Ball joint service: Insights and replacement tips for a variety of vehicle applications
Ball joint service isn’t always as straightforward as we’d like. Certain vehicles are prone to premature wear, some ball joints are not available separately from the OEM, theoretically requiring replacement of an entire control arm or steering knuckle assembly, and some are just downright difficult to access. In this article we provide insight and replacement tips for a variety of vehicle-specific examples.
Ford Transit Connect van
Lower ball joints on these vehicles have been known to fail after as little as 20,000 miles. The main issue is a weak plastic bearing that doesn’t hold up to the rough conditions of heavy usage in daily commercial service. In addition, the tightness of the area around the ball joint makes it impossible to grease the joint, eliminating the chance to flush away contaminants.
The OE ball joint uses an internal torx at the end of the stud. The knuckle must be removed in order to replace this joint, making this a two-hour job per side.
Not available separately
In many vehicle applications, an upper or lower ball joint may not be available from the OE source as a separate service part, requiring the replacement of an entire control arm or knuckle assembly. Aftermarket ball joint makers often have developed replacement ball joints that are designed for the application, eliminating the need to purchase a more expensive complete assembly.
Always check with your suspension parts suppliers on the availability of replacement joints in those cases where the OE does not offer joints separately. To cite only two examples, ball joint replacements are not available through the OE for 1996-2005 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable station wagons, or 1989-1997 Mazda Miata MX5 vehicles. However, aftermarket replacement ball joints are readily available with superior design and construction from aftermarket sources such as MOOG.
Just because the OE doesn’t offer ball joints separately for a given vehicle, never assume that you’re forced to buy a complete suspension assembly. Always check with your aftermarket sources.
Ford Super Duty and Dodge Ram
These vehicles that are equipped with straight axles are originally fitted with non-greaseable lower ball joints. Due to the commonly severe duty use, a quality greaseable joint is required during replacement. In addition, improper installation can lead to a variety of steering issues as well as ball joint failure.
All straight axle and twin I-beam designs have manufacturing variations: horizontally between the upper and lower taper holes in the knuckle/axle and between the mounting locations of the upper and lower ball joints.
Plastic doesn’t last long
Vehicles equipped with polymer bearing surfaces don’t provide sufficient load-carrying capability, especially in rough service environments. Examples include Ford Expedition, Explorer and F-150 Heritage, F-250 and Ranger, Lincoln Navigator, Mazda B2300 and B3000 and Mercury Mountaineer vehicles. Load stress and debris contamination can quickly erode the bearing surface, and water contamination can corrode the ball stud and housing.
When installing a replacement ball joint, technicians may note that the new ball joint may not fit tight in the opening in the lower control arm. The lower ball joint hole has been known to experience wear, especially when the ball joint has been replaced several times. If a traditional ball joint is installed in this situation, it will move and shift during operation, which can quickly damage the control arm in addition to causing unsafe handling. Lower ball joints in these applications are difficult to press out.
When removing, an air hammer or chisel is not recommended, as these tools can further damage the control arm ball joint receptacle. A specialty press tool (MOOG’s T40003 is but one example) should be used to avoid mushrooming the housing of the old ball joint and damaging the control arm.
GM light-duty truck ball joints
The original equipment upper ball joints on 2007-2011 GM light-duty full-size pickups and SUVs feature an integral joint (part of the upper arm) with a non-greaseable plastic design and a 1.062-inch ball joint stud. This design has been prone to premature failure in as little as 36,000 miles. Aftermarket upper arm/ball joint assemblies are available with a larger diameter ball and higher-quality greaseable ball joint.
Lower ball joints on 2002-2007 Chevy Trailblazer and GMC Envoy, 2002-2004 Oldsmobile Bravada and 2004-2007 Buick Ranier feature a relatively small diameter stud ball and an OE-style polymer bearing. In severe conditions load stresses (in addition to water and debris contamination) quickly erode these bearings. Aftermarket (non plastic) joints are available, but be sure to remove the old OE-style ball joint flange during removal of the original joint. The flange must be bent upward with a hammer and chisel before attempting removal.
Pressed-in lower joints
Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass vehicles feature a lower control arm that incorporates a pressed-in and crimped lower ball joint. The OE service manual recommends replacing the entire control arm. However, aftermarket lower ball joints are available for these applications.
Using a suitable press, press the original ball joint down and out of the control arm. Replacement (greaseable) ball joints are available with a larger diameter flange that press into the control arm in the downward direction (same direction as pushing out the OE joint).
Premature ball joint failures on many 2003-2006 Ram 2500/3500 4WD (and 2006 Ram 1500 with Mega Cab) vehicles are common on units equipped with the 9.25-inch axle. The installation process places significant demands on the upper ball joint design. The upper and lower ball joints on these axles may not be perfectly aligned. The OE ball joints deform to comply with this alignment issue. This leads to premature wear from impact loads even during “normal” driving.
The ball joints should be replaced if any side-to-side or radial play is discovered (vertical-only movement is considered normal).
Beware the ellipse
Press-in ball joints in some upper arm locations are designed with an elliptical stud opening. Failure to properly align the ball joint in the control arm during installation (when replacing with either OE or aftermarket upper ball joint) can easily result in joint binding and failure.
If an elliptical ball joint is pressed into the control arm without regard to orientation, normal suspension movement will cause the ball joint stud to contact the housing. Note that elliptical openings are not visible if the joint features a pre-installed boot. If the boot is already in place, work the stud in various directions until you find the location of the furthest stud travel.
Make a mark at this travel plane. Aftermarket replacement ball joints that feature an elliptical opening may feature an alignment mark. The mark needs to face outboard when installed. Elliptical joints were featured in a variety of vehicles (starting in around 1995 and through 2008) including brands such as GM, Ford, Lincoln, Mercury and Honda vehicles.
When installing a ball joint, if you see an alignment dot/punch mark, determine if the stud moves further in one particular direction.
Blue is cool, but...
Some OE dust boots featured on tie rod ends and ball joints feature a blue color. Depending on the formulation of the boot (polychloroprene as an example), the color aspect of the boot may feature a reduction of carbon black strengthening filler. Reducing carbon black can reduce material strength, resulting in shorter life as the boot may degrade quicker (allowing contaminants to enter the joint). An example of prematurely degraded blue boots has been observed on a GM Silverado 2500 with as little as 17,000 miles.
Camber/caster fix for Mopars
Some vehicle suspension designs will drive any alignment tech up the wall, especially when no provision for caster and/or camber adjustment is designed into the OE system. Examples (to cite only a few of just one brand) include 2005-2009 Chrysler 300, 2008-2009 Dodge Challenger, 2006-2008 Dodge Charger and the 2005-2008 Dodge Magnum.
As we all know, even the best suspension designs can be affected over the long haul by a variety of factors, including but not limited to suspension system wear, “tweaking” of the frame or subframe over time, and of course, as the result of collision damage.
As a remedy for the specific vehicles mentioned here, offset lower ball joints are available (MOOG’s P/N K7469 is an example) that allows a +1/-1 degree range of front camber and caster angles.
Honda lower ball joints
The lower ball joints on many Hondas and Acuras are pressed into the steering knuckle and are difficult to remove and install, especially with age. Commonly, technicians beat and hammer the ball joints out and in, which is time consuming and can damage the steering knuckle and the new ball joint.
For removal, separate the ball joint from the lower control arm, remove the snap ring (where applicable) and using a C-clamp style ball joint press and appropriate sockets, push the ball joint out of the steering knuckle.
For installation, use a C-clamp style ball joint press and sockets to push the new ball joint into the steering knuckle. Install a new snap ring if applicable. An example of the sockets for this job is MOOG’s T80541 kit.
Can’t access the grease fitting?
When performing 4WD twin I-beam upper ball joint service on various Ford 28-series axles, if the replacement ball joint features a grease fitting at the very bottom of the joint housing ball, the proximity of the grease fitting to the axle shaft yoke is tight, making it difficult (if not impossible) to apply grease to the fitting.
A sensible alternative is to select a replacement ball joint that features an offset grease fitting that places the fitting further outboard, eliminating the “trapped” condition of the fitting and permitting access for lubrication.
Upper and lower ball joints on the 2008 Ford E-Series 350 front suspension are featured on the steering knuckle. Both ball joints feature a press (interference) fit. The lower ball joint also features a snap ring.
1. Remove the wheel spindle.
2. Remove the lower ball joint grease plug.
3. Position the wheel spindle in a vise and remove the snap ring from the lower ball joint.
4. To avoid damage, do NOT use heat to aid in ball joint removal. Using a C-frame and screw installer/remover and ball joint installer/remover, remove the lower ball joint. Ford lists the C-frame and screw under P/N 205-086. Ball joint remover/installer kits are available from Ford as P/N 204-355 (for upper joint) and 204-358 (for lower joint). Aftermarket equivalents are readily available.
5. Remove the grease plug from the upper ball joint. Using the C-frame and screw and ball joint installer/remover, remove the upper ball joint. Do not use heat.
6. Prior to installing the replacement ball joints, clean the wheel knuckle ball joint bores thoroughly.
7. The upper ball joint must be installed first. Using the C-frame and ball joint installer, press the upper ball joint into place.
8. Using the C-frame and ball joint installer, press-in the lower ball joint.
9. Install a new snap ring into the groove at the bottom of the lower ball joint. And install the grease fitting. Install the wheel spindle.
Examples of ball joint service tools
Mobile hydraulic press
As with many tools, components, system designs and techniques, there’s “old school,” and there’s “new school.” When it comes to servicing suspension bushings, ball joints and wheel bearings, traditional methods of separating interference-fit bushings, joints and bearings typically involve pickle forks and hammers, manual or hydraulic pullers, scissors/clamshell ball joint separators and the like.
A “new school” approach (this one from Schley Products) involves an all-in-one mobile hydraulic press system that apparently does it all with a minimum of fuss. The 11000A features an air-powered hydro pump with foot control.
Honda/Acura on-car ball joint R&R
Schley Tools has introduced a unique lower ball joint service tool specifically for Honda/Acura applications. The new tool allows removal and installation of the lower ball joints on the car, eliminating the need to remove the steering knuckle and using a stationary press. The tool features two main parts that are attached to an air hammer (remover and installer tools). The installer tool couples with one of three different sizes of installer heads that drive the new joint into place without damage. The tool system covers 1991-97 Honda Civic, 1990-2002 Accord, 1988-91 and 1996-98 Prelude, 1995-97 Odyssey; and 1988-95 Acura Legend, 1992-2001 Integra and 1996-2003 TL.
Pivot-jaw ball joint separator
The “scissors” or “pivot jaw” type ball joint separator features two forged halves that share a common pivot point. A cupped-out seat engages on the opposite side of the joint from the stud and the driver side of the tool jaw engages the stud tip. As the captive threaded bolt at the opposite end of the tool is tightened, the jaws that capture the joint compress, popping the interference-fit joint out of its home.
The tip of the adjuster bolt features a ball bearing to prevent the stud from digging into the tool’s drive end as the bolt is rotated. The pivot point features two pivot positions (pop the pivot pin out, adjust for a tighter or wider jaw distance and reinsert the pin into the appropriate pivot hole).
The tool is adjustable to accommodate up to a two-inch spread for different size ball joints. This handy style joint separator can be used on various styles of ball joints as well as certain styles of outer tie rod ends.
Using compressive force as opposed to impact force allows a controlled separation, reducing the chance of damaging adjacent surfaces.
This style of tool requires no hydraulic assistance, and it’s a handy item to keep in your arsenal of suspension specialty tools. An example of this style of tool is OTC’s Ball Joint Separator P/N 6297. ●
6200 Grand Pointe Dr., Grand Blanc, MI 48439. (800) 223-3526, www.acdelco.com
BOSCH WHEEL SERVICE
2800 S. 25th Ave., Broadview, IL 60155, (800) 321-4889, www.boschdiagnostics.com
Federal-Mogul Corp., 26555 Northwestern Highway, Southfield, MI 48033, (248) 354-7700, www.federalmogul.com
Bosch Automotive Service Solutions, 28635 Mound Rd., Warren, MI 48092, (800) 533-6127, www.otctools.com
SCHLEY PRODUCTS INC.
5350 E. Hunter Ave., Anaheim, CA 92807, (714) 693-7666, www.sptool.com
SKF USA INC.
890 Forty Foot Rd., Lansdale, PA 19446, (800) 440-4753, www.skf.com/us/
THE TIMKEN CO.
1835 Dueber Ave. SW, Canton, OH 44706-0932, (330) 438-3000, www.timken.com
Want to read more technical articles? See the entire May/June 2014 issue of Auto Service Professional by checking out our digital version here.