How Brake Cleaner Works


Image Gallery: Brakes Brake cleaners are effective in removing oil, dirt and other debris from your vehicle's braking system. See more pictures of brakes.
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The road can be a dirty and grimy place; mix that with some high friction, a little bit of brake dust, some old brake fluid from a brake job gone wrong, and you can have yourself a lot of gunk built up right around the areas you want it least. Spray-on brake cleaners are one of the best ways to free up excess contaminates around your brakes and ensure that nothing is getting in the way of your braking system.

Unlike other fixes to your car, cleaning the brake system using a spray-on cleaner is inexpensive and doesn't require much preparation time or removal of any major parts. It can be done easily in just a few minutes and most of the tools and equipment you need can be found in any garage or storage shed. If you know how to change a tire and how to use an aerosol spray can, then you probably already know how to use brake cleaner.

The next time you take your tire off, take a look at the brakes and see if there's any excess dirt building up on the braking system. Applying a brake cleaner can not only be effective in cleaning the brakes and helping them to function properly, but it's also effective when you need to see parts of the braking system clearly before doing a repair job.

Brake cleaners are effective in removing oil, dirt and other debris from your vehicle's braking system because of the combination of chemicals used to break those elements down and wash them away. As we'll see on the next few pages, some of those chemicals can be harmful so you'll need to take precautions before using most aerosol brake cleaners.

Go on to the next page to learn what tools and materials you'll need to have before applying a spray-on brake cleaner.

Brake Cleaning Tools and Materials

Most brake cleaners contain a number of harmful chemicals. To protect yourself, it's a good idea to wear protective gloves, protective eyewear and work only when you're in a well-ventilated area.
Most brake cleaners contain a number of harmful chemicals. To protect yourself, it's a good idea to wear protective gloves, protective eyewear and work only when you're in a well-ventilated area.
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Most brake cleaners come in a spray can that won't require you to dissemble the brake parts; this makes it a pretty convenient and simple project to accomplish. When using spray-on brake cleaner, there aren't many tools needed get the job done. Of course you'll need to take off the tire, so make sure to have your car's tire iron or an impact wrench handy to get the job done. Keep in mind that you'll need to have a set of jack stands to secure the car as well.

When you apply the brake cleaner, debris and contaminates will wash off of the brakes so you'll need a pan to catch the excess cleaner. Depending on where you live, there may be restrictions on where and how you dispose of the cleaner once you're done. Your state may require a special container to store the used brake cleaner in so contact your state's environmental protection agency office, a city disposal office or ask around at a local auto shop to find out how to dispose used brake cleaner.

Most brake cleaners have a number of harmful chemicals including acetone, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene that you don't want on your skin, near your eyes or anything else you value [source: NYC Department of Sanitation]. These chemicals can irritate your skin, eyes, cause dizziness, headaches and prolonged exposure could cause problems in the lungs, lead to unconsciousness, vomiting and a myriad of other unwanted effects. To help protect yourself, it's a good idea to wear a pair of protective gloves and protective eyewear. You should also apply the brake cleaner only when you're in a well-ventilated area. Before you apply any spray-on cleaner, read the warning label and see if there are any recommendations for protecting yourself.

Go on to the next page to find out how to prepare the vehicle for a brake cleaning.

Brake Cleaning Preparation

The cleaner can be used on brake linings, brake shoes, drums, rotors, caliper units, pads and other areas of the braking mechanism while they're still intact.
The cleaner can be used on brake linings, brake shoes, drums, rotors, caliper units, pads and other areas of the braking mechanism while they're still intact.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

As we mentioned on the last page, there can be some toxic chemicals in brake cleaner which means that you not only have to make sure you're in a well-ventilated area with the proper protective wear on, but you also need ensure that the car is protected as well.

Those chemicals can harm your car's paint, the final coat finish or any plastics on the vehicle [source: 3M]. It may be a good idea to cover areas of the car that could be exposed to the brake cleaner before you apply it. If using the cleaner outside, make sure that you apply it on a day where the wind won't cause the cleaner to spray on any other part of the car besides the brakes.

In addition to covering up areas of the car, another precaution that should also be taken is to ensure that the brakes and all the surrounding parts are completely cooled down before applying any brake cleaner. Brake cleaner should never be applied to any hot metal on the vehicle because the chemicals in the cleaner have the potential to spontaneously combust [source: 3M]. This combustion can release toxic chemicals into the air that are even more poisonous than they would have been just coming out of the can.

Other than these preparations, there aren't many steps to be taken before applying the cleaner because many brake cleaners don't require that the brake parts be dissembled before application [source: 3M]. The cleaner can be used on brake linings, brake shoes, drums, rotors, caliper units, pads and other areas of the braking mechanism while they're still intact [source: 3M].

Go on to the next page to find out how to apply brake cleaner to your vehicle.

How to Use Brake Cleaner

Be sure to properly collect and dispose of the used brake cleaner.
Be sure to properly collect and dispose of the used brake cleaner.
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If you've ever used a can of spray paint then you probably won't have any problems using brake cleaner on your vehicle. Some instructions may vary by manufacturer, but in general the application process is the same. Once you've removed the tire, hold the can about a foot to 2 feet (0.3 to 0.6 meters) away from the brakes. Then start spraying at the top of the brake parts moving downward. This will wash the dust, dirt and other contaminates down and away from the brake part.

As the cleaner gets into the crevices of the brake parts the grease, oil, leaked brake fluid and any other grime that shouldn't be on the brakes will be loosened up by the cleaner and start to wash away. Stubborn areas may need a second application to ensure that everything has been removed. Once you're done spraying, you can let it air dry or wipe with a clean cloth. As we mentioned on the last page, be sure to properly collect and dispose of the used brake cleaner.

Some brake cleaners may claim to reduce brake noise because excess noise can be caused from contaminates on the brake. Some people may feel uncomfortable applying brake cleaner because of its ability to remove loose friction material, the thought being that the friction material is there to stop the vehicle when the brakes are applied [source: Allen].

Regardless of some brake cleaner skeptics, applying brake cleaner can be effective in eliminating dirt and grease that could inhibit your braking ability. With its easy application and minimal amount of preparation and clean-up time, it can be a quick fix for a dirty braking mechanism.

For more information about brake cleaner and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

Related Articles

Sources

  • 3M. "3M High Power Brake Cleaner." March, 4, 2010. (Oct. 20, 2010) http://multimedia.3m.com/mws/mediawebserver?
  • Allen, Mike. "How To Fix Squeaky Brakes: DIY Auto." Popular Mechanics. Dec. 18, 2009. (Oct. 20, 2010) http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/how-to/maintenance/4317748 mwsId=SSSSSu7zK1fslxtUO8tvPY_Sev7qe17zHvTSevTSeSSSSSS--
  • Marshall, Vin. "Brake Cleaner Can Kill: When to Take Safety Warnings Seriously." Popular Science. Dec. 23, 2009. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://www.popsci.com/diy/article/2009-12/dont-get-careless
  • NYC Department of Sanitation. "Reducing Workplace Toxins." (Oct. 21, 2010) http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/wasteless/atwork_worktoxics.shtml#brakecleaner
  • Wynn's. "Wynn's Brake Cleaner Material Safety Data Sheet." March 2008. (Oct. 19, 2010)http://www.wynns.net/product_files/Brake%20Cleaner(10%20litres)%2057710%20MSDS.pdf