Power Steering Light On? Causes, Meaning, and How to Fix

Key Takeaways

  • The power steering warning light indicates an issue with the steering system that needs attention.
  • Causes include low fluid, leaks, pump failure, worn steering components, electrical faults.
  • Fixes involve topping up fluids, tightening belts, replacing parts, electrical repairs.
  • Resetting the light involves turning the steering wheel and cycling the ignition.
  • Driving with the light on risks damage and should be avoided if possible.
  • Seeking professional help for diagnosis and repair is recommended when uncertain.

That dreaded amber steering wheel symbol. It fills drivers with annoyance and anxiety in equal measure. But while illuminating the power steering warning light may be cause for concern, it need not lead to panic.

With the right knowledge and preparation, decoding this harbinger of hazard can actually steer you toward a smooth resolution.

So let’s explore the meaning behind the message, uncover potential triggers, and spotlight actionable fixes to reset the light and restore safe steering.

Power Steering 101

Before digging into warning light causes, it helps to understand what power steering is and does. This innovation transformed driving in the 1950s by slashing steering effort. How? Let’s break it down.

What is Power Steering?

Power steering uses external power to amplify the force applied to the steering wheel. This makes it drastically easier to turn the front wheels during parking maneuvers and directional changes.

Why Was It Invented?

It alleviated arm fatigue from wrestling large, heavy vehicles around winding city streets. This made driving less tiring while improving control.

How Does It Work?

There are a few different assistance setups, but most involve a hydraulic pump, fluid lines, valve, cylinder, and mechanical linkage. When the wheel turns, valves direct fluid to assist cylinder movement, multiplying torque.

Types of Systems

Hydraulic – Fluid pressurized by a belt-driven pump amplifies steering force. Used widely from 1950-2000s.

Electric – Electric motor applies assistive power as needed. Gaining popularity for efficiency.

Electro-Hydraulic – Hydraulic pump assisted by electric motor for precision. Used on many modern luxury vehicles.

Electro-Mechanical – Steering mechanism directly linked to electric motor. Found on economy vehicles seeking simplicity.

So in summary, power steering transforms driving using hydraulic, electric or hybrid approaches to reduce steering effort. Now let’s look at why the warning light appears.

Decoding the Power Steering Light

That pictogram of a steering wheel flashing on your dashboard is trying to get your attention. But what exactly does it signify? Here’s an overview of what powers the warning:

  • Illuminates when an issue is detected in the power steering system.
  • Adopts a yellow or red hue.
  • May display text like “Power Steering Fault”.
  • Warns the driver of decreased or disabled power assist.
  • Indicates inspection and potential repairs are needed.

While the light clearly signals a problem, pinpointing the exact cause takes some diagnosis. Let’s explore the most common issues.

Potential Causes

Many faults can trigger the power steering warning chime and light. Being aware of these can help drivers troubleshoot problems or relay accurate symptoms for repair. Here are some of the most frequent failures that illuminate the warning beacon:

Low Power Steering Fluid

Insufficient fluid is one of the simplest issues to check for. The hydraulic pressure needed to amplify steering can drop if levels fall too low due to:

  • Leaks causing slow fluid loss over time.
  • Failure to maintain fluid level per manufacturer guidelines.
  • Sudden major leak or rupture.

Low levels reduce system pressure, decreasing assist and turning the warning light on. Begin troubleshooting by inspecting fluid levels and watching for leaks.

Loose or Worn Drive Belt

On hydraulic systems, the power steering pump is driven by the accessory belt. If this belt becomes loose or deteriorated it can slip and fail to spin the pump effectively.

Listen for squealing on start-up and check belt tension. Replace damaged belts and tighten/adjust as needed to restore full pump function.

Failing Power Steering Pump

The hydraulic pump is the heart of traditional power steering. But this hardworking component faces many threats:

  • Overheating from constant use on curvy roads.
  • Seals drying out or wearing down.
  • Contaminated or improper fluid causing internal damage.
  • Age and high mileage taking a mechanical toll.

Catching early signs like noisy operation, play in the pulley, or leaks near the pump can allow for replacement before total failure.

Steering Rack/Gearbox Wear

The steering rack, gearbox and mechanical linkages also endure extensive loads. Excessive play or binding felt while turning can indicate mounting bolts are loose or internal components are worn.

Lubricating connections and inspecting for damage like cracks and leaks may be warranted. If excessive slop cannot be adjusted out, steering components may require professional repairs or replacement.

Electrical Faults

In newer electric and electro-hydraulic systems, problems in the wiring, sensors, controller, or motor can illuminate the warning lamp. Some example issues:

  • Power supply circuit shorts or interruptions.
  • Faulty torque or position sensor inputs.
  • Motor overheating from heavy use on winding roads.
  • Software bugs or calibration errors.

Pinpointing electrical gremlins often requires specific troubleshooting to isolate the malfunctioning components for repair or replacement.

Serpentine Belt Slippage

As mentioned for hydraulic systems, the drive belt powers key components like the power steering pump. But other engine-driven accessories can also be on this “serpentine” belt circuit.

If the alternator, AC compressor, or idler pulleys seize up it can overload the belt and cause it to slip. This cuts pump speed, resulting in steering hesitation and warning activation.

Inspect pulleys that are noisy, sticky or binding and replace defective parts. Adjust belt tension or replace if glazed or cracked.

This covers the most prevalent power steering failures that trigger the warning lamp. But it’s impossible to outline every potential issue in one article. If you’ve checked the common causes and the light persists, seeking professional diagnosis may be the smartest move.

Next let’s go over some symptoms that signal power steering problems during driving.

Signs of Power Steering Trouble

Warning lights only illuminate once an electrical fault is detected. But drivers may notice other signs of power steering degradation during normal operation:

  • Increased Effort to Turn Wheel – Like going back in time to non-assisted steering. Having to grip wheel tightly and pull hard to change direction indicates loss of power assist.
  • Stiff/Restricted Turning – Turning feels like trying to saw through a log. System should swap ends effortlessly when standing still.
  • Tight Cornering – Hearing squealing or binding noises when turning sharply points to mechanical issues or low fluid.
  • Wondering/Loose Feel – Vehicle wanders or is sensitive to road grooves. Steering wanders without deliberately turning wheel. Too little friction in gearbox.
  • Odd Noises – Clunks, whines or groans from steering column while parking or maneuvering slowly. Pump cavitation due to low fluid is common.
  • Vibration in Steering Wheel – If wheel shakes or pulses going straight, it could indicate pump problems or loose components.

Catching these early warning signs allows drivers to proactively address problems before catastropic failures occur. But identifying worn parts just from feel takes experience. Next we’ll cover definitive fixes.

Resetting the Power Steering Light

Once the underlying problem is resolved, the warning indicator on the dashboard can be extinguished. The specific reset procedure varies slightly by system:

For Hydraulic or Electro-Hydraulic:

  • Turn ignition on without starting engine.
  • Rotate steering wheel fully left to right multiple times.
  • Return wheel to center and turn ignition off.
  • Restart engine. Light should be off if issue was corrected.

For Electric or Electro-Mechanical:

  • Turn ignition on without starting.
  • Rotate wheel left to right multiple times.
  • Turn ignition off and wait 10 seconds.
  • Restart engine. Light should stay off if repaired.

Additional Steps if Needed:

  • Drive short distance and turn wheel more to allow system to recalibrate.
  • Use OBD2 scanner to clear any lingering error codes.
  • Perform ECU reset procedures via battery disconnect if light returns.

With the warning extinguished, you can breathe easy knowing steering function has been restored. But avoiding operation with the light on is strongly advised. Here’s why:

Is Driving with Power Steering Light On OK?

This is situational, but exercising caution is recommended, for a few reasons:

  • Greatly Increased Effort – Driving without power steering is fatiguing, especially for the unaware.
  • Difficulty Maneuvering – Performing tight turns and parking becomes far harder without assist. Higher risk of accidents.
  • Potential Damage – Forcing unsupported steering can worsen mechanical problems. Further repairs needed.
  • Safety Hazard – Unassisted steering makes controlling vehicle much more difficult. Liability risk.

Under certain circumstances, like driving short distances to a shop at low speeds, travel with the warning active can be risked. But it’s generally wise to correct the problem before normal operation.

When to Call for Professional Help

DIYers can handle many power steering repairs, but more complex or challenging fixes call for qualified technician expertise:

  • If cause of warning is unclear after thorough self-diagnosis.
  • Electrical faults in sensor circuits, controllers or motors.
  • Replacing worn racks, gears or hydraulic cylinders.
  • Pump pressure testing and flushing contaminated fluid systems.
  • Alignment needed after replacing steering components.
  • Uncomfortable making repairs under raised vehicles.

Seeking professional assistance can get your car back on the road safely and save you from costly mistakes. Know your limits!

FAQ – Power Steering Warning Light

Let’s wrap up with answers to some frequently asked questions on resolving this common warning:

What if power steering fluid is full but the light is on?

Topping off fluids is a good starting point. But if levels verify ok, focus next on drive belt condition, pump operation, steering tightness and electrical faults.

Can I just disconnect or cover the warning light?

Strongly advise against ignoring it. The light indicates a real issue needing repair for safe driving.

Is it safe to add fluid with engine running if power steering is low?

No! The system is under pressure when operating. Shut off the engine before inspecting and adding fluid.

Car makes noise when I turn steering wheel. Related to power steering?

Likely yes. Whines, groans and clunks from the wheel area typically indicate low fluid or pump problems.

How do I check if power steering pump is bad?

Listen for noisy operation, grinding or squealing. Check for play in the pulley shaft. Leaks around pump seal. Reduced steering assist.

Can I drive a short distance without power steering?

Exercise extreme caution. Drive slowly, allow extra distance for turns and avoid high speeds. Have it towed if possible.


The power steering warning light is like a helpful friend tapping you on the shoulder.

Don’t ignore it! With a calm, thoughtful approach, decoding and resolving its underlying cause is very achievable.

Don’t let fear of repairs steer you off course.

Arm yourself with knowledge, remain vigilant for early symptoms, and don’t hesitate to call for help when needed.

Stay safe and enjoy the drive!

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