As we regularly advise here on Auto Chimps, the brakes are one of the most important components for your safety and the car’s function.
Unfortunately, not many people think about the brakes, and when they do, it is mostly about the brake pads and rotors.
Brake fluid is equally important. Without it, neither the brake pads nor rotors would function, and the car would not be able to safely.
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Why Is Brake Fluid Important?
The braking system of your car is a closed system. This means that nothing should get out of the system, and nothing is added to it.
This is important as the braking system is a hydraulic one. To explain it simply, when you press the brake pedal, you redistribute the brake fluid, pressurizing it and amplifies the initial force of your foot when you pressed the brake pedal.
To accomplish this feat, the brake fluid must be intact and uncontaminated. However, the brake fluid is hygroscopic, which means that it attracts water molecules from the environment.
This will happen slowly (unless you have a leak) but will add up for many months leading to a higher water percentage.
Because lots of heat is produced, the brake fluid must withstand it to properly work. If water gets added to the brake fluid, the boiling point will decrease, making the brake fluid less effective.
This is why brake fluid is important and why it must be replaced eventually. 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 that reason, a brake fluid change is also called a brake fluid flush.
Many manufacturers differ when the brake fluid should be changed. Some may say that it should be changed every 2 years, while 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 up for an oil change.
For most cars, changing the brake fluid every three to five years is sufficient, but 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.
Keep in mind to check the level of the brake fluid as well as the color, however, do not keep the reservoir unsealed for too long as it may contaminate the fluid.
There is no exact rule when the brake fluid should be changed, it all depends on the driving habits, the climate, the car, and many more factors.
Signs And Symptoms Of Low Brake Fluid
As stated in the previous section, the best way to know when to change the brake fluid is to observe it, however, sometimes you may notice abnormal behavior from your brakes when the brake fluid is due to a change.
While regular maintenance should prevent this from happening, it may be possible that a leak has occurred, causing symptoms.
Some signs and symptoms of bad brake fluid are:
- ABS light turns on
- The brake pedal behaves differently
- Loss of stopping power
- Bad smell
It should be noted that any symptom or sign that affects your braking should be dealt with immediately. You should stop your car if you notice any of these signs.
ABS Light Turns On
When the brake fluid is low, chances are that your ABS light will turn on as the system cannot work properly when an inadequate amount of brake fluid is in the system.
This is not something specific to low brake fluid, but it may be something that may be good to keep in mind if your ABS light turns on.
Brake Pedal Behaves Differently
An abnormal feeling when pressing the brake pedal can indicate a low brake fluid level or contaminated brake fluid.
This problem can present in multiple ways including a spongy, bouncy, or loose feel when pressing the pedal.
Loss Of Stopping Power
A serious consequence of bad brake fluid is loss of stopping power. If your car is not deaccelerating properly when braking, the issue may stem from the brake fluid.
This problem can either come abruptly or may become progressively worse over time. Regardless of the presentation, it is very important to tackle this problem whenever you encounter it.
Bad smell is a very unspecific symptom but may be very serious. The smell may be due to many reasons, including the brake fluid.
Contaminated brake fluid has a lower boiling point which means that the fluid can start boiling after using the brakes for a while. This produces in most cases a burning smell or a strong chemical odor.
How Much Does It Cost To Change Brake Fluid?
The cost of changing the brake fluid will mostly be due to labor. Most cars will use DOT 4 brake fluid, while others will use DOT 3.
To choose the right brake fluid for your car, your car manufacturer has usually specified which one is best for your car.
Luckily, brake fluid is not expensive, you can expect to pay about $5 for 32 oz of brake fluid.
To change brake fluid, it is best to leave it to a professional mechanic. The labor cost varies by state, but you may expect to pay $80 to $130.
Bleeding Or Flushing The Brakes
Many people use the terms “flushing the brakes” and “bleeding the brakes” synonymously, however they are not the same.
Bleeding the brakes means that you remove the air from the brake system. In most cases, this is not necessary unless you go to the track with the car.
The best thing is always to flush out the brakes. This means that the whole brake system is replaced with new fluid, which is the best alternative from a maintenance point of view.
Brake fluid is an extremely important component of the braking system that should be replaced when it is going bad.
Signs and symptoms do not necessarily show when the brake fluid is due for a change. You should therefore regularly check the brake fluid level and color.
A good tip is to regularly check all the fluids at once, preferably when it 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 present in a closed system but will attract water molecules from the environment which will lower the boiling point and decrease the efficacy of the fluid and consequently the braking system.
If it is really bad, symptoms and signs may be present such as the ABS light illuminating, abnormal pedal feel, bad smell, and loss of stopping power.
There is no exact rule when brake fluid should be replaced, many manufacturers recommend changing it every two years, but it depends on many factors including driving habits and the climate.
Generally, two types of brake fluid are used in today’s cars – DOT 4 and DOT 3, the former being the most popular alternative.
You should use the type which your car manufacturer recommends for specifically your car model.
Changing the brake fluid costs on average $80 to $130 and should be done by a professional mechanic unless you have the knowledge, the tools, and time to do it yourself.
Bleeding the brakes is not the same as flushing it. When flushing the brake fluid, the whole system gets 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 in whole.
This means that unless you have “unusual” driving habits, such as taking your car regularly to the track, you should stick with flushing the brakes when it is indicated.