As we continue our Living The Dream Auto Care educational series, we figured that there will be many parts of a vehicle that you hear about only because something went wrong. However, there are two components you often learn about before disaster strikes – at your annual state inspection. And fortunately so.
If you’ve ever been rejected for a “sticker” because you have a loose tie rod or ball joint, consider yourself lucky. You’ll soon see that finding out about either of these suspension parts after it goes bad can lead to unpleasant consequences.
Ball joints are the part of the vehicle suspension system that connect the steering knuckle (or wheel hub) to the control arm. They work similarly to the ball-and-socket design of the human hip joint. A ball joint is essentially a flexible ball-and-socket that allows the suspension to move and, at the same time, the wheels to steer. Additionally, ball joints also help support the weight of the vehicle.
Bad ball joints are OK – NOT! That’s why a vehicle will often pass a state inspection with brakes that are completely shot, but not with a loose ball joint.
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to determine, just by driving the car, whether your ball joints are going, going, gone. You frequently won’t feel anything before it’s too late – but your mechanic can tell by testing them. They (or preferably us) will put the vehicle on a lift and grab each tire at 9 and 3 o’clock, and try to push and pull it. They’ll also do the same thing at 12 and 6 o’clock. If the ball joint is good, there should be absolutely no back-and-forth movement in the wheel. If it moves at all, the ball joint is bad and should be replaced.
You can, however, tell if a problem is brewing if you hear a clunking noise when driving over uneven roads, or there is uneven tire wear. If you’re the person who turns the radio up louder when you hear noises in the car, the best indication of a defective ball joint is when the tire folds underneath the car while driving. Hope your favorite song is playing…
Tie rods are an integral part of your vehicle’s steering, as it ties the steering rack to the steering arm – which is attached to the wheel. To keep it simple, the steering rack will move when you turn the steering wheel, and the tie rods are the connection to the wheels of the vehicle. Without tie rods, your steering system will fail.
Like most automotive parts, tie rods don’t simply go bad at a specified time; they go bad because of normal wear and tear. Tie rods can last for years, but can be affected by certain driving conditions, such as potholes and other poor road conditions. Because of this, they should be inspected regularly.
There can be some warning signs for when tie rods are going bad. If your vehicle pulls to one side while driving or braking, or a knocking sound coming from the front end when turning at low speed, you probably wanna get this checked out. Of course, abnormal tire wear on the inside or outside of the tire can be an indication, as well.
The consequences of a defective tie rod is no better than that of a bad ball joint. If it goes while driving, you probably WILL lose control of the steering of the vehicle. Fortunately, this often happens during low speed turns (such as in parking lots), but it’s not advisable to test the exhilaration of a broken tie rod in two-way traffic at any speed.
If the risks of ignoring these issues scare you…good! Some maintenance and repair items on a vehicle can wait – often for quite a while. Ball joints and tie rods do not fall into this list. When you hear that there is a problem with either or both, get it fixed yesterday. And by the way, when you do, the vehicle needs to be aligned afterwards to ensure that the tires don’t get worn out, as each suspension component affects the alignment of the wheels.
It’s important to stress the necessity of the proper operation of these items. Now, if the red ‘R’ from the inspection station for a safety violation didn’t get your attention, seeing someone on the side of the road with the music blaring and three wheels on the car will.