Just as engine oil keeps a car running, brake fluid is vital to helping the car come to a stop.
Changing your brake fluid can’t be left as a footnote in your maintenance checklist. Proper brake maintenance is crucial to keeping your car running smoothly — and keeping yourself safe.
If you have questions about how and when to change your brake fluid, you’re not alone. This guide will answer all your most frequently asked questions, including how to check your fluid level and know when it’s time for a brake fluid change.
What Is Brake Fluid and Why Is It Important?
Brake fluid helps your hydraulic system operate smoothly. While it may have a simple role, it’s a critical component in the braking process.
Just like oil, brake fluid will lose its effectiveness over time. It can also absorb moisture from the environment, which can corrode the hydraulic system and make your brakes less effective. If fluid levels are low or contaminated by moisture, you won’t have the same braking power. In a worst-case scenario, your brakes won’t work at all.
How Do You Check Brake Fluid?
If you’re driving with bad brake fluid, you might find that it takes more pressure on the pedal to come to a stop. You may also notice a burning, chemical odor or smoke after repeated hard braking. This can indicate other issues as well, but it may be a sign of overheated brake fluid — and potential brake failure.
But it’s best not to wait for a critical driving situation to find out you have low brake fluid levels or contaminated fluid. You should check it before problems arise.
To check your brake fluid, check your owner’s manual to see where to find the reservoir. It’s often located above the master cylinder. You may also see brake lines coming out of the bottom of it.
Once you’ve located the reservoir, do not open the cap. Removing the cap can draw more moisture into the hydraulics system. The cap should be translucent, allowing you to check the fluid levels without opening it.
When Is It Time for a Brake Fluid Change?
You can tell when it might be time for a change by checking the color of the fluid you see. Brake fluid should be light brown in color — sometimes it will be clear when it’s brand new — but it will darken with age. If you notice that the fluid is dark brown or murky, have it tested by a professional for moisture to see if they recommend a change.
Keep an eye on the level of fluid as well. If it’s below the line, it may need to be topped off or replaced entirely. If it seems especially low, there’s a chance you have a leak, which requires urgent attention.
How Often Should I Replace My Brake Fluid?
There’s no set time for every car, but it’s safe to say that you should replace your brake fluid every two to five years or around 40,000 to 50,000 miles. Check your owner’s manual for a recommendation based on your car’s year, model, and brand. To stay safe, check your brake fluid during every oil change.
The time between brake fluid replacements also depends on the driving conditions in your area. If you live in a humid environment, for example, you may want to check for moisture contamination more frequently. If you live in an area with cold weather, be aware that road salt can contaminate the brake fluid.
How Much Does Replacing Brake Fluid Cost?
Getting your brake fluid flushed and replaced typically costs approximately $100.
However, if you don’t replace or top up your brake fluid regularly, you could find yourself with damage to your brake calipers, brake lines, and other brake parts that could cost you hundreds of dollars or more to repair. That’s why it’s critical that you regularly inspect your brake system and never wait more than five years to replace the brake fluid.
If you’re handling your own brake fluid replacement instead of hiring a mechanic, you can save yourself some money. However, be sure you’re bleeding the brakes. Brake bleeding involves expelling the rest of the old fluid as well as the trapped air bubbles in the system.
Don’t Wait Too Long to Change Your Brake Fluid
When it comes to automotive maintenance, changing your vehicle’s brake fluid might not be at the top of your list. But it should be — neglecting your brake fluid can lead to serious damage to your braking system and increase your risk of getting into an accident.
Whether you’re handling the repairs yourself or calling on a mechanic, regular top-offs and replacements can help keep your hydraulics system in top condition.