What Causes the Power Steering Warning Light to Come On?

A warning light on the dashboard, especially the power steering warning light, should not be ignored. When any warning light appears on the dashboard, it indicates that something requires attention or repair, and this light is no exception. 

One common reason for the power steering light coming on is a low power steering fluid level. However, as good as just topping up the fluid sounds, unfortunately, this can indicate a leak instead of just a low fluid level. Power steering fluid has nowhere to go and is not combusted or consumed in the car. The quality of the fluid degrades, which can cause other problems, but the level will not drop. I’ve explained this in detail alongside the different reasons the power steering light can come on. 

What Does the Steering Wheel Warning Light Mean?

The steering wheel light means the power-assisted steering is no longer operating. This light has a few variations depending on the type of steering assistance. 

  • Electronic power steering systems may only have a light that displays EPS on the dashboard instead of a steering wheel. 
  • Hydraulic-assisted steering will display a picture of a steering wheel when faulty. 

Essentially, they both mean the steering needs a fault rectifying, and the assisted steering will be inoperable until the fault is rectified.

Sometimes, you may find the light comes on, but the power steering is still operating as usual; when this happens, if the list of problems below doesn’t highlight the culprit, the car will need to be plugged into a diagnostic machine to read the stored fault code which will indicate what is causing the issue.

One final point is the power steering light will sometimes come on accompanied by other warning lights, the A.B.S., and the traction control light, which means these systems are also not operating. This is because they are all linked and function with information from the same electronic sensors.

Causes of the Power Steering Warning Light

These are the most common reasons why the power steering light has come on. 

Failed power steering pressure sensor

The power steering pressure sensor monitors the hydraulic pressure of the power steering fluid used to assist you in steering the vehicle. If the power steering pressure sensor fails, it can cause the power steering light to turn on. This is because the sensor cannot accurately communicate the pressure of the power steering fluid to the vehicle’s computer system, which then triggers the warning light. 

As the power steering pressure sensor begins to fail, you may notice that you need to exert more effort to turn the steering wheel before the light comes on. However, you will have total power steering loss once it fails completely. 

Electrical fault

Electronic power steering (EPS) systems are a type of power steering system that uses an electric motor instead of a hydraulic system to assist the driver in turning the wheels. While these systems are generally reliable, they can be prone to electrical problems, such as a blown fuse or a malfunctioning electric motor. 

One common issue with EPS systems is that the motors fail, causing the system to stop working completely. However, before this happens, you may notice that the power steering works sporadically or that the motor only provides power-assisted steering when turning in one direction. These are early warning signs that the motor is starting to fail.

Wheel alignment out

I wanted to mention the wheel alignment being out because this is a known cause for the power steering warning light to come on when the car has EPS. When the wheel alignment is severely out, one of the steering sensors can detect the steering wheel is off-center. This can fool the car into thinking the EPS is problematic when it is just a bad case of the wheels out of alignment. 

Correcting the wheel alignment is fast and inexpensive but requires wheel alignment gauges to check the toe, caster, and camber measurements. Most tire garages provide this service. Once the wheel alignment is correct, the power steering light may turn off after driving a few miles when the car learns everything is okay.

Power steering fluid leak

Hydraulic power steering fluid leaks are a real headache and one very common reason the power steering warning light appears. Not only can they cause the power steering warning light to appear, but they can also lead to power steering not working as well or even a complete loss of steering control. 

The main reason behind the power steering fluid leaks is a damaged seal at the steering rack’s end. Although it’s not as frequent, the power steering pump can also cause a leak. Unfortunately, fixing a steering rack can be a challenging and expensive process. Replacing the steering rack or the pump may be necessary in some instances. Although it might be costly, it’s an essential repair.

Low-power steering fluid

Because the power steering fluid does not burn or go through any combustion processes in the steering rack, finding the power steering fluid low is unusual. The reservoir has a low-level warning indicator in case it is low, but as it doesn’t wear out or get used, you would usually find a leak somewhere. 

There is the odd rare occasion you won’t find a leak, and the fluid is low because something as simple as the cap is missing.

Broken power steering belt

A hydraulic power steering system uses the auxiliary or serpentine belt, as it is known, to power the steering pump, the alternator, the mechanical fan, and A.C., if applicable. If your car’s belt is broken, the power steering system will stop working immediately. The serpentine belt can fail without any warning or symptoms. It is either present and the pulleys are spinning, or it’s broken, causing the power steering pulley to stop rotating.

Serpentine belts can fail due to wear and tear over time. They are usually made of rubber, which gradually becomes weak, cracks, and dries out, resulting in a breakage. The only warning sign that the belt is weak is a screech from the pulleys when you rev the engine because the belt is stretched and slipping on a pulley. However, you may not always hear this, as a weak belt doesn’t always stretch.

In addition, the alternator will not function properly, causing the battery to drain. You can quickly identify this issue by seeing the charging light illuminating on the dashboard, or the car may not start when you next turn the vehicle off. Fortunately, replacing the broken belt should fix this problem, and there shouldn’t be any further repairs required unless the broken belt has caused physical damage to anything else when it broke. 

Power steering pump failure

When the power steering pump fails, it can cause the warning light to come on because the pump provides hydraulic pressure to the power steering system. This pressure assists the driver in turning the steering wheel and helps to keep the vehicle stable and safe while driving.

There are several reasons why a power steering pump may fail. One common cause is a lack of power steering fluid, which can lead to increased friction and wear on the pump’s internal components. Other potential causes include damaged or worn-out bearings and seals, which can cause the pump to leak or lose its ability to function correctly.

Some common warning signs of power steering pump failure include difficulty turning the steering wheel, unusual noises or vibrations from the engine area, and fluid leaks.

EPS light on dashboard

What Does It Mean if the Power Steering Light Is Flashing?

When the power steering light is flashing, it usually indicates the fluid is low or leaking. The power steering will usually still work for now. The flashing indicates it will stop operating unless you sort out the issue. Topping up the fluid level, if that is the problem, will extinguish the warning indicator.

Because, as mentioned above, the power steering is a sealed system, it would be worth having a look under the vehicle for any evidence of leaks or just checking on the ground for any spillages after the car has been parked for a while. At least you can rule out there is no leak before thinking it was just low fluid.

Is It Safe to Drive With the Power Steering Warning Light On?

You can still drive if the power steering is still operational; just be warned it could stop working without further warnings. If the power steering stops working, driving will be very difficult; the steering wheel will be heavy when trying to turn. You may not be old enough to remember, but power-assisted steering is relatively modern; older vehicles and vintage cars do not have assisted steering.

The only downside with modern vehicles and failed P.A.S. is that the steering will be much harder to turn than a car designed not to have it in the first place. So, it can make driving a vehicle without power steering difficult and unsafe, especially if driving around town requires lots of steering input.

Final Thoughts

When the power steering light is illuminated, the power steering will no longer work until rectified. Sometimes, you can still drive like this; however, turning the steering wheel will be difficult if the power steering stops working completely; in some vehicles, it will be almost impossible to steer. The most common cause for the power steering light to come on is low fluid, usually caused by a leak. Topping up the fluid level will make the power steering work again; however, depending on the severity of the leak, this may be short-lived.

My name is Tom although my friends call me Tommy. Messing around with cars and bikes has always been a hobby of mine even from a young age. So I made it my day job 17 years ago. I am a fully qualified mechanic as you would expect. I've worked in all different areas of the motor trade, valeting, panel beating, engine repairs, I'm sure you get the idea. I enjoy sharing my wealth of knowledge and experience with others, which is the reason I spend a lot of time here writing for this website.

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