If you own a modern car, chances are that it has a system of ball joints that are attached to your car's suspension and wheels. Ball joints are an integral part of the steering and suspension system, and if they break, it can be very dangerous. The good news is that they rarely go bad and most people never have problems with them for the entire time they own their cars. They also usually give a lot of warning before they fail. Here is some more information about ball joints, what they do and when you should become concerned about them.
How ball joints work:
The job of the ball joint is to keep your wheels attached to your steering and suspension system and allow for the suspension and wheels to move independently. Ball joints can be either load bearing nor non-load bearing, which refers to bearing the weight of the vehicle. Front-wheel drive cars with MacPherson struts usually have non-load bearing lower ball joints. Cars with independent suspensions in either the front or the back will often have two ball joints, one on each suspension arm. One of these ball joints will be a load bearing ball joint depending on where the spring is located. Load bearing joints are designed for more movement and tend to wear out faster than non-load bearing joints.
Why ball joints go bad:
Like any automotive part, ball joints can wear down with normal aging. However, certain factors can make them wear down or break earlier than usual. One of these factors is the road surface you drive on. If you drive a passenger car on a lot of dirt or gravel or you have a really bad pot hole situation where you usually drive, then you are more likely to need early replacement. Some models have ball joints that need more frequent replacement than others.
Early symptoms of a bad ball joint:
One of the early warning signs that your ball joints are going bad is when you hear popping noises in your suspension, especially when you step on the brakes or go around turns. Your steering wheel may drift off center and your car may "wander" or drift when you aren't putting pressure on the steering wheel. Your tires will also have uneven wear. You may also find that your car gets knocked out of alignment more easily and more often.
Your mechanic should routinely check for play or movement in the joint each time your car is inspected. If there's any movement, then it must be replaced. Ball joints that completely break may cause the wheel to separate from the suspension. If you are having any problems with your steering or suspension, even if you think it's something minor, have your ball joints inspected at an automotive repair shop.