with the steering. If your vehicle has been sitting for an extended period of time, your steering components can become somewhat seized. That can be either from rust or, the lubrication has dried out. This can include anything from the steering column assembly, all the way down to your ball joints or tie rods.
You can apply lubricating oil on some of the bushings which are found on the steering column. You can also apply lubricating oil on splines and small universal joints. However, some of the universal joints may have seals to keep out dirt and this will prevent any oil from getting into the joint. Others may have grease fittings such as ball joints or tie rods. This means that they are serviceable components.
Always use a ball joint compatible grease when greasing these components and do not apply more than three pumps of grease. Pump the grease gun slowly and watch the boot slightly move. Then, stop and move on to the next joint. Too much grease can break the seals on these boots allowing the grease to escape and having foreign contaminants enter the joint causing a premature failure.
If you have no serviceable components, the stiffness may eventually disappear after some usage. You can use a grease needle on non-serviceable joints, but it’s not something I typically recommend. This can cause a premature failure because once that boot has a puncture from the needle, it can grow due to the rubber deterioration. This will allow grease to escape and dirt to enter.
3. Worn out belt that drives the power steering pump
A worn-out belt that drives the power steering pump can cause stiff or heavy steering. If you hear a squeaking noise after you turn the steering wheel, the issue could be the belt that is driving the power steering pump. In most cases, the belt is loose. A loose belt can be caused by it being worn and stretched which will require replacing.
Replacing the belt with a new one is probably the best option. The belt simply needs to be adjusted manually if your vehicle does have an adjustment. While you are at it, you may have a worn tensioner that is not maintaining sufficient pressure on the belt.
4. Low or contaminated power steering fluid
Low or contaminated power steering fluids can cause heavy or stiff steering. If your vehicle is equipped with power steering, your power steering fluid may be low or a replacement is required. When there is a fluid-related issue, this typically results in a whining power steering pump. But, with that being said, the pump can also be failing too.
The pump may whine when the vehicle is idling and usually worsens when operating the steering. Fluid level checking procedures can vary between vehicles. There are also maintenance intervals for fluid replacements as well. This information should be outlined in your vehicle’s owner’s manual. If your vehicle is equipped with a filter for the power steering fluid, it’s best if you change that as well.
5. Improper wheel alignment
Improper alignment can also cause stiff steering. I have an article that explains alignment in depth. But, here is a quick overview. The toe angle and caster angle can affect your steering operation. Different angles can cause the steering to fight against each other, or excessive positive cast or angle, while it improves straight line stability, will create harder steering operation.
6. Failing steering components
Failing components in the steering system can cause heavy or stiff steering. This could be something less costly to replace, such as a ball joint or tie road. As I mentioned before, these components have a rubber booth which is intended to keep lubrication in and dirt out of the joint. Of course, with time, these boots will eventually become worn out and will allow foreign contaminants to enter and thus prevent the steering from operating smoothly.
Depending on what your vehicle is equipped with, a more costly issue you can have is a failing power steering pump, failing steering rack, or steering box. A failing steering pump makes a whining sound which is pretty easy to distinguish. However, a steering rack or box can sometimes be a little harder to diagnose. You may notice excessive play when operating the steering. Perhaps even a grinding noise when turning.