Hey, what’s that sound — that high-pitched squeal? It’s your brakes, and they’re telling you it’s time for a cleaning. This doesn’t necessarily require a shop visit, as you may be able to remedy the problem yourself and expand your DIY repertoire. To help you, let’s look at how to safely use brake cleaner.
Brake cleaner is an aerosol spray with chemicals that loosen grease, oil, dust and debris from your brake components, causing them to run easily off the parts as liquid. It evaporates quickly, and it leaves no trace of itself or the gunk that’s been making unpleasant noises and potentially reducing the efficiency of your brakes — anything your brake pads touch that isn’t the brake rotor can make your stops longer.
How To Safely Use Brake Cleaner
When it’s used as directed, brake cleaner is pretty simple to apply. For the best access, jack the car up and secure it on jack stands so you can safely remove the wheel. Before beginning, consider laying down some shop rags or containers to catch the dirty runoff, and, as always, get your eye protection on. The spray will be safe for your calipers, pads and rotors, so you can apply it liberally to all these components.
A warning, though: Brake cleaner is not something you just want to spray around like air freshener. Some brake cleaners contain caustic chemicals, and some are highly flammable. Whatever chemicals are in yours, they weren’t meant for your eyes or lungs. Some formulas, depending on their chemical composition, could even harm your paint job, rims or tires if they are applied incorrectly. That’s why you should use a precision straw if possible. Many good brake cleaners will come with one of these to help you direct the spray exactly where you need it to go.
What Else Can You Use Brake Cleaner For?
A neat aspect of brake cleaner is that it has a range of applications. Brake cleaner is a great way to clean oily grime off of screws, nuts, hinges and other gunked up metal components that might be hard to scrub. It also can get rid of oil or grease stains on your car’s carpet, your garage floor or your driveway. Bear in mind that too much brake cleaner on a carpet can discolor what you’re trying to clean, and you don’t want to be breathing in its fumes in your car. But in a pinch, it can work wonders on small stains from grease, oil, paint or ink. Just make sure to test a small out of the way spot first, like under the seat.
How Not to Use Brake Cleaner
Aside from the obvious — keeping it away from flames and avoiding inhalation — do not use brake cleaner anywhere near welding equipment or on anything you plan to weld. The active chemical in a lot of brake cleaners reacts to heat and Argon by becoming Phosgene gas, a potentially fatal poison, even in very small doses — and one for which there is no antidote. Be safe and do your welding and brake cleaning at different times and in separate spaces.
Whether you’re using brake cleaner to clean your brakes or for any other purpose, remember to read the instructions and follow them as you work on your car. Make sure you also look up eco-friendly disposal instructions for empty or partially empty cans as well as any material with brake cleaner on it.
Check out all the brake cleaners available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on safely using brake cleaner, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Mike Hagerty is an automotive journalist whose work has been featured on radio, TV, in print and online since 1997. He's the Publisher and Editor of MikeHagertyCars.com, and contributes car reviews to the Los Altos Town Crier and losaltosonline.com. Previous outlets have included KFBK and KFBK.com in Sacramento, California, the ABC television affiliates and Hearst-Argyle and Emmis radio stations in Phoenix, Arizona; AAA magazines for Arizona, Oklahoma, Northwest Ohio, South Dakota and the Mountain West and BBCCars.com.