Introduction

The ball joint is a crucial component in automobile maintenance and servicing. Serving as a part that connects the wheel to the suspension system, the ball joint ensures that the control arm can move with the vehicle’s body during the driving or turning. However, with the passage of time and the increase in driving mileage, the ball joint may experience wear or damage, leading to a series of driving issues. This article will discuss simple overview of the symptoms and testing methods associated with ball joint wear. Proper maintenance and replacement will be discussed to ensure your vehicle maintains optimal performance.

6 Symptoms and Consequences of a Bad Ball Joint

When we discuss the symptoms of ball joint deterioration, we need to first understand where the term “ball joint” applies to which components. The ball joint primarily appears in the chassis components such as the control arm, tie rod, and stabilizer link. Almost all symptoms of ball joint issues revolve around the factor of clearance. In addition, the symptoms resulting from ball joint wear on different components can vary, and in some cases, they may mutually influence each other.

  • Uneven or bumpy feeling
    The aging of the ball joint can affect the vehicle’s stability during driving. As the ball joint wears out, the vehicle often experiences an uneven or bumpy feeling during steering due to increased friction caused by the aging ball joint. This kind of uneven feeling may not be as noticeable during straight-line driving, but it becomes more pronounced when making turns. Therefore, when this situation occurs, investigating the ball joint is a good starting point. However, if the uneven feeling is more pronounced during straight-line driving, there is a higher possibility of deteriorating bushings.
  • Shimmy / Wobble
    This symptom is more likely to occur in the deterioration of the tie rod ball joint. As the vehicle is in motion, whether in a straight line or turning, the play and friction caused by the aging ball joint can result in a pulling sensation on the vehicle. On one hand, the tie rod end also controls the toe angle, so it can lead to difficulties in maintaining straight-line stability for the vehicle.
  • Noise
    Increased friction and play caused by the aging ball joint can result in the appearance of noise. However, there are numerous reasons why a vehicle might produce noise. Therefore, noise is more suitable as an auxiliary diagnostic tool and should not be used as the sole indicator.
  • Alignment difficulties
    Ball joints are typically used as pivotal joints, and as such, many chassis geometries rely on ball joints as key reference points. The ball joint in the control arm influences the camber and caster angles, while the tie rod end is closely related to the toe angle. Even if the alignment is in the specifications of the alignment machine, once the vehicle go on the road, the effects of a deteriorated ball joint with play will immediately manifest in the driving experience.
  • Decreased handling performance, a sense of clearance, and vagueness
    All steering and arc movements are related to the ball joint. As a component connected to the wheel carrier, any issues with the ball joint will directly impact the driving experience. In addition, as a precision component, the ball joint has specific specifications for torque, roughness etc. If you experience a jerky or any kind of uneven sensation while driving, there is highly likely an issue with the ball joint.
  • Uneven Tire Wear
    This is closely related to tire alignment. When you cannot properly align your tires, it naturally leads to the tires consistently leaning towards one side, resulting in uneven tire wear.

How to Test a Bad Ball Joint

All ball joints are located in the chassis of the car, and inspecting them without tools can be challenging. However, there are several commonly used methods for checking ball joints.

  • Visual Inspection
    Lift the vehicle and visually examine the ball joints for obvious deterioration or cracks. Check for external factors such as dust boot condition, dust cover, oil leakage, rust, foreign objects, etc.
  • Shake Test
    Hold and shake the control arm with both hands or tools to check for any unusual sounds or looseness. If uncertain, perform a side-by-side comparison using the left and right wheels. Alternatively, directly test the ball joint by moving it back and forth and from side to side, checking for any specific angles that feel excessively tight, unusually loose, or exhibit any signs of uneven movement.
  • Road Test
    Drive the vehicle on the road and attentively listen and feel for any symptoms mentioned above in the chassis.

Guide to Replacing Ball Joints

  • The inspection of ball joints is not explicitly regulated, and some manufacturers design them to last until the end of a vehicle’s lifespan without replacement. However, depending on the user’s operating environment, ball joints may still deteriorate. It is advisable to inspect the ball joints during routine maintenance every 24 months or 25,000 miles. Additionally, the average replacement interval for ball joints is around 60,000 miles.
  • The replacement of ball joints varies depending on the design of the control arm. Some control arms use a detachable ball joint, allowing for  replacement and potentially saving you money. Japanese cars, known for their economic efficiency, also favor the use of detachable ball joint designs. However, for some performance-oriented models, one-piece control arms may be employed. In such cases, if the ball joint experiences wear, replacement may involve the entire control arm.
  • The dust cover of the ball joint is also very important. A torn dust cover can lead to contamination of foreign particles or contaminants inside the ball joint.
  • As mentioned in the previous sections, there are various signs of damage to the ball joint. These symptoms often overlap with those of other chassis components. Therefore, determining whether the abnormality is due to the ball joint is not always straightforward. When you feel any abnormal shaking or unusual noises in the chassis, it is recommended to directly bring your vehicle to a maintenance technician and explain the situation. The technician will conduct an inspection and assessment. (Just like when you visit a doctor, you wouldn’t say, ‘I have a cold,’ but rather describe your symptoms like a runny nose or cough, right?)

Preventative Measures and Maintenance Tips

To keep the ball joint in the best possible condition and extend its lifespan, there are some methods you can try. However, be cautious not to inconvenience yourself solely to prolong the ball joint’s lifespan.

  • Avoid aggressive driving, such as drifting or high-speed cornering.
  • Avoid driving in harsh conditions, including high temperatures, high humidity, and snowy conditions.
  • Avoid spraying high-pressure water directly onto chassis components during car washes, as this could lead to the rupture of the dust boot protecting the ball joint.
  • Promptly replace a torn dust cover when detected. The dust cover serves as the first line of defense for protecting the ball joint, and early replacement is advisable. However, it is recommended to communicate with your technician, as some may not engage in standalone dust boot replacements.
  • Ensure proper wheel alignment. Ball joint bear weight and pressure, and correct wheel alignment can prevent excessive stress on the ball joint, thereby extending its lifespan.

Conclusion

We have discussed the signs of ball joint wear and provided some recommendations for replacement. The lifespan of ball joints in each vehicle may vary due to factors such as the original factory design. Therefore, the best way to protect them is through regular maintenance. We hope this article has provided you with some basic knowledge about the proper care of ball joints.

Reference

  • Internal information of TGQ.
  • 自動車のサスペンション KYB株式会社 (2013)