What happens when you push down on the brake pedal?
Your car slows and eventually comes to a stop.
Touch it lightly, and it slows just a bit. Stomp on it, and you can stop in mere seconds. According to the National Association Of City Transportation Officials, the average vehicle going 60 mph will come to a resting point in 4.4 seconds. You’ll feel that motion if you stop at that rate, but it can be done.
However, the only way that can happen is if your braking system is working the way it should.
How the brake system works
Brakes are actually pretty straightforward in the way they operate. We’ve written about it here and here. But for the sake of this article, we’ll condense it into one paragraph format.
When you press down on the brake pedal, it pushes an internal lever that increases the pushing force. This lever pushes a piston into a cylinder filled with hydraulic fluid, also known as brake fluid. The fluid condenses and squeezes out through the end, down a pipe until it reaches another cylinder located at the wheel. Here, it pushes another piston with increased force. It connects with the brake pad and pushes it towards the brake disc. As the brake pad touches the brake disc, friction between the two heats, causing the outer wheel and tire to slow and eventually stop.
This basic principle happens four times over, for every line to every wheel on your car.
What makes it all possible is the brake fluid. It’s what increases the pressure to the point of making the mechanics of the braking system work.
It’s time to check your brake fluid levels
You’re already in the habit of checking your motor oil on a regular basis. Low brake fluid is equally important. Yet keep in mind that brake fluid doesn’t need to be changed out as frequently as motor oil, nor is it as vulnerable as the oil used to keep your engine running clean.
However, brake fluid is a vital fluid needed to keep your car running smoothly. It can be the difference of being able to stop your car whenever you desire, or not.
Like your motor oil, checking your brake fluid should be a part of your regular maintenance plan. Especially if you notice your brakes not behaving as they should. Do your brakes feel spongy when you press down on the brake pedal? It’s time to check your brakes. Do you hear a squeal as you tap on the brakes? It’s definitely time for a check up.
Like motor oil, brake fluid can have a variety of things wrong with it. If it’s low, there might be a leak somewhere in the system. If it’s contaminated, it means dirt and grime has found a way inside.
Brake fluid impacts every part of the braking system, the brake pads, rotors, calipers, and brake lines. And if the brake fluid doesn’t have the proper makeup, chances are it’s impacting any or all of these parts in various ways. A thorough inspection is needed to ensure your brakes are working the way they should.
Finding the brake fluid reservoir
Keep in mind that filling your brake fluid reservoir isn’t like topping up your motor oil. You can’t run to your local auto parts store and buy just any brake fluid sitting on the shelf. It takes knowledge to ensure you’re purchasing the right product, and skill to fully clean the system as you change it out. Still, having a general understanding can make you a more well informed driver and car owner.
The brake fluid reservoir is typically a plastic canister that is mounted near the rear of the engine compartment. It’s usually near the driver’s side brake booster. If you can’t find it, consult your owner’s manual or do a search online for your make and model. It will point you in the right direction.
Most newer vehicles use a translucent plastic with a fill line, so you can immediately tell if the brake fluid is low. Older vehicles might have a metal reservoir, with a clamp securing the top into place. Different vehicles have different rules about opening up the lid. Follow guidelines exactly or risk contaminating the brake fluid. Exposure to moist air can contaminate the fluid in just a few minutes, so it’s important to know what you’re doing before you open it up.
Brake fluid looks okay if …
The first check is to ensure you have enough brake fluid in the system. Does the brake fluid levels reach the fill line?
If it doesn’t, that can be a warning sign your brake pads are wearing thin. This is because as brake pads wear down, they take more action to work. The piston will need to move farther into the system, requiring more fluid to complete the process.
If the fluid level looks okay, the second step is to inspect the fluid itself. Brake fluid is normally a clear or light gold color. If it turns brown or black, the brake fluid is contaminated and it needs to be replaced. As dirt enters the system, it slowly changes the coloring, giving the fluid its darker appearance. It allows dirt and other contaminants into the braking system, which in turn can damage other parts.
Adding brake fluid
As a general rule, you should have your brake fluid replaced about every two years. Of course, this depends on a variety of things, including your drive style, the make and model of your car. Check your owner’s manual for recommended guidelines. One of our experienced mechanics can also provide you with more information.
Different vehicles require different brake fluid. You can’t mix and match. If you use an incorrect formula, or overfill your brake fluid reservoir, you risk having your brakes working incorrectly. Most systems use either DOT3 or DOT4 brake fluid. Consult your owner’s manual, or find the information located on the brake fluid reservoir cap.
Brake fluid is toxic and highly corrosive, so proper protection is needed anytime you deal with brake fluid.
Once brake fluid is changed, it also requires testing and bleeding the brakes.
Don’t have the tools or the knowledge to test your brakes yourself? Let one of our mechanics help. We’ll ensure your brakes are safe and well cared for, and have you back on the road in no time.
Schedule your maintenance visit today.