BAD BRAKE CALIPERS: REPLACE THEM WHEN YOU SPOT ANY OF THESE 12 ISSUES
Most drivers take their brakes for granted. When you need to stop, you simply push down on the brake pedal and your car comes to a halt. But what happens when your car's brakes stop working as well as they should?
Your brake calipers are a key component of your car's braking system. A problem with your brake calipers can mean the difference between stopping safely and having a very bad accident. For the sake of your safety and that of others, your brake calipers need to operate properly.
Join us for an insider's view of what brake calipers are, what they do, what makes your brake calipers go bad, how to know if they go bad, how to fix or replace your brake calipers, what replacements cost, and finally, whether it is worth fixing bad brake calipers.
What are brake calipers, and what do they do?
Pretty much all modern cars come with disc brakes on the front wheels, and many of them also have disc brakes on the rear wheels. Disc brakes use a flat, smooth metal disc, or brake rotor, that rotates with the wheel.
The brake calipers, which are attached to the steering or suspension and do not spin with the wheels, apply a clamping motion to the discs when you apply the brakes. This clamping motion is produced by hydraulically-actuated pistons within the brake calipers, responding to the pressure of your foot on the pedal. Brake pads containing friction material are connected to the pistons in the brake calipers. The brake pads make direct contact with the rotating discs during braking. This slows or stops the wheels and therefore the car, converting its forward motion into heat, which is dissipated by the metal parts of the brake system and the air flowing over them. The brake pads will eventually wear down and need replacement every so often, depending on your type and style of driving.
What is the difference between fixed and floating brake calipers?
There are two basic schools of design when it comes to brake calipers:
Fixed brake calipers
As the name suggests, fixed brake calipers do not move relative to the brake discs. Fixed brake calipers have pistons on both sides of the disc, which push the brake pads in from each side. Fixed brake calipers work very well, but they are more expensive and have to be installed precisely. Because of this, they are found primarily on high-performance vehicles and heavy trucks.
Floating brake calipers
This type of brake calipers is found on the cars that most people drive. Floating brake calipers have a single set of pistons on the inboard side of the wheel, which both push the brake pad from that side, and pull in the caliper and brake pad on the outside of the wheel. That caliper on the outside of the wheel slides in and out, and is the "floating" one that gives these brake calipers their name. Floating calipers work well, and they are less expensive as well as easier to install on the production line, compared to fixed calipers. This is why most mass-produced cars use them.
What are common brake caliper problems?
Your brake calipers operate in a hostile environment. Located inside your wheel wells, next to the rotating wheels, they are exposed to road dirt and debris, heat, cold, rain, snow, ice, salt, and sand. Here are some of the problems that can befall your brake calipers:
Sticking Brake Calipers
This is a common problem with the floating brake calipers that most cars come with. The sliders that move the floating outboard caliper in and out can be exposed to dirt or corrosion. This reduces the ability of the brake calipers to work smoothly and properly, leading to sticking and even seizing of the brake calipers. The result is a loss of braking power and responsiveness when you need to stop.
Leaking Brake Calipers
All brake calipers have rubber seals that allow the moving parts to go in and out in response to hydraulic pressure, while still keeping the hydraulic fluid securely within its side of the seals. If the seals wear out or get damaged, hydraulic fluid leaks onto the brake calipers. This will affect both the feel and the effectiveness of your brakes.
Other Causes of Brake Caliper Problems
- Brake master cylinder failure
- Bad brake fluid
- Bad brake hoses
- Parking brake issues
- Brake pads stuck to discs
How can you tell that your brake calipers are bad?
If your car develops brake caliper issues, there are several ways that you will be able to tell, without taking the wheels off to check:
- Your vehicle pulls to one side while braking
- You have to apply your brakes harder to stop
- Your vehicle requires a longer distance to stop
- You feel a dragging sensation (like the brakes are on) when you are moving
- You feel a vibration at higher speeds
- Your brake pedal feels "spongy"
- You hear clunking, grinding, squealing, or screeching noises coming from the wheel area
- You smell the brakes overheating or burning
- You see smoke coming from one or more wheels after you have driven the car
- You can feel heat coming off of one or more wheels after you have driven the car
- You see a puddle of clear, oily fluid under the car, near the wheels
- You see a buildup of rust on the surface of the brake discs (check by looking through the openings in your wheels)
If you notice any of these signs of bad brake calipers, call a mechanic right away, and do not drive the car until it has been repaired.
How to fix bad brake calipers
There are a few different strategies for fixing bad brake calipers. All of them should be left to a mechanic, who will inspect your braking system, assess the situation, and come up with the most cost-effective and safe solution. Your braking system is a key safety system, and it is definitely not a suitable area on which to learn DIY auto mechanics!
1. Cleaning the brake calipers
In some cases of stuck or leaking brake calipers, the mechanic may be able to fix them by simply cleaning them up and removing the cause of the problem. Some of the moving parts may also need replacing. Your brake pads and brake fluid may also need changing at this point, to be sure that your entire braking system is working properly. This solution may not work if there is any significant wear or damage to your brake calipers, or if the cost of cleaning is more than replacement (see below).
2. Replacing the brake calipers
If the brake calipers are too far gone, cleaning will not work. Your brake calipers will need to be replaced. Fresh brake pads and brake fluid are usually part of this service procedure. For the highest levels of safety, you should always get new calipers in pairs. If your brake discs are damaged or worn out, they should be replaced at the same time. Now you have all new brake parts, which should restore your car's stopping ability!
How often should your brake calipers need replacement?
Today, brake calipers last a long time, and will often last the life of your car. There are mitigating circumstances, though, like extreme weather conditions, high humidity, heavy off-road use, your driving style, and how well you have maintained your braking system.
That last one, maintenance, is the only factor that you have any control over. During routine maintenance and service intervals, your calipers should be checked, along with the brake pads and brake fluid. That way, any potential issues with your brake calipers can be identified before they become major problems.
How much does it cost to replace your brake calipers?
As with most types of car repairs, prices can vary widely, depending on who is doing the job, the degree of difficulty, and the cost of the parts. Because the brake calipers live next to your wheels in a hostile environment, there can be rust and corrosion for the mechanic to deal with, as well as other related parts of the braking system that could also need repair or replacement.
Depending on the year, make, and model of your car, the replacement cost of brake calipers could run anywhere from a few hundred dollars to well over a thousand dollars. The best course of action is to call several well-rated repair shops, and get some firm estimates of repair costs for the brake calipers that fit your specific vehicle. Include brake specialists as well as general-purpose repair shops.
Is it worth fixing your brake calipers?
If you do need your brake calipers repaired, and your car is otherwise in good running condition, it is definitely worth fixing your brake calipers. First and foremost, this is because you can't drive your car safely if the brakes don't work! The consequences of not being able to stop your car are too terrible to even consider.
On the other hand, if your car is very old, has a lot of miles on it, is not particularly reliable, and the cost of fixing your brake calipers is high, you have a decision to make. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What is your car worth?
- How many miles are on it?
- Does your car have any other chronic issues that could result in a big repair soon?
- Will the brakes or tires need replacement soon?
- Is it time to cut your losses and get rid of your car now?
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