Drip Drip Drip
I’ve given brake fluid it’s own page since the information applies to both stock and upgraded systems. This subject is just to complex to be buried in with other stuff.
Why Change Fluid? I thought it was permanent.
Actually, many people think brake fluid is a permanent part of the car. Since this fluid rarely appears in maintenance schedules, many service people think that to. The rated service life of most brake fluid products is 2-3 years but like antifreeze, the stuff may not be changed for the life of the car. The average car will only get enough new fluid to make up for bleeding during repair work.
Another reason for confusion is that GM and some others claim the factory-installed fluid is good for years. They say it has better additives etc and doesn’t need changing often if at all. Problem here is the “factory” fluid likely will not be used during brake service. Once a third party fluid is installed, the system drops to the service life of the new fluid. (I have my doubts about how well these factory fluids hold up against wet environments. I’d treat them the same
as any other fluid in race or off road applications.) I certainly would replace the fluid in all Fiero at this point. Even long life stuff isn’t going to be any good by now.
Brake fluid, like it’s distant cousin antifreeze, contains lubricants and corrosion inhibitors that degrade over time. The failure of these additives is a very large cause of brake component failure. Moisture absorption is another issue and we’ll cover it in more detail later. Moisture will lower the boiling point of the fluid, and in fluid with dead inhibitors, accelerate corrosion of the system. We defiantly want to get the water out.
Changing fluid also removes suspended trash generated by wear of system components. These particles are often abrasive. Even with a “long life” factory fill we want to periodically remove the trash. Dirty fluid is just as bad as fluid with dead additives or too much moisture. This is even more important with ABS systems that often have many small parts moving rapidly under extremely high pressure. It doesn’t take allot of trash to screw up an ABS pump. (If you think rear calipers are expensive, price ABS units sometime….)
What Fluid do we use?
The Fiero is built to use DOT 3 fluid. Unless you are totally rebuilding the system, anything else you might consider must be compatible with this fluid.
At the very least, you want to run one of the “heavy duty” DOT 3 formulas.
Other fluids are also compatible and increase both wet and dry boiling protection along with having improved wear and corrosion inhibitors.
So our short answer is… Use the DOT 3 compatible fluid with the highest wet and dry boiling temperatures you can find.
Notice I said to watch both wet and dry boil in the short answer. Not all fluid labeled “heavy duty” or “high temperature” is the same. Some of these products, like STP Heavy Duty DOT 3 claim a 500F Dry boil but still carry 284F wet boil. Since no brake system is ever totally dry, that low temperature will be a factor. (Racing brake fluids commonly have low wet boiling points. Many are so low they can only be certified as DOT 3. Keep in mind, the makers of these fluids expect you to change it often.) We’ll get to more about the boiling temperature in a little bit.
Before we can choose the best fluid, we have to understand a “few” things.
Many of the DOT 3 DOT 4 and DOT 5.1 fluids can be mixed in a system but always check manufacturers information first. When you do mix them, there is one rule that must be followed.
NEVER use fluid that is LESS than the original specification for the car. In other words, Do Not put DOT 3 fluid in a car built for DOT 4.
By law the required fluid type is printed on the tank lid of all cars sold in the U.S.
Just what is Brake Fluid?
Unlike other hydraulic fluids, Brake fluid is a complicated mix of chemicals. It contains no mineral or petroleum products. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) divide it into 2 main groups Silicone Based or Non Silicone Based.
While the exact makeup of any fluid varies by maker, DOT 3, 4 and 5.1 are mainly composed of various Glycol compounds.
Here’s an example DOT 3 fluid from DOW. (Nobody publishes the exact formula.)
2. COMPOSITION/INFORMATION ON INGREDIENTS
Polyethylene glycol butyl ether CAS# 009004-77-7 60 – 90%
Piperazine CAS# 000110-85-0 0.1 – 1.0%
Proprietary mixture of glycol ethers, polyglycols, glycols,oxidation inhibitors and corrosion inhibitors 10 – 40%
Source: Material Safety Data Sheet for DOW BRAKE FLUID 1100 DOT 5 Silicone is defined in the FMVSS 571.116 specification.
A silicone base brake fluid (SBBF) is a brake fluid, which consists of not less than 70 percent by weight of a diorgano polysiloxane.
Note! From here on, unless we are talking about a specific DOT number, the fluids will be referred to mainly by their base material. DOT 3, 4 and 5.1 are Glycol based fluids. (It’s a different Glycol from antifreeze.) DOT 5 fluid is Silicone based and is totally different from Glycol fluids.
Why is water such a big deal?
In Gylcol fluid, the main issue is that water reduces the boiling point. In Silicone fluid, it can cause water slugs/puddles in low places in the system.
Both of these conditions can have disastrous results. (We’ll cover Silicone in more detail later.)
Glycol brake fluid is Hygroscopic and Hydrophilic.
Hygroscopic means it will pull water from the air every second any part of the system is open. It will pull water thru any microscopic opening large enough to pass a water molecule, including pores in the seal and hose materials themselves. This is why you always want NEW fluid from Factory SEALED containers for brake work.
The good thing is Glycol fluid is Hydrophilic, meaning is will absorb and disperse water thru the entire volume of fluid. This actually protects the system and performance as long as you don’t leave the stuff to get soaked.
How does water enter the brake system? It’s a sealed system. Isn’t it?
It might be more accurate to think of the system as having a bunch of tightly controlled leaks. Because we have moving parts, we’re always going to have some fluid migration past seals.
Fluid migration and other factors combine to bring water into the system. If there are any defects in the system, water absorption will happen at an amazing rate. For example, leaving the reserve tank open overnight will saturate Glycol fluid completely with moisture. You’ll need to flush the entire system before it’s safe to drive the car.
A big culprit is the reserve tank cover. Make sure the cover gasket is in good shape. If there is any question, get a new gasket. This thing is so over looked yet so important. Any damage to this gasket is reason to replace it. Even a tiny pinhole will allow the fluid to soak in huge amounts of water in no time. (These gaskets can be found in MotorMite’s red HELP! packaging. They only cost a few dollars.)
Glycol fluid also leaves a film on moving parts. This is a good thing for the parts since it provides lubrication but it’s bad in that the film helps draw water.
Items like the MC and drum brake slave cylinders have more of this film on them than disk brake calipers but they all have it. As the parts move over the exposed film of fluid, water is transferred into the system.
Driving down a flooded street or hitting a caliper with a pressure washer can force water inside the caliper. (Especially if the outer “dust” seal is damaged!)
The water can sit in the dead space between seals and work it’s way around the piston seal(s) over time. Many brake systems don’t get hot enough, often enough, to quickly dry out this water.
The slave cylinder in Drum brakes can easily let in water if the axle is swamped. These cylinders use a cup seal. This type of seal can work like a one way valve. It will hold very high brake pressure but any liquid or gas trying to get in is probably going to. (This type of seal is what makes the Step Bore MC work.)
Myth: Using Racing brake hoses will stop water absobtion.
Using alternate line stocks will not stop water absorbtion. While the hoses may not pass moisture, the rest of the system’s soft parts will. There is no way to stop moisture from being pulled into a Glycol fluid. At best using alternate line stocks may slow total water absorbtion by the system. You will still need to replace the fluid at regular intervals.
DOT DOT DOT (Dash)
Before you can compare different fluids, you need to know what the DOT numbers mean. You also need to keep in mind that the DOT specifications define minimum performance. Nearly all fluids will exceed the performance for their labeled specification.
The DOT numbers describe much more than the boiling points of the fluid in question. There are specifications for wear protection, corrosion protection, viscosity, color, seal degradation, and a raft of other stuff. In very basic terms you could say, the higher the DOT number, the better the fluid. In reality, you have to look at each fluid individually because there are vast differences from one product to the next.
We can find all the needed standards information in the National Archive’s Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). [My comments are in square brackets. All other info is as posted in the CFR.]
Tittle 49, Transportation
Part 571 Federal motor vehicle safety standards
571.116 Standard No. 116; Motor vehicle brake fluids
S5.1.1 [Dry]Equilibrium reflux boiling point (ERBP). When brake fluid is tested according to S6.1, the ERBP shall not be less than the following value for the grade indicated:
(a) DOT 3: 205 °C. (401 °F.).
(b) DOT 4: 230 °C. (446 °F.).
(c) DOT 5: 260 °C. (500 °F.). [Includes 5.1]
S5.1.2 Wet ERBP. When brake fluid is tested according to S6.2, the wet ERBP shall not be less than the following value for the grade indicated:
(a) DOT 3: 140 °C. (284 °F.).
(b) DOT 4: 155 °C. (311 °F.).
(c) DOT 5: 1 180 °C. (356 °F.). [This is as copied from the CFR. I think this is supposed to read DOT 5.1]
S5.1.3. Kinematic viscosities. When brake fluid is tested according to S6.3, the kinematic viscosities in square millimeters per second at stated temperatures shall be neither less than 1.5 mm 2 /s at 100 °C. (212 °F.) nor more than the following maximum value for the grade indicated:
(a) DOT 3: 1,500 mm 2 /s at minus 40 °C. (minus 40 °F.).
(b) DOT 4: 1,800 mm 2 /s at minus 40 °C. (minus 40 °F.).
(c) DOT 5: 900 mm 2 /s at minus 40 °C. (minus 40 °F.).
S5.1.4 pH value. When brake fluid, except DOT 5 SBBF, is tested according to S6.4, the pH value shall not be less than 7.0 nor more than 11.5.
Notice that there is not much mention of DOT 5.1 in the actual specification.
That’s because the 5 or 5.1 mainly define the fluid base material. DOT 5 is always Silicone Based and DOT 5.1 has more in common with DOT 3 and DOT 4.
With a couple exceptions, both must meet the same minimum standards to be DOT 5. We see this better in the labeling and testing sections of the standard.
S5.2.2 Certification, marking, and labeling.
S126.96.36.199 Each manufacturer of a DOT grade brake fluid shall furnish to each packager, distributor, or dealer to whom he delivers brake fluid, the following information:
(a) A serial number identifying the production lot and the date of manufacture of the brake fluid.
(b) The grade (DOT 3, DOT 4, DOT 5) of the brake fluid. If DOT 5 grade brake fluid , it shall be further distinguished as “DOT 5 SILICONE BASE” or “DOT 5.1 NON-SILICONE BASE.”
(c) The minimum wet boiling point in Fahrenheit of the brake fluid.
(d) Certification that the brake fluid conforms to § 571.116.
The Truth about Wet Boiling Point
The minimum Wet boiling temperature specified in the FMVSS and product literature is tested when brake fluid has about 3-4% water content. (3.70, plus/minus 0.05, percent by weight.)
In real life, your fluid may have significantly more than 3% water in it. The older the fluid the higher the water content will be. Even when in perfect running order, most vehicles will saturate to 3% within a couple years. If a vehicle is frequently driven in wet terrain, the fluid can saturate to 3% in a few months. Keep in mind, most vehicles on the road today have never had the brake fluid changed.
More water equals lower boiling point. The boiling point can and will drop below the product’s labeled specifications. This is why you want fluid with a high Wet boil temperature. The higher the specified Wet boiling point the longer the fluid will take to become unsafe because of water saturation.
So where does Valvoline SynPower Synthetic compare? You blab about it often enough.
I like this one because it’s not super expensive and delivers excellent performance. I use it in my own vehicles. I think you’d be hard pressed to find better fluid for the money.
It mixes with other DOT 3 and DOT 4 fluids so that old fluid that didn’t get flushed won’t cause problems. (Old fluid will pull down the boiling point so you need to do the best flush you can. This applies to all new DOT 3, 4 and 5.1 fluid entering the system.)
The hard part is finding the detailed testing data on a fluid. Most makers don’t publish that information so all we have is what is on the package. Since most people only worry about boiling points, we’ll just stick with those.
Valvoline’s synthetic fluid is certified for DOT 4. This means it exceeded all the FMVSS 571.116 DOT 4 requirements in testing. It actually exceeds the DOT 5.1 Dry Boil specification.
Other DOT 3 Compatible Fluids
These are links to other fluids listed in various Forum threads and other places.
I have not used or tested any of these products. The Published data says these are compatible with DOT 3. All street applications should avoid “Race” fluid products with low Wet boiling points.
Wilwood Engineering and Baer Racing supply fluids with Dry boiling points up to 570F. I don’t know the Wet Boil or the actual DOT rating of them.
Super DOT 610 From Neo Synthetics. This one claims 610F Dry boil and 421F Min Wet boil. Marketed by Neo Synthetics.
Why is everyone so hot for Silicone “DOT 5″ fluid?
I have no idea. People got the idea that if it works in racing it must work for the street. This same problem has everyone thinking they need to install better brake parts in everything. Another thing is that many of the people who say the stuff works great are comparing it to the crappy old fluid that was in the system before. If they put new high temperature DOT 3 in, they would have had the same results.
Keep in mind Race applications are torn apart for service all the time and they usually aren’t driven in the rain. Road cars don’t get the fluid changed often if at all and are driven in rain all the time. With very rare exceptions, the carmakers all use DOT 3 and DOT 4 even in their high performance cars. There are very good reasons for this and for a change, cost is one of the minor ones.
The main reason sited for using Silicone based DOT 5 brake fluid is a need for higher boiling temperature. Many people falsely believe that it is some sort of cure-all for the perceived problems associated with Glycol based DOT 3 and DOT 4. The truth is that Silicone based DOT 5 fluid has a number of problems of it’s own.
Essentially all problems with Glycol fluid can be traced to contamination and fluid age. Part of the problem is that Glycol brake fluids have always been a service item but until recently, they aren’t in the maintenance schedules. This left people mistakenly thinking that the fluid never needed to be changed. Like Antifreeze, Glycol brake fluid contains additives that degrade with age. The failure of those additives leaves the system open to corrosion and accelerated wear. Absorbed moisture also lowers the boiling point of the fluid.
Various articles in the trade publications report that long term tests show increased wear in the calipers and MC when used with Silicone. Many people don’t know that Glycol fluids leave a lubricating film on the moving parts.
Silicone apparently doesn’t leave an adequate film resulting in accelerated wear.
The fact Silicone won’t draw water is not entirely a good thing. Water that gets into the system can collect in low spots and eat the metal parts. The trapped water can cause spot corrosion in the system that can lead to line rupture or seal failure. Because Glycol fluids disperse water and contain corrosion inhibitors, this is a non-issue with them. If a DOT 3 or DOT 4 filled component corrodes from the inside then it’s an indication that the fluid should have been changed a long time ago.
Water puddles stuck in the system can boil at lower temperature than Wet DOT 3′s 284F. Remember that water boils at 212F(100C). Worse, because the boiling point increases with pressure, water on the edge of boiling can flash to steam after you release the pedal. You’ll have full pedal one second, nothing the next and you won’t have any warning before it happens.
Example. You are entering a turn with brakes already hot. We’ll say the water slug is at 200F. You press the pedal and heat them even more. Now the water is at 220-230F or more but because of the high pressure, the water slug can’t boil in this turn. As soon you let off the pedal, the water flashes to steam and kills the brakes. Next turn you eat cones or worse. (Don’t get me wrong… any boil is just as bad and will kill the system. This is just an illustration of the worst way it can occur.)
A very big issue is that Glycol doesn’t mix with Silicone. Conversion to Silicone requires a total overhaul of the system. To convert to Silicone, all the calipers and MC must be torn down, cleaned, rebuilt, and only Silicone fluid used to lube during assembly. You also have to figure out what to do with the balance block and lines to get rid of every drop of the old Glycol fluid. Slugs of old Glycol based fluid in a system converted Silicone can have the same result as water slugs. You’ll simply encounter problems at higher temperatures.
If you want high boiling point, without the problems of conversion to Silicone, then look into using one of the many new “High Temperature” DOT 3 compatible formulas on the market. I use Valvoline Synthetic Brake Fluid.
Unlike Silicone, this product can be mixed with DOT 3 and DOT 4 fluids. With these, all you need is a decent flush to gain the benefit of better fluid. (In race applications, you need a very good flush but not a total system overhaul.)