There are desperate times that call for desperate measures, and even though it is highly unlikely, there can be a situation where you’re out of power steering fluid.
When you don’t have enough power steering fluid, the steering wheel becomes stiff, making the car difficult to manoeuvre.
This lack of manoeuvrability might not put such a big strain if you’re driving a compact, but it can be quite troublesome if you’re driving a sedan, an SUV, or a truck.
In these desperate times, people usually try to remedy the situation by topping off the power steering fluid reservoir with another fluid they can get their hands on.
Other fluids, such as anti-freeze fluid, can be used instead of power steering fluid but only in case of emergencies. It can be used to drive you to safety but driving for too long can have dire consequences.
Read further to find out how and why that is and if it’s a good decision to use anti-freeze fluid in place of power steering fluid.
What Is Anti-Freeze Fluid?
Anti-freeze is an additive which is mixed with coolant or water to decrease its freezing point so that it doesn’t freeze in cold temperatures. Anti-freeze also increases the boiling point.
Anti-freeze is usually made from ethylene glycol or propylene glycol. Ethylene glycol or propylene glycol is the main component but contains some other components.
Nitrates, azoles, or borates are also added to prevent oxidation and corrosion in the circulation system. These additives usually make up less than 10% of the total solution.
Application Of Anti-Freeze
Anti-freeze is used as an additive and is usually mixed with water or coolant to be put in the radiator. The radiator is part of the cooling system of the engine.
When the environment’s temperature is too extreme, using just water or coolant is ineffective in maintaining engine temperatures.
In very cold climate regions, the temperatures are usually below 0 degrees Celcius and can drop to -25 degrees Celcius. This can cause the coolant or water inside the radiator to freeze.
Anti-freeze lowers the freezing point to anywhere between -35 to -45 degrees Celcius. This way, the coolant doesn’t freeze in cold temperatures.
The engine temperatures are between 135-250 degrees Celcius, and the coolant temperature can be between 90-120 degrees Celcius.
In really hot climates, the temperature reaches up to 50 degrees Celcius. The temperature difference is not enough to cool down the coolant and the engine.
This may cause the coolant or water temperature inside the cooling system to start boiling. The anti-freeze also increases the boiling point of the coolant and helps in efficient cooling.
What Is Power Steering?
It is used to reduce the steering effort. A mechanical device is equipped with a motor which is connected to the steering rack.
The power steering has a small piston that pumps fluid to create pressure in the lines carrying the fluid. This pressure is carried through the lines and is applied to the steering rack to reduce the effort needed to turn the wheel.
Why Is Power Steering Used?
Power steering is used to ease the manoeuvrability of the vehicle. Turning the wheel of a parked car requires a lot of effort and can be tedious in a slow-speed turning.
Compact cars are still easy to manoeuvre since the wheels are small and there isn’t much mass to rotate, but sedans and SUVs have bigger wheels and heavy tyres which cannot be turned easily.
The most important power steering application is in big trucks and utility vehicles, which have really big wheels and cannot be moved without power steering.
What Is Power Steering Fluid?
A power steering fluid is basically a hydraulic fluid that links the steering wheel and the front tyres together using hydraulic pressure. The pressure from the power steering pumps moves the hydraulic fluid to and from the front and steering wheel.
Fluids Which Can Substitute Power Steering Fluid
Full disclaimer! These alternatives are to be used in emergencies only. Just because it works doesn’t mean there won’t be any repercussions.
You can use these alternatives to get to safety, the nearest mechanic shop or drive home. It is a temporary fix and not a permanent solution.
1. Brake Fluid
Brake fluid, similar to power steering fluid, is also a hydraulic fluid and the pistons in the calliper and the master cylinder move it around the brake lines to create hydraulic pressure.
Brake fluid can be used in emergencies, and it is more commonly found at gas stations on highways than power steering fluid.
Automatic Transmission Fluid is also a good substitute because it creates hydraulic pressure in the torque converter that drives the wheels.
The automatic transmission fluid is slightly different to the power steering fluid in terms of application but is a really good substitute for the power steering fluid.
3. Engine Oil
Engine oil is thicker or denser than power steering fluid, but small amounts can be a good substitute.
Usually, after an oil change, there is some engine oil left over, which people usually toss in the trunk of their cars. So in case of an emergency, it might be the closest to you.
4. Hydraulic Fluid
This is the same fluid which is put in the shock absorbers. It can withstand high pressures and can flow easily as well, which makes it a really good substitute for power steering fluid.
5. Transmission Oil
Transmission oil has a constant viscosity rating and provides good lubrication. It has to move around the transmission and deal with the pressure of the transmission gears.
This makes it a really good substitute for power steering fluid and can be found easily at any workshop compared to power steering fluid.
5. Anti-Freeze Fluid
Anti-Freeze fluid is glycol based, and so is power steering fluid. The difference is that the power steering fluid is glycol-ether, so if the anti-freeze fluid is too diluted, it might not be able to help that much.
|Brake Fluid is graded DOT 3 and above and has a different chemical composition than power steering fluid. This might create fluctuations in flow rates or bubbles, causing the steering wheel to be shaky or snatchy.
|The chemical composition is mostly
● 60-90% solvent
● 5-30% lubricant
● 2-5% additives.
It can cause the power steering pump to wear and lose its efficiency.
|There aren’t many trade-offs when it comes to using ATF instead of power steering fluid other than a change in the fluidity of the power steering.
|The damage can be observed mostly in the steering rack because ATF also has oil, and it can linger on various steering system components.
|Engine oil has a variable viscosity, so it can cause a sudden change in steering fluidity based on temperature.
|The engine oil is thicker than the power steering fluid, which can cause power steering pump failure with prolonged use.
|Hydraulic fluid does not flow that easily. It is made to absorb the compression forces to provide dampening or stiffness in a hydraulic system.
|The hydraulic fluid causes the steering wheel to get jumpy or throwback. This exerts pressure on the steering wheel bushes and ribbons, making the steering wheel loose and prone to road vibrations.
|The transmission oil can only be used in small amounts, and if your power steering fluid has drained completely, a small amount will need to be topped up again and again.
|The transmission oil is put in small amounts, which causes heating issues in the power steering pump and causes failure.
|Anti-Freeze fluid is really not a hydraulic fluid and doesn’t have the right viscosity to make the steering as soft as other alternatives.
|Anti-freeze fluid can damage the power steering piston, and since it’s not as dense, it can even jam the piston.
Why Would You Need A Power Steering Fluid Alternative?
Power steering fluid can leak due to damage to the lines carrying the power steering fluid. This damage can be due to road debris or engine heat.
Sometimes a loose power steering reservoir cap lets in some moisture or air. This builds pressure in the lines and might make them burst.
Even if the line doesn’t burst, the pressure from the air and moisture can cause the fluid to get forced out of the reservoir.
In the case of leaks, you will need to keep topping off the power steering fluid reservoir, and when you don’t have access to power steering fluid, you might need an alternative.
If there are any air bubbles, moisture, or contaminants, you would have to bleed out the reservoir and then top it off again before the contaminants cause further damage to the power steering.
Topping off will require fluid to keep the power steering fluid working, and alternative fluids are easier to find compared to power steering fluid.
The Effect Of Anti-Freeze Fluid On Power Steering
Anti-freeze is a solute and is relatively less thick than power steering fluid, and can get past the compression created by the power steering piston and can jam the motor itself.
Anti-freeze itself doesn’t flow very easily until it’s mixed with a solvent. The wrong mixture ratio can make the solution too much water or too resistant to flow.
This will reduce the effectiveness of the power steering and the purpose it has to fulfil.
How Can You Manage The Aftermath?
As soon as you reach a safe spot or have access to a power steering fluid, drain or bleed the reservoir and wash it out with a solvent.
Top it off and bleed it a couple of times until you’re sure all of the anti-freeze solutions have been washed out.
How To Check Power Steering Fluid Level
1. Locate the Power Steering Fluid Reservoir
Its location differs for every vehicle. It’s usually a small, clear container with a black cap. Many vehicles have marks on the outside of the reservoir to indicate “MAX” or “MIN.” Ensure the fluid level is above the “MIN” mark but not overfilled.
The power steering fluid reservoir is typically a clear plastic container near one of the wheels.
2. Check Dipstick (If Equipped)
Other vehicles have marks on the dipstick, similar to an oil dipstick. In this case, remove the cap and wipe the dipstick clean. Reinstall the cap, ensuring it’s completely seated.
3. Remove Cap Again And Check the Fluid Level
Ensure it’s at the appropriate level. You may see marks for “full hot” and “full cold,” so ensure you’re referencing the correct mark depending on whether the engine is hot or cold.
4. Add Power Steering Fluid
Top off the reservoir if needed to fill it to the appropriate level.
How To Check For Contaminants: Video Guide
If you see any colour change in the power steering fluid or any liquid separation, you can do a simple contamination test by following this video.
The power steering fluid reservoir is transparent, and you can easily observe contaminants, discolouration, liquid separation or if the level is low.
Different fluids can be used in place of power steering fluid, but it doesn’t mean you SHOULD use them. These alternatives are substitutes in case of emergencies and should be flushed out immediately after use. The power steering pump can only bear the stress and pressure of the power steering fluid because it is designed for it.
The compression and the pressure can only vary within a very small range, and other fluids are outside of that range and can cause severe damage to the power steering pump with prolonged use.
If you really have to, ATF and brake fluid are the closest to the power steering fluid and could be used when you’re far away from the nearest workshop.
Anti-Freeze solution doesn’t have the right flow rate and thickness to be considered using for longer periods, so in case you use anti-freeze fluid, try to use a 70-30 anti-freeze to water mixture or 80-20 and change it as soon as you can because anti-freeze fluid is not at all a good substitute.
You’re better off using other substitutes mentioned above.