Brake fluid is a type of hydraulic fluid used in hydraulic brake and hydraulic clutch applications in automobiles, motorcycles, light trucks, and some bicycles. It is used to transfer force into pressure, and to amplify braking force. It works because liquids are not appreciably compressible.
Brake fluids must meet certain requirements as defined by various standards set by international, national, or local organizations or government agencies.
The International Standards Organisation has published its standard ISO 4925, defining classes 3, 4, and 5, as well as class 5-1 and class 6, reflecting progressively higher performance for brake fluids.
The Society of Automotive Engineers SAE has published standards J1703, J1704, and J1705, reflecting progressively higher performance for brake fluids. These have counterparts in the international standard, ISO 4925.
Most brake fluid sold in North America is classified by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) under its own ratings such as "DOT 3" and "DOT 4" and these are widely used in other countries. Their classifications broadly reflect the SAE's specifications, but with local details — Alaska and the Azores for example, have different normal temperature and humidity ranges to consider. DOT 3 is equivalent to SAE J1703 and ISO class 3, DOT 4 to SAE J1704 and ISO class 4, etc.
All approved fluids must be colorless or amber to be acceptable for street use in the U.S, except for DOT 5 silicone, which must be purple.
While a vehicle that uses DOT 3 may also use DOT 4 or 5.1 if the elastomers in the system accept the borate compounds that raise the boiling point, (a temperature upgrade) a vehicle that requires DOT 4 might boil the brake fluid if a DOT 3 (a temperature downgrade) is used. Additionally, these polyglycol-ether-based fluids cannot be mixed with DOT 5.0, which is silicone based.
As of 2006[update], most cars produced in the U.S. use DOT 4 brake fluid.
DOT 5 is a silicone-based fluid and is separate from the series of DOT 2, 3, 4, 5.1. It is immiscible with water, and with other brake fluids, and must not be mixed with them. Systems can change fluid only after a complete system changeover, such as a total restoration.
It contains at least 70% by weight of a diorgano polysiloxane. Unlike polyethylene glycol based fluids, DOT 5 is hydrophobic. An advantage over other forms of brake fluid is that silicone has a more stable viscosity index over a wider temperature range. Another property is that it does not damage paint.
DOT 5 brake fluid is not compatible with anti-lock braking systems. DOT 5 fluid can aerate when the anti-lock brake system is activated. DOT 5 brake fluid absorbs a small amount of air requiring care when bleeding the system of air.
Lack of acceptance of silicone-based fluids led to the development of DOT 5.1, a fluid giving the performance advantages of silicone, whilst retaining some familiarity and compatibility with the glycol ester fluids.
Citroën hydropneumatic suspension
In the 1950s, Citroën introduced a hydropneumatic suspension system, powered by an engine-driven pump and also used to operate the braking system. This used a Citroën-specific hydraulic fluid. The first fluid was LHS, a vegetable oil-based fluid. This was later replaced by LHM, a mineral fluid. LHS was hygroscopic and gave problems with internal corrosion. Although the two fluids are incompatible, LHM has been universal since 1967, and most older cars have been converted to use it.
This system was also used on Rolls-Royce and some Maserati models.
Hydragas and Hydrolastic suspension
Hydragas and Hydrolastic suspension were a widely used form of hydropneumatic suspension, designed by Alex Moulton, and used on British Leyland cars from the 1960s. This system was not engine-driven and did not involve the braking system.
The fluid was a low viscosity fluid based on diluted alcohol.
- 49% alcohol
- 49% distilled water
- 1% triethanolamine phosphate (surfactant)
- 1% sodium mercaptobenzothiazole (stenching agent)
Brake fluids must have certain characteristics and meet certain quality standards for the braking system to work properly.
For reliable, consistent brake system operation, brake fluid must maintain a constant viscosity under a wide range of temperatures, including extreme cold. This is especially important in systems with an anti-lock braking system (ABS), traction control, and stability control (ESP), as these systems often use micro-valves and require very rapid activation. DOT 5.1 fluids are specified with low viscosity over a wide range of temperatures, although not all cars fitted with ABS or ESP specify DOT 5.1 brake fluid.
Brake fluid is subjected to very high temperatures, especially in the wheel cylinders of drum brakes and disk brake calipers. It must have a high boiling point to avoid vaporizing in the lines. This vaporization creates a problem because vapor is highly compressible relative to liquid, and therefore negates the hydraulic transfer of braking force - so the brakes will fail to stop the vehicle.
Quality standards refer to a brake fluid's "dry" and "wet" boiling points. The wet boiling point, which is usually much lower (although above most normal service temperatures), refers to the fluid's boiling point after absorbing a certain amount of moisture. This is several (single digit) percent, varying from formulation to formulation. Glycol-ether (DOT 3, 4, and 5.1) brake fluids are hygroscopic (water absorbing), which means they absorb moisture from the atmosphere under normal humidity levels. Non-hygroscopic fluids (e.g. silicone/DOT 5 and mineral oil based formulations), are hydrophobic, and can maintain an acceptable boiling point over the fluid's service life.
Silicone based fluid is more compressible than glycol based fluid, leading to brakes with a spongy feeling. It can potentially suffer phase separation/water pooling and freezing/boiling in the system over time - the main reason single phase hygroscopic fluids are used.
|Dry boiling point||Wet boiling point[a]||Viscosity limit||Primary constituent|
|DOT 2||190 °C (374 °F)||140 °C (284 °F)||?||castor oil/alcohol|
|DOT 3||205 °C (401 °F)||140 °C (284 °F)||1500 mm2/s||glycol ether|
|DOT 4||230 °C (446 °F)||155 °C (311 °F)||1800 mm2/s||glycol ether/borate ester|
|LHM+||249 °C (480 °F)||249 °C (480 °F)||1200 mm2/s ||mineral oil|
|DOT 5||260 °C (500 °F)||180 °C (356 °F)||900 mm2/s||silicone|
|DOT 5.1||260 °C (500 °F)||180 °C (356 °F)||900 mm2/s||glycol ether/borate ester|
- "Wet" defined as 3.7% water by volume
Brake fluids must not corrode the metals used inside components such as calipers, wheel cylinders, master cylinders and ABS control valves. They must also protect against corrosion as moisture enters the system. Additives (corrosion inhibitors) are added to the base fluid to accomplish this. Silicone is less corrosive to paintwork unlike glycol-ether based DOT fluids.
The advantage of the Citroën LHM mineral oil based brake fluid is the absence of corrosion. Seals may wear out at high mileages but otherwise these systems have exceptional longevity. It cannot be used as a substitute without changing seals due to incompatibility with the rubber.
Brake fluids must maintain a low level of compressibility, even with varying temperatures to accommodate different environmental conditions. This is important to ensure consistent brake pedal feel. As compressibility increases, more brake pedal travel is necessary for the same amount of brake caliper piston force.
Service and maintenance
Glycol-ether (DOT 3, 4, and 5.1) brake fluids are hygroscopic (water absorbing), which means they absorb moisture from the atmosphere under normal humidity levels. Non-hygroscopic fluids (e.g. silicone/DOT 5 and mineral oil based formulations), are hydrophobic, and can maintain an acceptable boiling point over the fluid's service life. Ideally, silicone fluid should be used only to fill non-ABS systems that have not been previously filled with glycol based fluid. Any system that has used glycol-based fluid (DOT 3/4/5.1) will contain moisture; glycol fluid disperses the moisture throughout the system and contains corrosion inhibitors. Silicone fluid does not allow moisture to enter the system, but does not disperse any that is already there, either. A system filled from dry with silicone fluid does not require the fluid to be changed at intervals, only when the system has been disturbed for a component repair or renewal. The United States armed forces have standardised on silicone brake fluid since the 1990s. Silicone fluid is used extensively in cold climates, particularly in Russia and Finland.
Brake fluids with different DOT ratings can not always be mixed. DOT 5 should not be mixed with any of the others as mixing of glycol with silicone fluid may cause corrosion because of trapped moisture. DOT 2 should not be mixed with any of the others. DOT 3, DOT 4, and DOT 5.1 are all based on glycol esters and can be mixed, although it is preferable to completely replace existing fluids with fresh to obtain the specified performance.
Castor oil-based (pre-DOT, DOT 2)
Glycol-based (DOT 3, 4, 5.1)
- Alkyl ester
- Aliphatic amine
- Diethylene glycol
- Diethylene glycol monoethyl ether
- Diethylene glycol monomethyl ether
- Dimethyl dipropylene glycol
- Polyethylene glycol monobutyl ether
- Polyethylene glycol monomethyl ether
- Polyethylene oxide
- Triethylene glycol monobutyl ether
- Triethylene glycol monoethyl ether
- Triethylene glycol monomethyl ether
Silicone-based (DOT 5)
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