Wheels: Brake lines

By Eric Meltzer

We in New England are used to rust. Salt used to combat ice on our wintry roads, along with ample moisture, has the ability to turn solid steel into powdery and flaky corrosion. Over the course of time, this rust can weaken even the stoutest of car and truck frames, rendering a vehicle dangerous and worthless. With the power of rust defined, just imagine how it can affect smaller and thinner metals like brake lines.

Most people don’t give their brakes a second thought until they’re compromised. We’ve all cringed upon hearing the noises associated with worn brakes. Squealing becomes grinding as the last of the brake pad material wears through to the metal backing plate and the metal-on-metal heat builds warping the rotor, but doing little in the way of providing stopping power. Brakes can fail in other ways too, so let’s review a typical braking system.

The master cylinder is the component that creates the hydraulic pressure that ultimately operates the brakes. The master cylinder is mounted under the hood on the firewall that separates the engine compartment from the interior where the brake pedal is located. Pushing on the brake pedal moves a piston in the master cylinder that forces brake fluid through small tubes leading to each wheel, which results in the caliper clamping the brake pad against the rotor, stopping the car.

Add in supplemental systems like ABS —antilock brakes — and associated electrical modules, and it’s easy to understand how complicated things can become.

Any one of these components can fail causing the brakes to stick and not release, the pedal can become soft and travel further than normal, or the pedal can become hard and difficult to push.

The simplest component in the braking system is the lowly brake line, a part whose only job is to remain in tact and carry fluid, no moving parts or complex duties.

Brake lines can also be the most vulnerable component in the system. Most are a mere 3/16 inches in diameter but must withstand a whopping 1200 PSI — pounds per square inch of pressure.

It’s easy to understand how rust can compromise such a small part, and their location under the vehicle and around the suspension components exposes them to rust and other hazards.

We’ve seen quite a few bad brake lines in our shop recently, not uncommon after a long  winter.

Brake line deterioration generally allows plenty of time to identify impending failure before it becomes dangerous. Inspecting brake lines are one item checked during a state safety inspection and weak, corroded brake lines are a definite failure item.

This can be so serious, that a few years ago, a Vermont auto mechanic was charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment when he inspected a car and allowed it to pass with rusted and visibly unsafe brake lines.

The brakes subsequently failed, and the car hit a tree, causing the death of an elderly woman.

Brake lines themselves are not overly expensive, but the labor involved with correctly installing them and connecting them to other potentially rusty components can make the job challenging.

Some exhaust systems are made from stainless steel or anodized metals which don’t rust, and brake lines are available in nickle-copper, another rust-proof material, so why is such an important component formed from mild steel able to rust when left to the elements where they can be so easily compromised? Hard to say.

Cost may be one factor. Although seemingly negligible, spread out over thousands of manufactured vehicles, the cost can add up. Maybe it’s that not everyone is affected by the problem. Much of the country has different weather and so doesn’t suffer the same fate as we do where rust is involved.

Depending on the extent of the rust and corrosion, brake lines can be replaced in sections, thereby saving some time and money. They must be coupled with appropriate fittings and flares which require specialty tools and proficiency to work with them. Remember, there is tremendous hydraulic force coursing through those lines.

The brake fluid resides in a reservoir on top of the master cylinder and holds about a pint or less in addition to what is already in the system. As brake pads wear, the level in the reservoir will drop incrementally. Any rapid drop in the fluid level or sudden loss of fluid indicate a leak and a problem, which will soon correspond with a spongy brake pedal, excess brake pedal travel and greatly diminished braking authority.

Even something as simple as steel brake lines can be vulnerable to rust, corrosion and damage. They are a vital component in your brake system and should be inspected and replaced when necessary.

Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.

 

Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.