There are multitudes of noises that emanate from your vehicle; whether it's an annoying squeal or tell tale ticking heard; how do you separate the good from the bad to diagnose a serious problem arising? Most steering noises are either a persisting problem or an unavoidable factor, possibly even a factory default. There can always be a potential for caution when any part of your vehicle control system or components are at risk, but separating the danger from the mechanical upkeep may give us some piece of mind.
The sounds of steering maintenance issues:
1.) Deep growl: This can be a sign of something restricting the steering functions. Check steering fluid, belts, and replace any parts that need to be replaced.
2.) Mild groaning: This sound is surely going to be caused by low fluid, which may be due to a small leak in the system. Steering fluid does not get used up or evaporate so low fluid is indication of a steering fluid leak!
3.) Swishing noises: This sound is not as common but is an indication that there is a problem with the pump control. Defective pump control valve will be the culprit to this sound. Inspect the valve for cracks, nicks or burrs; replace if necessary.
4.) Belt squealing (chirping): This is either a loose belt or the belt has become glazed. Either adjust the belt or replace.
5.) Squeal when wheel turned all the way: Low fluid or possible power steering belt loose or failing.
6.) Rattling or ticking: This has a few different causes. Loose steering linkage, extra play in the steering linkage is another sign and should be inspected by a mechanic with due haste. Pressure hose coming into contact with another moving part. Simply move the hose, or using electrical ties fasten it away from the moving part. Improperly installed pump vanes; usually caused by home repair incorrectly or poor workmanship at a shop Inspect affected parts, replace if necessary.
The one thing about power steering that most people forget about is that even if you pulled the belt off, you'd still be able to steer. I drove a 98 Mustang for two years when the belt went on it. I drove it for another two years without ever replacing it, and honestly didn't need it. Sure it's nice to palm the wheel when backing in a parking spot, but as long as the car is moving than the steering moves pretty good.
Dangerous issues are more contained to things like when the wheel begins to jerk to either the left or right. Rack and pinion or other linkage failures are higher on the dangerous level than almost 90% of the annoying sounds your power steering will make. My current car a "Chrysler" is well known for making noises when steering, and it grind-ed on my nerves enough that I pulled the belt off. Severe shaking, large control loss, or super stiff steering is much more higher on the priority list of steering problems.
Keep the fluid topped up, every so often use a couple sprays of WD 40 on the belt will probably keep most noises to a minimum or if you're as impatient as me, than don't be afraid to pull the belt. Drive safe, and don't get turned all around over a few simple noises!