Here are a few symptoms or warning signs that alert you to a potential problem brewing with your steering rack.
1. Very tight steering wheel
Today's rack and pinion steering systems are supported by a power steering unit that utilizes hydraulic pressure to allow easy and quick steering wheel handling. When the steering wheel feels tight or is harder to turn than usual, it's typically due to the steering rack or gearbox building up more heat or a loss of hydraulic pressure from the power steering unit. Either way, it's a problem that won't go away and should be inspected as soon as possible by an ASE certified mechanic. Sometimes it's as simple as adding more power steering fluid or a minor adjustment that can solve this problem and extend the lifespan of your steering rack.
2. Leaking power steering fluid
As noted above, sometimes tight steering is indicated by low power steering fluid. However, since the steering box is hydraulically powered, the fluid levels won't decrease unless there is a leak somewhere in the system. Once you start to leak power steering fluid it means there is a loose fitting, broken gasket, or other mechanical issue causing the leak that must be fixed as soon as possible. Failure to do so will cause the steering rack or gearbox to develop excess heat, potentially breaking gears and other components that could lead to a crash.
Leaking steering fluid can be distinguished from other fluids by its smell (typically a burning oil smell). It's also typically red or pink in color and will be dripping from the back part of your motor. If you discover this type of fluid under your car, contact a mechanic as soon as possible to inspect the leak and repair it before the leak causes additional damage.
3. Burning oil smell
A less common warning sign of a damaged steering rack or gearbox is the smell of burning oil. Since power steering fluid itself smells like burnt oil, the strong aroma of burnt oil will be present when the steering gearbox is hot. If this occurs, stop your vehicle immediately, find a safe place to park your vehicle and call a mechanic as soon as possible. Continued driving when a steering gearbox is overheating may result in fire and catastrophic damage.