The front suspension of your vehicle is a pretty remarkable system. A complex assembly of control links and wheel hubs, the front suspension not only allows your front wheels to move up and down independently of one another to give you a smooth ride, it also makes both wheels turn left or right together so that you can make your vehicle go where you need to go.
Although there are various types of front suspensions, such as the upper and lower control arm type and the MacPherson strut type, they all share a common component that enables them to do what they are designed to do: the ball joint. If a ball joint fails, it can have dire consequences. Read on to learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a failing ball joint.
Independent front suspension basics
Today’s vehicles feature a front suspension system that use upper and lower control arms to attach the wheel hub to your vehicle, or else use a MacPherson strut and one control arm to mount the wheel hub. The wheel hubs, on which your wheels and tires are mounted, are attached to the outer ends of each control arm and remain generally vertical as they move up and down with the pivoting of the control arms. The hubs are also connected to your steering system and must be able to pivot left and right at any point in their up and down movement.
Ball joints are the critical components that connect your wheel hubs to the control arms. They provide universal pivoting movement between the wheel hubs and control arms to give you a safe, smooth ride and allow you to precisely control your vehicle.
Symptoms of loose ball joints
While ball joints may last 70,000 miles or more, they don’t last forever. Their actual lifespan will depend on your driving habits, road conditions and exposure to road splash and salt. As the ball and socket wear together, the normally close tolerance between them will increase and the ball joint will become loose over time.
Sound – Usually the first indication of worn or loose ball joints will be a faint, intermittent clunking noise that seems to be coming from a corner of your vehicle. The sound may be more pronounced when going over a bump or a dip or when going around a corner. While the sound may be faint at first, as time goes on and the wear continues, the sound will become louder and more frequent.
Steering – Worn ball joints can affect your vehicle’s steering, usually making the steering sloppy or stiff depending on how the ball joint is wearing. Feeling a vibration in the steering wheel while driving down a level, straight road, or your vehicle drifting to the right or left when going over bumps may also be signs of ball joint wear.
Tires – Uneven tire wear may be a sign that your ball joints are wearing out. Specifically, if the inner or outer edges of your front tires are wearing out faster than the rest of the tread, there is a good chance that the cause is worn ball joints. However, if both edges are wearing out faster than the middle, the problem is not ball joints, but under-inflation of your tires.
Some ball joints have built-in wear indicators to alleviate the difficulty of trying to diagnose loose ball joints. Wear indicators include a movable grease fitting. When a collar of the grease fitting is flush with or below the bottom of the ball joint housing, the ball joint is worn and should be replaced.
Other types have a wear indicator pin protruding through a hole in the bottom of the ball joint. As long as the pin is visible, the ball joint is OK. When it becomes flush with the housing or is not visible, then the ball joint should be replaced.
Dangers of worn ball joints
A worn ball joint is not a problem that should be put off—a catastrophic failure of any ball joint will result in your front suspension coming apart and causing loss of control of your vehicle. Should you suspect worn ball joints, you should have your vehicle checked by your trusted mechanic who has experience in diagnosing and fixing suspension issues.
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