As we mention frequently here on Auto Chimps, the brakes are one of your car’s most important components that enable you to drive safely.
Unfortunately, people often ignore their brakes. When they do think about them, they tend to focus on the brake pads and rotors.
However, brake fluid is equally important. Without it, neither the brake pads nor rotors would function as intended, and the car would be unable to slow down safely.
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Why Is Brake Fluid Important?
Your car’s braking system is a closed system. This means that nothing should get out of the system, nor should anything get into it.
This is important as the braking system is a hydraulic one. In basic terms, when you press down on the brake pedal, you redistribute the brake fluid, pressurizing it and amplifying the initial force applied by your foot to the pedal.
To accomplish this, the brake fluid must be intact and uncontaminated. However, the brake fluid is hygroscopic, which means it attracts water molecules from the environment.
This will happen gradually (unless you have a leak) but over many months it will eventually lead to a higher water percentage.
As lots of heat is produced, the brake fluid must withstand it to work properly. If water mixes with the brake fluid, the boiling point will decrease, making the fluid less effective.
This is why brake fluid is important and why it must eventually be replaced. A brake fluid change will also protect the brake lines and other components of the braking system.
When Should You Change The Brake Fluid?
When changing the brake fluid, the old fluid must be flushed out. For this reason, a brake fluid change is also referred to as a brake fluid flush.
Manufacturers differ on when the brake fluid should be replaced. Some say that it should be changed every 2 years but, in reality, it differs for each car and driver.
It is a good habit to check all fluids, including the brake fluid, when the car is due for an oil change.
For most cars, replacing the brake fluid every three to five years is sufficient, but you should always keep an eye on the brake fluid.
You can check the brake fluid by looking at the transparent container. It should be clear or have a yellow hue. When it turns darker or even black, it should be replaced as soon as possible.
Remember to check the level of the brake fluid as well as the color, but do not keep the reservoir unsealed for too long as this could contaminate the fluid.
There is no exact rule regarding when the brake fluid should be changed. It depends on your driving habits, the local climate, your car, and many other factors.
Signs And Symptoms Of Low Brake Fluid
As mentioned in the previous section, the best way to know when to change the brake fluid is to simply observe it. However, you might also notice abnormal behavior from your brakes that suggests the brake fluid needs to be changed.
While regular maintenance should prevent this from happening, it is possible that a leak has occurred, with noticeable side effects.
The symptoms of bad brake fluid include:
- ABS light turns on
- The brake pedal behaves differently
- Loss of stopping power
- Bad smell
Any symptom or sign that affects your braking should be addressed immediately. You should stop your car as soon as possible if you notice any of these signs.
ABS Light Turns On
When the brake fluid is low, it’s likely that your ABS light will turn on as the system cannot work properly when an inadequate amount of brake fluid is present.
This is not exclusive to low brake fluid, but it is something to keep in mind if your ABS light turns on.
Brake Pedal Behaves Differently
If something feels different when pressing down on the brake pedal, it could indicate a low brake fluid level or contaminated brake fluid.
This problem can present itself in multiple ways, such as a spongy, bouncy, or loose feel when applying pressure to the pedal.
Loss Of Stopping Power
The most serious consequence of bad brake fluid is the actual loss of stopping power. If your car does not decelerate as it should when braking, the issue might stem from the brake fluid.
This problem can either start abruptly or become progressively worse over time. However it happens, it is vital to tackle this problem whenever you notice it.
A bad smell might seem like a very vague symptom but it could also be very serious. The smell could have many possible causes, including your brake fluid.
Contaminated brake fluid has a lower boiling point, which means the fluid can start boiling after using the brakes repeatedly. In many cases, this causes a burning smell or a strong chemical odor.
How Much Does It Cost To Change Brake Fluid?
The cost involved with replacing the brake fluid will mostly be due to labor. The majority of cars will use DOT 4 brake fluid, while others will use DOT 3.
To ensure you use the correct brake fluid for your car, the manufacturer will usually specify which one is best for your model.
Thankfully, brake fluid is not expensive. You should expect to pay about $5 for 32 oz of brake fluid.
When replacing brake fluid, it is best to leave it in the hands of a professional mechanic. The labor cost varies by state, but you can expect to pay $80 to $130.
Bleeding Or Flushing The Brakes
Many people use the terms “flushing the brakes” and “bleeding the brakes” interchangeably, however they are not the same.
Bleeding the brakes refers to removing air from the brake system. This will usually be unnecessary unless you take your car to the track.
The best approach is always to flush out the brakes. This means the entire brake system is replaced with new fluid, which is the best solution from a maintenance point of view.
Brake fluid is an extremely important component of the braking system that should be replaced when it shows signs of going bad.
The associated symptoms do not necessarily appear when the brake fluid is due for a change. You should therefore routinely check the brake fluid level and color.
We recommend checking all the fluids at once, ideally when your car is due for an oil change.
Brake fluid should be clear with a yellow hue. If it is black or very dark, it should be replaced as soon as possible.
Brake fluid is kept in a closed system but will attract water molecules from the surrounding environment. This will lower its boiling point and reduce the effectiveness of the fluid and consequently the braking system.
If the fluid is really bad, symptoms and signs may become apparent such as the ABS light activating, abnormal pedal feel, bad smell, and loss of stopping power.
There is no universal rule regarding when brake fluid should be replaced. Many manufacturers recommend changing it every two years, but it depends on several factors including driving habits and the climate.
Two types of brake fluid are used in the majority of today’s cars: DOT 4 and DOT 3. DOT 4 is the more popular of the two.
You should use the type of fluid specified by your car manufacturer for your model.
On average, changing the brake fluid costs $80 to $130 and should be done by a professional mechanic unless you have the knowledge and equipment to do it yourself.
Bleeding the brakes is not the same as flushing them. When flushing the brake fluid, the whole system is replaced with new brake fluid.
Unlike flushing the brake fluid, bleeding the brakes only removes the air bubbles in the system. You will still eventually need to replace the fluid as a whole.
This means that unless you have driving habits that are out of the ordinary, such as taking your car to the track, you should stick with flushing the brakes only when it is indicated.