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Low Brake Fluid Symptoms – What to Look For

If you are doing research about low brake fluid symptoms, it likely means something is amiss with your car’s brakes.

Good on you for doing the research. Problems with your brakes need your immediate attention.

What are low brake fluid symptoms?

There’s basically only one low brake fluid symptom – a soft- or spongy-feeling brake pedal.

The end. 

Now you can go on with your day, right? Not really….

Here’s where it gets complicated. A spongy brake pedal could be caused by a variety of things. And low brake fluid is only one of them. Here’s a link to some of the reasons for a spongy brake pedal.

So now that you know this,  if your brake pedal suddenly feels soft or spongy, don’t just add some brake fluid and go on your merry way. You need to go through all the stops (no pun intended!) and make sure you identify the exact cause of your spongy brake pedal and have it properly fixed.

What if my low brake fluid light came on?

While it’s not technically a symptom of low brake fluid, your car may “tell’ you it is low on brake fluid by illuminating a dashboard warning light.

Modern and more advanced cars will literally spell out “low brake fluid” somewhere on your car’s dashboard or infotainment display. If this happens, refer to your car’s owner’s manual and follow the manufacturer’s recommended instructions on how to respond to the alert.

If you are driving an older car, the warning lights may not be as crystal clear.

Brake system fault dashboard light

Red exclamation point in a circle

A red exclamation point in a circle is a common light that signals a brake fault.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that your car is low on brake fluid. It could mean something else. Once again, it’s best to refer to your car’s owner’s manual to learn how to respond to this light.

Parking Brake Dashboard Light

Red P in a circle

If a red light comes on with a P in a circle, this generally means your car’s parking brake is on. In some older cars, instead of a P in a circle, your car may illuminate a red light that says BRAKE.

If you release your parking brake and this light stays on, there’s a chance that there might be a fault in your brake system. Some car manufacturers use this as a dual purpose light – it turns on and off with your parking brake AND it stays illuminated all the time when there’s a brake system fault. 

Depending on your car, a constant illumination on a parking brake dashboard light could be a variety of things, including low brake fluid. 

I’m going to sound like a broken record, but once again, consult your car’s owner’s manual for direction on how to respond to this light.

Why is my brake fluid low?

The main reason why your car is low on brake fluid is because you have a leak in your brake system somewhere. Possible reasons why you have a leak in your brake system include:

Old brake lines

Everything wears out over time… and your brake lines are no exception. They can wear out and develop leaks.

You were in a car accident

If you recently had a car accident, no matter how big or small, there’s a chance something happened to your brake system. Even the smallest impact can cause problems in your car that you might not notice right away.

Road chemicals

If you live in an area with harsh winters, your car is exposed to the salt and chemicals used to melt snow and ice off the roads. These chemicals can be damaging to many parts of your car, including your brake lines.

How do I know if I have a brake fluid leak?

Brake fluid leaks generally happen where your brake lines connect to the brake components in your car’s wheels. So if you see fluid spots or puddles forming on the ground under your car and next to any of the wheels, there is a chance you are leaking brake fluid. 

Another place where you might spot a leak in your brake system is around the master cylinder. This part is kind of like the brain of your brake system. It basically communicates the pressure you apply to your brake pedal to all the brakes on your car’s wheels. To see how a master cylinder fits into your car’s brake system, check out this video:

The master cylinder is most often located under your hood on the driver’s side of your car’s the firewall (the piece of metal that separates the engine compartment and the vehicle’s cabin). Inspect the area around the master cylinder for signs of leaking brake fluid.

picture of brake fluid color

What does brake fluid look like?

Brake fluid tends to be clear or have a slight amber color to it like honey. Note that it isn’t as thick as honey… it just has a similar color. It is much less viscous. 

What about low brake fluid symptoms and worn brake pads?

As your car’s brake pads wear out and basically lose thickness, your brake system will gradually take in more fluid, therefore reducing the amount of fluid in your brake fluid reservoir. 

That said, your brake fluid level does fluctuate over time. As your brakes wear, your fluid level will go down.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean the fluid has been consumed. When you have your brake pads replaced with new, thick pads, the brake fluid will be pushed back into your reservoir and the level will increase.

So resist the urge to top off your brake fluid if you notice the level below the full line and low line. Consider the space between your full and low lines on your brake fluid reservoir as the acceptable range. Your brake system has a tolerance for this fluctuation in brake fluid due to brake pad thickness.  

It’s when your brake fluid level drops below the “low” line that it needs attention.

Conclusion

Brake problems are serious! If your car is exhibiting low brake fluid symptoms and you discover that your brakes have a problem or a brake fluid leak, you should have it fixed ASAP.

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