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We are continuing our series on suspension problems and we decided today to create a complete overview of issues that arise when you have bad ball joints. Ball joints are a crucial part of any car’s front suspension and when they go bad, so does the quality, safety and comfort of your ride. Ball joints are generally known to last a long time, but that alone is the reason why people commonly suspect other suspension parts as problems with your suspension start occurring.
If you are here, reading this, we take it you want to analyze all parts of your suspension before you decide what the next step should be, or you just want to come to your mechanic with a little bit of knowledge. Here is everything you need to know about ball joints, the symptoms of bad ball joints, how dangerous it can be if you drive with bad ball joints and how they work in the first place!
What Are Ball Joints And What Do They Do?
Ball joints are not only a part of every vehicle’s suspension, they also play a big part in your vehicle’s steering system. As the name suggests, ball joints are spherical joints fitted and sealed into sockets that protect them against dirt, moisture, salt, gravel, etc. They act as a connecting point of your car’s control arms and steering knuckles. They also allow the front wheels to move back and forth, up and down as you travel across all sorts of terrain. Their job is to keep your ride comfortable, your steering precise and agile.
There are two variants of ball joints, depending on your car’s suspension and control arm design. You can either have lower ball joints, higher ball joints or in rare cases, even both. Lower ball joints are more prone to damage as they play a big part in supporting your car’s weight.
The easiest way to imagine what ball joints do is to imagine them being the shoulders of your car. They need to provide free and smooth movement of the wheels in every direction needed.
Causes For Bad and Loose Ball Joints
We already mentioned that ball joints come tightly sealed and properly lubricated within an impenetrable socket. While that socket should be able to protect ball joints from all environmental factors, it is not uncommon that the socket tears and lets in all that it has been trying to keep out since it was new. As dirt, salt, gravel and moisture break into the joints, they slowly wear out the ball joint’s internal parts. Such joints also leak the enclosed lubricant (oil/grease) which leads to a premature failure and seizure of the otherwise smoothly moving ball joint.
Another common reason for premature ball joint failure is car accidents. Even small car accidents like driving into or off a high curb can damage or bend the ball joints.
Symptoms And Signs Of Worn-Out Bad Ball Joints
If by now, you are asking yourself, so ok, how am i supposed to know if some small ball joint is failing or has failed, do not worry. A bad ball joint will give out a few signs and symptoms that something is not right with your vehicle. And if you possess some mechanical knowledge you should also be able to visually determine if your ball joints are intact. Here are the common symptoms of bad ball joints:
Uneven wear of front tires
If you notice that the inner or outer edge of your front tires appears to have less tread, it can indicate problems with your ball joints. One of the many functions of ball joints is to support the weight of your car and keep your tires rolling flat against the surface of the road. As the ball joints become loose and worn, the tires get a certain amount of “angle” or camber which leads to uneven tire wear.
As the ball joints become loose, you might start noticing that you are struggling to keep your car driving in a straight line. This is especially obvious as you drive over bumps and your car starts to drag either to the left or to the right. This may also indicate other issues with the suspension or the wheels but there is still a possibility that loose ball joints are at fault.
Loose steering wheel
You want your steering wheel to feel tight and responsive. If and when your ball joints start failing and becoming loose, you will also feel that loose sensation as you turn your steering wheel. Ball joints are crucial for the steering system so any weird steering problems might indicate problems with the ball joints.
On the other side of things, worn-out ball joints might also cause the steering to feel stiff and hard. As the ball joints start seizing up due to the accumulation of all the dirt and rust, the steering becomes unresponsive and you cannot get the same angle on your front wheels as you once did.
As ball joints start to fail and constrict the free movement of a wheel, that function is being transferred to other parts of the suspension that are not really meant to move in such ways. This has the biggest impact on the bushings of the control arm. As they move instead of the ball joint, they quickly wear out and cause additional problems.
Worn-out ball joints create three types of noises and they are usually one of the first indicators of trouble. Here are what each of the weird noises means:
If you imagine a loose ball joint inside of a big socket, then you can probably also imagine what sounds two metals make as they hit together. This clunking noise is mostly present when you drive over bumps or potholes with loose ball joints.
Squeaking noises are an indication of dirt and grime that is accumulating inside the ball joint. As you turn, the dirt that is caught between the ball joint and the socket is causing squeaking noises
Grinding noises appear at similar times as clunking noises. Grinding noises can indicate many things in a car, but in relation to ball joint problems, it is usually heard when you go over a bump or a pothole. The loose ball joint may release grinding noises as it drags against the socket of the joint.
Vibrating steering wheel
Loose, dirty or seized-up ball joints may cause vibration to be felt even in the interior of a car, especially on the steering wheel.
Wear indicators indicate damage
Older vehicles have something called “grease fittings” mounted on the ball joints. Grease fitting used to be fitted to ball joints for adding lubricant to the interior of the joint but that was not all they were designed for. Grease fitting also served as indicators for wear. They looked like a small sticks that stuck out of the ball joint casing. As the ball joint wore out and got loose, that small stick started dipping into the joint and eventually it completely “disappeared” it was clear that the joint was in for a replacement. Click here to see how these indicators look.
How Long Do Ball Joints Last?
Certain car manufacturers like to make promises that ball joints are a lifetime component. In practice, however, they rarely do last for the lifetime of the car. Realistically, the lifespan of ball joints is usually somewhere between 80,000 and 180,000 miles or 130,000 and 300,000 kilometers. Their lifetime is heavily connected to the condition of the roads in your area and your driving style. Cars that spend their time mainly on the highway rarely need to have their ball joints replaced.
How Much Do New Ball Joints Cost?
Ball joints are not amongst the most expensive replacement parts of your car. They usually come integrated into lower/upper control arms that usually cost about 120$ (depending on the vehicle). Labor costs are usually around 100$ to 150$ which brings the total end cost to around 200$ – 250$.
Are Bad Ball Joints Dangerous?
Yes, bad ball joints are not just dangerous, having them fail completely while driving can even be deadly. Their job is to support the weight of your vehicle and ensure the ability to steer and stabilize the vehicle. If the ball joint fails, your wheel can detach, and your suspension can collapse which all leads to losing control of your vehicle.
Can You Drive With Bad Ball Joints?
Absolutely not. As soon as you or your mechanic detect the first signs of ball joint play and wear, you should have them inspected and replaced. They represent a major factor for your safety on the road which means they should be replaced without hesitation. As we mentioned before, experiencing a complete failure of ball joints while driving does lead to losing control of the car.
How To Check Bad Ball Joints?
Go for a ride
The first thing you can do to see if you have bad ball joints is to take a ride with the windows down and really pay attention to the noises you hear, where they are coming from and if they are accompanied by other symptoms like poor steering etc. Drive over a few speed bumps, turn the steering wheel from one side to the other as you drive and really be cautious for any signs of bad ball joints that we described above.
Check your tires
Before you actually jack the car up and visually inspect the ball joints, try checking the tires first. Be on the lookout for any uneven tire wear. Bad ball joints usually lead to uneven spots of tread wear on the tire or uneven tire wear on either of the sides of the tire.
Jack up your car and do a visual inspection
If you have the appropriate knowledge and tools, you can do a visual inspection of the ball joints. See the video by ChrisFix to learn more, it is the only video on this topic that is worth watching.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Bad Ball Joints Cause Vibration and Shaking?
Yes, one of the common symptoms of bad ball joints is vibrations and shaking that can be felt either on the steering wheel or in the entire interior of the car.
A car can also vibrate and shake excessively when hard braking with bad ball joints.
Can Bad Ball Joints Cause Death Wobble?
Unfortunately yes, death wobble as it is called can be caused by loose, worn-out ball joints. According to expert mechanics, worn-out ball joints are amongst the most common causes of the death wobble.
Most of us do not exactly think of the condition of our ball joints on a daily basis, or never to be honest. Which is strange when considering their importance. They are one of the most important parts of your suspension and steering system and they should be regularly inspected as your car ages and covers its first 100,000 miles or 130,000 kilometers. Before you decide to replace your ball joints, make sure to consult a professional mechanic as the symptoms we described above can be accredited to many other problems with the suspension. Bad shocks and struts are just one of them.