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Leaking rack & pinion assembly

Yesterday I took my 2000 Mazda Protege ES in for its yearly state-mandated safety inspection. It flunked, because the rack and pinion steering assembly was leaking, due, according to the mechanic, to worn-out seals. They said the only way to fix the problem was to replace the whole assembly, at a cost of about $1,100. So here’s my question: Is it reasonable to have to replace the whole steering assembly just becauses of leaking seals?

A complete rack from Rock Auto is about $380, new bellows are $12 Each and you need 2. So if it is leaking from the bellows it would be much cheaper to replace them. I am not familiar with your car but I don’t think your rack would need to be removed.

The cost of replacing the seals would be somewhere in the neighborhood of the cost of replacing the rack with a remanufactured assembly. But, I am reluctant to believe that the seals are leaking. I would get a second opinion.

How is the fluid level in the power steering reservoir? Have you had to add any fluid? Have the hoses been checked, especially the return hose? Even though the return hose isn’t under much pressure, it is only held by circular clamps. They are more prone to leaking. A fitting on the high pressure side could be loose and drip fluid on the rack making it look like a leak.

Where are your state inspections done? at a state run inspection station or at garages that also do repairs? If the latter, then definitely go somewhere else. If the second opinion does not confirm a leaking rack, then report the inspection station to your state officials.

In some states, garages that do inspections are not allowed to do any repairs uncovered due to an inspection nor are they allowed to recommend another shop as this would be a conflict of interest. If this shop is pressuring you to have the repair done there or at another shop they recommend, then report them.

Maybe your mechanic is not very skilled at replacing seals. He dosen’t want to take a chance with follow-up visits by you if the job was not done properly. Maybe that’s why he’d prefer to replace the whole assembly.

The bellows are just dust covers. If the rack is leaking from the ends, the internal seals are bad and that means a complete disassembly to replace them. Not many shop mechanics are experienced or trained to do this and the labor to do that could exceed the cost of a reman.

Price the job around. You should be able to get it done for less than 1100 dollars.

It’s really not feasible to replace seals in a leaking rack for several reasons. Generally speaking, you can’t even buy the seals needed as they are simply not available.
Many of these seals are specialty hard seals that are very delicate and special tools are required for installing them. Finding the tools needed is often difficult if not impossible.

Add in dust boots and replacement of both inner tie rods which are more than likely worn and even if one had the tools and seals in hand it’s just not cost effective to repair a rack; assuming it could even be repaired and the spool housing is not grooved up.

Thanks, guys. I appreciate your inputs, which were quite helpful. To answer Keith’s questions: the mechanic told me the power steering fluid was down about a half-inch, which is what he said tipped him off to the leaking rack. He apparently added some fluid, because the level is right where it should be now. In Virginia, the safety inspections are done by private garages licensed by the state, and there are no laws specifying where required repairs can or cannot be made. Anyway, I’m definitely going to get a second opinion and repair estimate. Thank y’all for your help.

You need to take it someplace else. This is a shop seeking extra work. If your rack was leaking enough to flunk inspection you’d be adding power steering fluid yourself regularly. A slightly low fluid level can come from something as minor as a seep at the seals. Try another shop.

Agreed…I almost had this same scam perpetrated on me at one of the larger national chains…took me totally aback when the guy told me I needed a new steering rack when I had never, ever added any fluid to the reservoir. I took it to my local independent garage and it passed with flying colors!

I stand corrected.

It’s easy enough to tell if a rack is leaking or not. Leaking seals point to the pinion seal at the steering shaft or the rack seals on each end of the rack housing.

If the dust boot on either end of the steering rack appear to be oily then the rack seals are leaking.

If you can’t inspect this yourself then get another opinion on it at the least. Inspection should take no more than about 30 seconds.

Unless Virginia changed their laws since I left that state, the inspection garage cannot make any repairs that they uncover, though I think there is an exception for the Post Exchange garages on the military bases.

A half inch drop in the fluid level does not mean there is a leak. Did they fail you for the leak? Did they show you where it was leaking from? Did you see fluid dripping from that point?

If they didn’t fail you, then they are probably following the law. Sometimes something can be a concern that the mechanic will feel obligated to inform you about, but does not constitute a failure, For example, your brake pads may be getting thin, but still have enough material to pass the inspection. The inspector would be doing you a favor to inform you so that you could schedule a brake job on your terms when you are ready and not have to have it done on the states time schedule.

EDIT: OOPs I just reread your post. I think you need to go to another inspection station. This type of small leak just does not justify a failed inspection. Be sure to report the station that flunked you.

The rack seals can be forced to leak if a mechanic forces the front wheels to turn when the engine is off. This happened to me. My rack has “leaked” (fluid stains at the ends) for years now. I add some stop leak for power teering fluid and check the fluid regularly, but only need to add fluid once every 10,000 miles or so, and then only alittle bit. Try the stop leak stuff first, and keep checking it. To get it to pass inspection, clean off the stained parts and get it reinspected by a different shop. What happened to you really smells of a scam.