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Shock Absorber Basics

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On: Mon, Sep 19, 2011 at 4:39PM | By: Peter C Sessler

Shock Absorber Basics

Here’s an easy job you can do in your driveway—so you think. After all, a shock absorber has just two mounting points—one at the top and one at the bottom. What could be simpler? Actually, it is a simple operation, but you have to have the some simple tools to do it.

What about struts? Struts are similar to shocks but they usually incorporate a spring, and require a spring compressor for removal. Unless you decide to make an investment in these tools, you’re better off having these replaced professionally. Most cars use struts in the front and some in the rear as well, but most minivans, trucks, and SUVs use traditional shocks in all four corners.

You know when your car needs new shocks when you notice that the ride has deteriorated to the point when going over bumps produces loud crash-type noises and it seems your car just bounces a lot. The old push-down-on-a-fender test may or may not work on your vehicle because today’s cars and trucks ride much stiffer than cars did back in the 1960s and 1970s. You can also visually check your shocks. If they are leaking, that’s usually a sign they’ve gone south.

Shock absorbers, or as the British more appropriately call them “dampeners”, don’t absorb “shocks.” The springs do that. Shock absorbers stop the car from bouncing up and down after the initial jolt. A shock absorber typically contains an oil-filled chamber with a piston assembly. As the car hits a bump, the piston pushes up and forces the oil through a small orifice. Naturally, the oil can flow only so fast through the orifice and so the spring's flexing motion is slowed and stopped. Most shocks today are also filled with gas to control fluid aeration.

If you’ve decided you’re going to replace your shocks yourself, make sure to get replacement shocks that include all the necessary mounting hardware. Typically, you’ll find that there are several types available for your vehicle. Get the heaviest duty ones as they’ll last longer. Some performance shocks are adjustable—you can adjust the setting from normal to firm so you can tailor the ride to your liking. Some of the adjustable shocks, though, have to be removed from the vehicle to be adjusted. Some cars have electronically adjustable shocks—which means you may be able to get them only from the dealer (typically expensive), but you may also be able to get replacement shocks that don’t use the electronics. If you plan to replace the electronic shocks with conventional ones, just make sure to tape the ends of the electrical connectors.

The biggest problem with shock replacement is getting the shock mounting nuts off. Most of the time, you’ll find they are frozen. In that case, use WD-40 or something stronger the night before on the nuts. Even so, that may not work and you might end up having to use a torch or a nut splitter. The worst scenario is when the piston rod turns as you try to loosen the nut on some applications. There may be enough room for clamping a vice grip on the end to hold it from turning as you try to loosen the nut with a box wrench. Lisle makes a kit that is particularly useful in these cases (Part #20400), and they also have one for use on some Ford vehicles.

Once you get the shocks off, all that remains is to install the new ones. Usually it’s a matter of just reversing the procedure. Some shocks, even though they are correct for the application, may have different mounting hardware. Just make sure you have all the right pieces before you start and read the instructions if you aren’t quite sure how they go on.


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