How to Check Tie Rod Endsby Jody L. Campbell
Tie rod ends are an extension of the steering rack that connect to the knuckle of the front wheels. Ensuring the tie rod ends have no free-play in them is easy to do and important to the safety standards of every vehicle. If a tie rod end separates from its connection to the knuckle or control arm, steering the vehicle will become almost impossible.
Use a lift with the vehicle in neutral gear and with the ignition key in the accessory position to ensure the steering column is in the unlocked position. On automatic transmission vehicles, this is a given with the vehicle in neutral. However, most standard transmission vehicles in neutral will still allow you to turn the key to the "off" position, which will lock the steering column. The best way to check for looseness in tie rod ends or any other front end parts is to have the steering column unlocked to allow free mobility of the wheel.
While some vehicles could be checked my simply lifting one side at a time, there are many SUVs and trucks that have multiple front end components that would render checking more difficult unless the entire front end of the vehicle is suspended. If a car lift is not available, position the vehicle so that if there is a visual slant in the parking surface, the rear wheels will face it. Chock one or both rear wheels, place the vehicle in neutral and leave the ignition key in the "accessory" position.
Use the side rocker/pinch panel behind the front tire as a lifting point, or place the floor jack beneath the "A" arm of the same side you're attempting to raise. Lift the vehicle with the floor jack high enough to place the jack stand beneath it in a secure spot. When one floor jack is secure on one side, go to the other side and repeat the procedure so that both front tires are elevated and the vehicle is secure. You don't want to perform this service with a vehicle in neutral on a steep grade. The flatter the parking area, the safer the inspection process would be.
Move the front wheels. Placing your hands on the tire at the 9 and 3 o'clock positions, move the tire back and forth rapidly. A properly tightened front end will give no signs of excess movement and should give you the feeling of the entire wheel moving back and forth tight to the hub. If there is a movement, ask a friend or partner to ascertain where the movement is coming from. There could be many places that excess movement in a front end could be coming from. The tie rod ends are the easiest to check. Generally, if there is movement in the outer tie rod end, you will see it moving near the ball area where is sits down into the knuckle of the control arm. Excess movement there will require replacement of the outer tie rod. As far as movement on the inner tie rod, place your hand on that while your helper is moving the tire in the same motion described above. Determine how excessive the movement is, if any, for an inner tie rod. Some vehicles will give off a little movement in the rack and pinion. Some vehicles will have what feels like excess movement, but have pitman arms and idler arms that will also need to be checked. Those components should only be allowing side-to-side movement.
Take some time and make sure the lower ball joint is not moving. Place your hands on the tire at 12 and 6 o'clock and try to move it up and down. Many vehicles nowadays have wheel bearing hub assemblies, and there should be absolutely no free-play whatsoever. If there is and the lower ball joint is not moving in the knuckle, chances are there's movement in the bearing. Some rear-wheel-drive vehicles have a bearing seated rotor and this can be adjusted to tighten the looseness in a bearing; however, a little movement in that type of application is generally OK.
- Obtain a repair manual for your vehicle at parts store and determine if any allowance for free-play in the front end components are acceptable. When it comes to tie rod ends, there is very little leeway in acceptable movement, since it is the key component that attaches the steering knuckle to the tire. Any replacement of a front end component, such as an outer or inner tied rod end, a ball joint, a pitman are or idler arm, should always have an alignment service performed on it to ensure the vehicle is properly aligned. This will ensure that the vehicle does not experience excessive tire wear after the replacement of the failed part.
- Be careful where you place the floor jack under the vehicle for lift points as to not incur damage to the undercarriage or compromise personal safety.