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Ford F150 4×4 Actuator Problems: What You Need To Know!

What kind of problems does an American-made Ford F-150 normally have in terms of the actuator? In this blog, we’ve outlined all the most important things you should keep an eye out for when you’re in the market for a Ford F-150. In the rest of the article, we’ll discuss every single problem in detail. Furthermore, we’ll tell you how to identify it, fix it and how much it costs to fix. Read on!

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1. 4 Wheel Drive Won’t Engage

Ford F150 are notorious for their problematic 4WD system. Components like the actuator and the solenoid (positioned on the passenger side of the engine bay) would usually malfunction, causing the 4WD not to engage correctly.

This problem on the Ford F150 is usually accompanied by any or all of the following symptoms –

  • Front axle jerking
  • Grinding noise while driving
  • Metal scraping noise coming from the front axle

Usually, this issue can occur due to any of the following reasons –

Failed 4WD actuator

The actuator on the Ford F150 connects the wheel hub to the axle shaft when the 4WD mode is selected. More precisely, it disconnects the hub and the axle when the 4WD mode is not engaged, reducing driveline loss caused by spinning an otherwise non-rotating axle.

When the vehicle is in 2WD mode, the actuator will have a vacuum through the solenoid inside the engine, which opens up in the 2WD model. The vacuum enters the IWE (Integrated Wheel End) system and disengages the actuator, which disengages the 4WD mode. Vice versa, when in the 4WD, the solenoid inside the engine shuts off and takes away the vacuum activating the actuator, which in turn engages the vehicle into the 4WD mode.  

To check if the actuator is working and engaging properly. First, elevate the vehicle’s front from the ground and locate the actuator in the IWE system on your Ford F150. Next, disengage both the vacuum lines from the actuator and hook an external vacuum pump instead.

Now, give and release the vacuum using the pump. If the teeth assembly on the actuator moves outside (engaged position) with the incoming vacuum and moves inside (disengaged position) when the vacuum is not given, then the actuator is working properly. Otherwise, if the movement of the actuator is restricted and does not move with the vacuum, then it has encountered some problems.

To fix this issue, replacing the actuator with a new one is the only solution. A new actuator for the Ford F150 can cost anywhere around $50-$100 in the United States. 

Also, a simple but not so accurate way to diagnose a problem with the actuator can be done by putting your F150 in 2WD mode, like it should be when driving on high traction surfaces like highway roads or pavement. The vacuum, in this case, would get activated, disengaging the front hubs using the front actuators sucking.

After the vacuum is lost and the actuator cannot disengage the front hubs, they will lose pressure and engage automatically, shredding the hub gear. If it does not happen as described, then chances are there is a problem with the actuator on your Ford F150.

Suppose you are not a DIY person. Checking and replacing the actuator would be a daunting task for you. In that case, consider taking your Ford F150 to the service station to have the actuator inspected for any undesirable fault.

If the problem of the 4WD not engaging persists, then any of these following reasons can be the culprit –

Damaged Vacuum Hoses

Apart from the actuator, it is imperative to check the vacuum hoses for any cracks or wears.

To do this, firstly locate the solenoid, which usually can be found in the engine compartment next to the battery on the passenger side of the vehicle.

The good thing is to test the vacuum hoses. You don’t need any high-end equipment or a vacuum gauge. You have to separate the vacuum hoses from the solenoid, which is located against the firewall.

On the Ford F150, two vacuum hoses are held together with a plastic housing (usually black in color). One of the lines (check valve) has a permanent vacuum when the engine on the F150 is running. The second hose ought to have the vacuum only when the 4WD mode is engaged.

To test for vacuum, remove the hose from the check-valve connection and put it in the second hose that feeds pressure to the integrated wheel end (IWE) system. This will give a permanent vacuum when the engine is on, allowing the diaphragm from the IWE to come back and the wheels to rotate freely.

To inspect this closely, jack the front of the F150 up and check if both the front wheels are spinning freely. If this doesn’t work as expected, then expect a leak or crack in the vacuum hose. Fixing this would need a complete replacement of the vacuum hoses, costing you around $75-$100 in the United States.

Failed Vacuum Solenoid

Besides a faulty actuator, another possible reason for the 4WD on your Ford F150 to not engage can be a failed vacuum solenoid.

Before testing the vacuum solenoid, make sure the bottom’s vacuum lines are appropriately connected and not the vacuum lines on the top. After that, start the F150 in 2WD mode and monitor the vacuum pressure from the top pipe. Next, with the car in neutral, engage the 4WD mode and again test the vacuum, this time, there should not be any vacuum on the top pipe.

This test is a simple way to help you detect any fault with the solenoid.

Moreover, note that in many cases, moisture leads to the failing of the solenoid. Especially older F150 models have a solenoid with no hood/cover to stop the moisture from getting in. In that case, replacing the solenoid with a new hood would prevent moisture damage from happening again.

Transfer Case Shift Motor

Ford F150 manufactured before the year 2004 are notorious for their troublesome transfer case shift motor. Although this issue is relatively rare, if your Ford is from before the make year 2004, it is imperative to check the transfer case shift motor for any fault.

If faulty, it can cause the 4WD not to engage. 

Other Issue

To further diagnose this issue with the 4WD mode not engaging. Firstly, there should be a vacuum on the bigger hose when the F150 is in the 2WD model. Also, the driveshaft on the front should not rotate when the tire is turned. Only after the 4WD mode is engaged should the front driveshafts and the CV rotate.

If there is enough vacuum and the driveshafts rotate, there possibly is a problem with the actuator on the wheel end which engages the hubs. This will require an investigation of the actuator, which is explained above.

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2. Grinding Sound From The Front Of The Vehicle

Common with the Ford F150, the IWE (Integrated Wheel End) system can malfunction due to a faulty actuator. Usually, this problem happens after about 1,50,000 miles or so. A fault in the IWE system can result in annoying grinding sounds when turning the vehicle or first taking off.

The Integrated Wheel End (IWE) system in the Ford is what unlocks and locks the front hubs when you switch between 2WD and 4WD. The IWE system works off of a vacuum. Moreover, working in a counter-intuitive fashion, it shuts off the vacuum to lock front hubs for 4WD and uses a vacuum to keep the hubs unlocked for 2WD.

Quite sophisticated, anything vacuum-operated is prone to problems, and the IWE system on the Ford is no different.

The IWE system on the Ford F150 comprises of four essential parts, namely –

  • The IWE Actuators
  • Front Wheel Hubs
  • IWE Vacuum Line
  • IWE Solenoid/Valve Assembly

Like the IWE Solenoid/Valve assembly, which controls the flow of vacuum when you change drives, the actuator on the IWE system is an integral part.

When the actuator on the IWE system faces trouble, the first indication is a grinding sound in 2WD, usually under certain situations, like – when it first starts, but it gets worse over time.

If you experience a similar sound coming from the IWE on your Ford F150, then chances are the actuators are not getting enough vacuum to disengage from the hub completely. Although this problem may sound simple in reality, there can be several causes of it. Also, note that the grinding would usually occur when in 2WD and not in 4WD.  

If ignored, both the actuator and the hub can get severely damaged over a period of time. Also, because of this, grinding between the hub and the actuator, the loose material from the teeth of the actuator can accumulate inside the knuckle’s hub mount.

Resolving this issue would need the replacement of both the hub and the actuator. However, in some cases, replacing these parts would only eliminate the low-speed grinding on straight roads. Whereas grinding would still happen when turning the vehicle. In that case, you can attempt replacing the IWE solenoid, which is an inexpensive part readily available in the United States for about $25-$40.

If the problem is still unsolved, check the IWE actuator vacuum line, as, over time, it can develop tears or cracks. These vacuum lines connect the vacuum reservoir to the IWE solenoid. Usually, the vacuum line on the driver side is prone to damage due to the push clip that grips it to the frame near the ABS line. These vacuum lines connect the vacuum reservoir to the IWE solenoid.

Overall, any problem with the actuator and the integrated wheel-end system is not easy to detect. Therefore it is wise to consult a technician if you experience a problem with the actuator or hear an abnormal grinding noise.

3. F150 Stuck Into 4WD Mode

Another problem in the Ford F150 because of the actuator is the vehicle getting stuck into the 4WD mode. The actuator on your Ford F150 is a type of solenoid that helps engage the 4-wheel drive mode. In other words, the actuator engages the front hubs to ensure they are locked in with the differential on the front when you put the vehicle in 4WD mode.

Usually, the Ford F150 would go and come out of the 4WD mode without any trouble. However, the F150 would quickly go into the 4WD mode in some cases, but it won’t come out back in the 2WD mode. If this happens, the actuator on the F150 is having some issues and is not working correctly.

If the actuator is not working correctly, besides the vehicle stuck into the 4WD mode, Ford’s PCM (power-train control module) displays an error code.

To fix this problem, you would have to replace the faulty actuator with a new one. In the United States, a new actuator can cost anywhere around $50-$100. Also, since the procedure of changing the actuator is a little time-consuming and involves a bit of labor work, it includes a high labor cost.

Want to read about more problems of the Ford F-150?