What is a Rack and Pinion?
A rack and pinion assembly helps transfer rotational force from the steering wheel to the front wheels. A steering shaft is attached to the steering column. The steering shaft has a pinion attached which attaches to a linear gear with teeth called the rack. When the steering wheel is rotated, the gear on the shaft turns onto the rack and allows it to grip onto the teeth of the rack, which then turns the wheels. Tie Rods, which help push and pull the wheels when turning, are attached to the Steering Rack at each end.
These days, all cars have either hydraulic or electric power steering. The technology assists rack and pinion operation, thereby reducing the amount of effort required by the driver to turn the front wheels. In a hydraulic system, a power steering pump pressurizes hydraulic fluid to create power assist. On the other hand, if the system is electric, the rack and pinion are driven by an electric motor to provide steering assist.
How does it break?
There are several reasons why the rack and pinion fail. The first reason is that if there are tears and punctures on the seals attached to the steering rack, the system will not produce the same fluid pressure which will consequently cause fluid leaks, loose steering and/or hard steering. Seals can be replaced, depending on the make and model. A second reason is a lack of maintenance. Depending on the manufacture, intervals of fluid exchange or flushes are highly recommended. Fluids can become contaminated, making it difficult for the fluid to transfer through hoses, which in turn causes the system to work harder, in a similar manner to clogged arteries in our bodies. When the fluid doesn’t flow properly, the system will eventually fail. When contamination occurs, a replacement of the rack, pinion, and even the power steering pump may be needed. A third reason is a failure of the power steering pump. Lastly, normal wear and tear can cause the rack and pinion to break.
How do I know it needs to be replaced?
Several signs will occur when the steering rack needs to be replaced. One sign is difficulty with steering at lower speeds. When driving on the highway, loose steering and shaking on the steering wheel are signs of a bad rack. Badly worn tires are another sign. Lastly, a noticeable fluid leak (power steering fluid) is also a sign of replacement.
How much does it cost and why?
Replacement of a steering rack can cost at least several hundred dollars and as much as over a thousand of dollars. The main reason for this is that often, you must replace multiple parts of the steering rack and pinion component because individual parts cannot be replaced. For example, the power steering fluid flush is needed along with a 4-wheel alignment to prevent wear and to fix alignment. Additionally, labor costs are very high as labor is intense and can take as long as 5 hours with 2 technicians. Generally, the technician will recommend original manufactured part replacements to ensure a good fit, better parts and labor warranty. When finance is a key element of concern, an aftermarket rack will get the job done with a limited warranty option.
What happens if I don’t replace it?
If a bad rack and pinion isn’t replaced, your steering will be compromised, which is extremely dangerous.
Is it different on any car?
Nearly all modern vehicles have rack and pinion steering. But on older cars and newer heavy-duty trucks, a steering box is used instead, which is a recirculating ball system, also known as a gear box.
Can I replace them by myself, or is there something else I can replace it with?
It is highly recommended to have a professional technician or mechanic perform the replacement if you don’t have mechanical experience or have never replaced a rack and pinion in the past. Unfortunately, there are not any other alternative repairs for a bad rack and pinion. Proper tools, skills and knowledge are necessary.
What is a way to make it cost less?
The only safe and cheap option would be to use an aftermarket rack and pinion. If an aftermarket rack and pinion is not within your budget, a used or salvaged yard part may suffice, but safety can be a big concern.