While you likely know all about changing your vehicle’s oil and the recommended service intervals, one vital area that many drivers overlook is the brake fluid. But brake fluid wears out just like oil, and if you neglect this vital service, you’re only costing yourself even more in the long run.
But how do you know when to change your vehicle’s brake fluid, and how much should it cost you have to someone do it? The truth is that it varies quite a bit depending on what you drive, which is why we came up with this guide to walk you through everything you need to know to get your vehicle what it needs.
How Long Does Brake Fluid Last?
Before you just take your vehicle to a repair shop or blindly follow their “recommended” service intervals, we highly recommend looking at your own vehicle’s service manual. The service manual will lay out just how long the brake fluid in your vehicle should last, and depending on what you drive, the intervals can vary quite a bit.
Vehicles that need brake fluid flushes the most often need it about once every two years or 30,000 miles, and vehicles with completely sealed systems shouldn’t ever need a brake fluid flush! So, look at your vehicle’s owner’s manual and see what it says.
If you can’t track down the owner’s manual in person, see if you can’t find a copy of it online. From there, reach out to several dealerships and see what they recommend for that vehicle. If multiple dealerships are telling you the same information, there’s a good chance it’s accurate.
4 Signs It’s Time To Change Your Brake Fluid
If you think it’s time to change your vehicle’s brake fluid, there are a few things you can check out to confirm or disprove your suspicion. Below we’ve highlighted four signs and symptoms that it’s time for your vehicle to get some new brake fluid.
1. Dirty Brake Fluid
While you can wait until you notice one of the following performance drops before changing your brake fluid, we recommend trying to get on top of things before that happens. One of the easiest ways to determine if your vehicle needs new brake fluid is to look at it!
Brake fluid should have a light-yellow color, and more importantly, it should be pretty transparent. When looking at brake fluid it should look clean. If the brake fluid in your vehicle has a brown or black appearance, or if it has anything floating around in it, it’s time for a fluid flush.
2. Soft or Spongy Brake Pedal
Brake fluid is hygroscopic, which means it actively absorbs moisture from the air. This is beneficial for the brake system since it keeps components from rusting and wearing out, but it does affect braking performance.
Brake fluid works in a hydraulic system, when you push on one end it pushes the fluid so it pushes on the other side. It’s an incredibly effective system, but it only works if the fluid doesn’t compress. Fresh brake fluid doesn’t compress, but the more moisture it absorbs, the more it’ll start to compress.
This presents as a “soft” or a “spongy” brake pedal. It could also be air in the system, but if bleeding the brakes doesn’t solve the problem it’s time for a full fluid flush.
3. ABS Light
While not every vehicle comes with the ability to turn on the ABS light with old or dirty brake fluid, some newer vehicles have sensors that will pick up on dirty or contaminated brake fluid.
But while not every vehicle will turn the ABS light on for this, most vehicles will turn the light on for low brake fluid. But if the brake fluid is low, that means there’s a leak somewhere in the system you’ll need to find and repair before completing a full fluid flush.
4. Drop in Braking Performance
As brake fluid ages it picks up more moisture, allowing it to compress more, impacting braking performance. You may or may not notice this drop in performance right away, but when you need to stop on a dime, you want the best possible performance.
If you notice longer stopping distances, the problem could be old brake fluid, and you’ll need to address this immediately.
How Much Does It Cost To Change Brake Fluid?
The answer to this all depends on if you’re changing the brake fluid yourself or paying a professional mechanic to do it for you. If you’re paying a mechanic to complete the job, you should expect to spend between $80 and $120 for the job.
Of this cost about $20 to $25 comes down to the cost of the brake fluid, and the rest comes down to labor charges. Of course, this means if you complete the job yourself you should be able to do it for about $20 to $25!
How To Change Brake Fluid
If you’re looking to save yourself some money and complete a brake fluid flush yourself, it’s not the most challenging job out there if you have a little mechanical know-how. The first thing you need to do is get the right fluid (more on that in a minute!) and get enough of it.
Most modern vehicles take about 32 ounces (1 quart) of brake fluid, but because you’ll need to flush out air pockets, we recommend getting double that so you won’t run out in the middle of the job.
Next, drain the fluid out of the system. One of the easiest ways to do this is to crack open a bleeder screw on one of the brakes. Have someone hold down the brakes while collecting the fluid and wait until the system drains.
Don’t “pump” the brakes, just have someone hold it down until the system is empty. Next, close the bleeder screw and put in 32 ounces of fluid in the reservoir under the hood. Once the fluid is in the reservoir, you need to complete a full brake bleed before topping off the fluid.
Start with the passenger-side rear brake, move onto the driver-side rear brake, then the passenger-side front brake, and finish with the driver-side front brake. Top off the fluid, close up the system and you’re good to go!
Getting the Right Brake Fluid for Your Vehicle
Modern vehicles use one of four types of brake fluid, and it’s important to get the right type of brake fluid for your specific vehicle. The four types of brake fluid are DOT 3, DOT 4, DOT 5, and DOT 5.1.
To figure out what type of brake fluid goes into your vehicle you need to look at your owner’s manual. If you don’t have the owner’s manual, you can try a Google search, but we recommend reaching out to a dealership for your specific vehicle for guaranteed accurate information.
Finally, while you can interchange some types of brake fluid since you’re completing a full brake fluid flush, it’s best to stick with the exact type the vehicle manufacturer recommends. This isn’t a time to get creative, just get the right stuff!
If you don’t know the last time your vehicle got a brake fluid flush, there’s a good chance it needs one. Take the time to go through the owner’s manual and see what it says for your vehicle, then look at your vehicle’s brake fluid.
If it’s time for a brake fluid flush, it’s not something you’ll want to put off for long. Not only can it lead to more expensive damages in the future, but if it’s negatively impacting brake performance it could be the difference between an accident and a near miss!