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Blog Car Care Advice How To Take Care Of Your Car: Brake Calipers

How To Take Care Of Your Car: Brake Calipers

January 14, 2020

What are brake calipers?

In a disc brake system, 3 of the key components that work together are the Brake Calipers, Brake pads, and Brake rotors. The brake caliper’s job is to use the hydraulic pressure generated in the brake system when a driver pushes on the brake pedal, and use it to squeeze the brake pads against the brake rotor at high pressure. This process of squeezing the brake pads against the rotors is vital to the operation of a modern disc brake system.

It’s important to know that there are 2 basic types of brake calipers in use on modern day vehicles: fixed brake calipers, and floating calipers. A fixed brake caliper mounts over a portion of a brake rotor, and has pistons which extend with brake pedal application to apply equal pressure to a brake pad on both sides of the brake rotor. A sliding brake caliper has a piston that applies pressure to the inside oriented brake pad directly, and pins on which the assembly slides on to apply pressure to the outboard brake pad. A sliding brake caliper is more commonly found on light duty passenger vehicles, while fixed brake calipers are typically found on higher performance applications due to their more robust and equal application of pressure to the inboard and outboard brake pads.

Why are they important?

Brake calipers are crucial in administering the force of the braking system when you stop your vehicle from any speed, and on any surface.

What can go wrong?

Luckily, brake calipers are fairly simple in design and require little to no maintenance under normal driving conditions. Failures of brake calipers are not very common, but occasionally happen for a few reasons. The most common reason a brake caliper is replaced is because one of the pistons (which extend to provide pressure to a brake pad) becomes seized in the bore of the brake caliper. When the piston is seized and can not move, the caliper may be  unable to apply pressure to the brake pad; not applying pressure to a brake pad when the driver pushes on the brake pedal increases stopping distance, as well as makes the vehicle handle abnormally during braking. Also, if the caliper piston is stuck in the applied position, the pads are likely to wear prematurely.

Brake calipers are also sometimes found leaking from their primary square cut seal around the piston. This seal not only confines the hydraulic brake fluid inside of the caliper assembly, but is also responsible for slightly retracting the piston of the brake caliper once the driver of a vehicle releases the brakes. A failure of the square cut seal is rare, but also an issue which will cause noticeable change in the feeling of the brakes during operation. Inspection of the brake calipers, and retraction of the pistons is routine at every auto repair shop when brake repairs are being made.

How do you know when they need work?

When a driver depresses the brake pedal to slow or stop their vehicle, if a pull in a left or right direction is noticed it is possible that a brake caliper is responsible for this. While many other components on a vehicle can cause this to happen, inspection of the brake calipers is important to rule out the possibility of a brake caliper issue.

Additionally, when an auto repair shop is servicing the brake system on a vehicle, a technician has to retract the pistons in order to install new brake pads; brake calipers are also inspected for leaks at this time. If a problem is noticed during this procedure, it is important to correct the issue by either repairing or replacing the brake caliper to ensure the proper operation of a vehicle’s brake systems.

How much do they cost, and why?

Replacement brake calipers come in 2 main styles: “Friction Ready,” which means they do not have brake pads already installed, but are complete in assembly for them to be installed. The other main style is called a “Loaded” caliper, which comes assembled with brake pads already installed. Depending on which style you choose to purchase, it will have an impact on the price. It is important to note that both styles may or may not be available for certain vehicles, although generally speaking both options exist for most vehicles.

Additionally, both fixed and floating brake calipers can come either Friction Ready, or Loaded. The replacement time for brake calipers on 1 axle is between 2 and 3 labor hours, but can be more on some applications.

A friction ready brake caliper will generally be the less expensive option since it does not include a set of brake pads. Light duty passenger vehicles can see replacement calipers cost from just under $100 dollars, up to several hundred dollars for larger vehicle applications.

In contrast, a loaded brake caliper will likely start at over $100 dollars, and can range up to $500 or more in certain applications.

Since there is such a wide variety of brake systems in use on vehicles today, there is also a large range in the replacement cost of modern day brake calipers.

How long do they take, and why?

Replacement of brake calipers takes 2–3 labor hours generally, and based on a repair shop’s workload is usually completed on the same day the vehicle is dropped off.

Is there any way to reduce the cost?

With the wide variety of replacement options, comparison of multiple brake caliper offerings generally allows comparison shopping of this component on most applications.

What other work might be associated?

After replacing a brake caliper on a vehicle, the brake system must be bled of air. Because the bleeding process requires extracting some of the brake fluid from the vehicle, it’s recommended that a brake fluid exchange service be performed at the same time. . Brake calipers are also sometimes replaced when an issue is discovered during a routine brake job. Lastly, rubber brake hoses may also be suggested for replacement based on their condition when a brake caliper is replaced.

Does type of vehicle matter?

In terms of the basic principles of operation, the brake caliper operates the same way on the vast majority of vehicles in use today. The biggest differences between vehicles is the cost of the brake caliper itself, and the style of brake caliper used.

Our recommendation:

During replacement of brake pads and rotors, it is important to ensure the technician performing the work properly inspects the brake calipers to ensure they are in good working condition. In the event an issue with a brake caliper is noticed, it is important to correct the issue immediately to ensure the vehicle properly stops when the driver needs it to. Furthermore, if a pull is noticed during braking or if the brake pedal feels abnormal, a brake system inspection should be conducted to identify possible issues.