When to Replace Tie Rods

by Jody L. Campbell

On rack and pinion steering, the inner tie rods extend from the steering rack and directly attach to the outer tie rods ends. The outer tie rod ends are connected to the steering knuckle. This assembly maintains the maneuverability of the steering. Tie rods and tie rod ends also are manipulated during front and four-wheel alignments to adjust toe. Because alignment specifications are within minimal degrees, a slight play from a worn tie rod can affect the tire wear, steering performance and safety of the vehicle.

Outer Tie Rod Ends

Connected to the inner tie rod end and then the knuckle, there should be no vertical or horizontal movement in the outer tie rod end. Test these by hand only. With the steering wheel unlocked and the front axle--or the entire vehicle--lifted, place your hands on the tire at the 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock positions. Wiggle the tire back and forth in short steady strokes while a helper inspects movement of the outer tie rod end to knuckle connection. You would also be able to feel and possibly hear the movement in the tie rod end. Place the recruit inside the car and have him or her quickly turn the steering wheel all the way left and then all the way right a few times. Inspect the outer tie rod ends for any vertical movement.

Inner Tie Rods

Inner tie rod ends are a little trickier to diagnose unless completely wiped out. Movement from the outer tie rods ends can transfer the looseness and noise through the entire rack. Place your hand on the inner tie rod end--one at a time--and lift up and down to check for looseness. In extreme cases, you will be able to see vertical movement in the inner connection. Relocating the protective boot will also give you a better visual inspection. Be sure you're not confusing movement in the internal rack bushings with movement in the inner tie rod. The sensation in feeling the looseness of the inner tie rod will be very much the same as the outer when moving the tire back and forth slightly, but if the outer tie rod end is secure, it's most likely the inner that needs to be replaced.

When to Replace Tie Rod Ends

There is no interval maintenance schedule that recommends replacing tie rods or tie rods ends before they expire. In other words, if it isn't broke, don't fix it. Tie rods and tie rod ends should be inspected every time the vehicle is lifted since the inspection is quick and easy. Replace the tie rods only when there is play in them. If grease boots are compromised, you could replace them then even if there is not tolerable play because they will soon become contaminated and require replacement. Inner tie rods are a little harder to replace than outer tie rod ends. They usually require an inner tie rod removal tool to disconnect them from the rack. Grease the zerk fittings on outer tie rod ends during every lube, oil and filter service.

About the Author

Jody L. Campbell spent over 15 years as both a manager and an under-car specialist in the automotive repair industry. Prior to that, he managed two different restaurants for over 15 years. Campbell began his professional writing career in 2004 with the publication of his first book.