Brake Fluid 101: What Is It & How To Check Yours
How To Make Your Car Last Longer Series
How many of you know what brake fluid is? Or, even knew that your brakes need fluid to keep them working properly? Brake fluid is probably the most underestimated fluid added in cars. If you didn’t have proper working brakes, how do you think driving would feel? Horrible and terrifying!! Without brake fluid, we have no brakes, which is why in How To Make Your Car Last Longer, we discuss brake fluid.
Brake Fluid 101: What Is It?
Brake fluid is what keeps your brakes working properly. It is as plain and simple as that. Brake fluid is part of a closed system, like your transmission, which means you shouldn’t have to refill or change it often. With that being said, checking your fluid is still needed. A good sign indicating it is time for new fluid (or more serious conditions like new brake pads and rotors), is when the brakes feel off. If they feel weak, as in mushy when you press down to brake, or if the car seems to shake when you brake, you need to check the fluid.
Three main brake fluids are used the most. Check with your owners manual to determine which is best for your car. Usually, when you take your car in for inspection or tuning, your mechanic will check the fluid and add accordingly. But this is ChicMoto, and we like to do things ourselves.. or, at least, learn how to!
The three most popular brake fluids are DOT3, DOT4, and DOT5. DOT3 and DOT4 are glycol-based fluids that absorb water. DOT5 is silicon based fluid that doesn’t absorb water. They all have a different viscosity and boiling points that determine which is best for your vehicle, so read up on it in your owners manual. Find which fluid your car needs and write it down. That way you won’t add the wrong fluid!
Check, Change, and Bleed
You can help you brake line in two ways. Making sure the reservoir is full of fluid, and bleeding the line to remove air. We will discuss both, but I would suggest watching this YouTube video from Advanced Auto Parts showing what to check and how to refill the fluid.
To check your brake fluid, look for the reservoir usually located towards the driver side under the hood. It should be a clear container, like the coolant reservoir, but positioned more towards the back around the drivers side. Make sure your car engine is cold, open the cap for the reservoir and look inside. If the fluid is at the max line, then you are set. If the fluid is below the max line, then that would explain why your brakes feel off. You can refill to the max line if needed, but be careful and wear gloves! Brake fluid is a very harsh fluid that could irritate the skin.
The next time you take your car in for a tune-up or oil change, tell your mechanic you had to refill the fluid. They will want to check the brake line for a bigger issue like bad rotors or brake pads. Like I said before, the brake line is in a closed system which means it shouldn’t run low. If it does, that usually means the brake pads or rotors are worn and need replacing. If you need to change the pads or rotors, so be it. You don’t need to change them often and proper working brakes = safer vehicle.
Sometimes air enters your brake line which causes the fluid to flow improperly. The term “bleeding the brakes” means you are releasing the air bubbles from the line, and requires two people to help. I would lean on your mechanic to bleed the brakes because some cars can be more tricky than others. But if you want to accomplish it yourself, you will need a couple of handy items and a proper recycling location for the extra fluid. Read this article from DMV explaining everything you need to know about bleeding the brakes.
Checking and changing the fluid can vary on how you drive and how hard you brake. To be safe, I check my brake fluid about twice an oil change. When determining whether the fluid needs replacing, I rely on how my car feels and the color of the fluid. However, we can’t all rely on feel, so have the fluid changed every three to four years. Of course if you take your car into the shop and your mechanic wants to change the brake fluid, I would let them. But you can always ask them to explain why and take you back to look at the fluid.
The color of most fluid is a light golden-brown, so if the fluid is dark brown (or close to), then you need a change. Know your facts and don’t be afraid to ask questions and tell your mechanic to show you what she means. After all it’s your car, your safety, and your money! Feel your car, understand brake fluid, and check that off the list on How To Make Your Car Last Longer.
Up next, we discuss power steering fluid.