Bleeding your brakes is an intimidating sounding process but it's just a part of the routine maintenance to keep your brake system running properly. Because your brakes are a hydraulic system, you need to make sure that the pressure in your brake lines is precisely regulated. If moisture or air gets into the lines it's going to affect your ability to properly stop your car when you push down on the brake pedal. I've all the systems in your car that you don't want to take any chances with, the brakes are at the top of the list. Fortunately, since getting your brakes bled is a pretty routine maintenance job, it's not all that expensive either. On average you can expect to pay between $75 and $100 to have a mechanic bleed your brakes for you.
The cost of getting your brakes bled is going to vary somewhat depending on the make, model, and year of the vehicle you're driving as well as where you take it to get the job done. As most of us know, getting work done at a dealership is often more expensive than getting it done in a mechanic. And then of course doing the job yourself will always be cheaper than going to a mechanic, provided you have the skill and the tools to get it done at home. Most of the costs associated with getting a mechanic to do work on your car are the labour costs rather than the parts themselves. In fact, about two-thirds of what you're paying a mechanic is for labour depending on the job.
Higher-end vehicles will generally cost you more for this kind of job than a more common car. For instance, when it comes to an Audi A4 you're probably going to spend between $125 and $175 to get the brakes bled. That’s not a huge increase, but it's significant enough. On the other hand, if you have a Honda Accord and you want to get your brakes bled it might only cost you between $60 and $75.
How Do You Tell If You Need to Bleed Your Brakes?
As with most repair jobs and maintenance your manufacturer should have a precise number you can refer to when it comes to when you should get your brakes bled. A good rule of thumb is that every 30,000 miles or so you should be leaving the system just to make sure everything is working the way it's supposed to. That's the routine maintenance number though and there are some signs and symptoms you can be on the lookout for it to let you know you need to get your brakes bled before that time. If you're experiencing any of these signs you may want to take your car in so a mechanic can give it a look and see if you need to bleed your brakes.
The reason you need to get your brakes bled in the first place is that you have air bubbles developing in the line that will reduce the ability of your brakes to perform the way they're supposed to. You end up getting air in your brake lines as a result of brake fluid boiling and creating steam. As you are hydraulic brakes continue to function this steam gets compressed back into water again, but it separates the air from the water in the process. This creates tiny bubbles that over time can form larger air bubbles and air pockets.
The Brake Light is On
Like a check engine light, you should have a brake indicator light on your dashboard that lets you know something is up with your braking system. It's either going to be red or yellow, it may say ABS or something else but it's a good sign that your computer recognizes that there's an issue and your car could use an inspection.
Soft Brake Pedal
This is an unusual experience and a hard one to describe to drivers who have never experienced it before. Basically, when you put your foot down on the brake pedal it feels kind of like it's made of sponge or some other soft and squishy material. They won't have the firmness and tension that you used to form normally operating brakes. When you need to stop, it will feel like you have to press down much harder and much longer to get your brakes to engage the way you want them to. Usually this is a product of having some air in the brake lines. The results of that as you're going to have to press harder and to sustain the fresher for longer to get your brakes to stop. Worse, this problem will continue and will likely get even worse over time until you get the problem fixed.
Need to Keep Pumping Your Brakes
Normally you should just put your foot down and the sustained pressure will stop your car. If you find that you have to pump the brakes to get your car to stop rather than just holding pressure on the brake pedal that's also a sign that you likely have some air in the brake line. This is a result of air making the pressure of the hydraulic system inconsistent. Those bubbles stop the hydraulics from depressing the brakes in any consistent manner, so you have to keep applying pressure in a pumping motion so that the brakes are able to catch hold and stop your car.
No Brake Resistance
This is easy to mistake with just a soft or spongy brake pedal but it's not exactly the same. When you have an issue with that spongy brake pedal there is still some resistance but it's squishy. In this case when there's no resistance at all you'll put your foot on the brake and it will go right to the floor as though there was nothing connected to it whatsoever. When there's no resistance at all on your brakes, it's likely your brakes aren't functioning at all and you have a lot of air in the brake lines. If you're able to put the brake right to the floor and you don't feel any pushback then your brakes are not going to engage, and you could potentially be in a very dangerous situation. If you ever experienced this and your brakes don't respond to you, you need to be very careful about how you proceed.
What to Do if Your Brakes Do Not Provide Any Resistance
If your brakes die when you're driving, you need to try to keep calm because you can potentially cause a lot of injury to yourself and others in this situation. You're going to want to downshift to a lower gear if it's at all possible in this situation. Put on your four-way flashers to let other drivers know that there is a problem.
Try to pump your brakes and see if you can build up any pressure. It's possible that you'll be able to work past some of the air in the line and get the hydraulics to engage again. If you try this a few times and nothing happens then try to engage your parking brake.
Using your parking brake while you're driving can be dangerous, but it's a lot less dangerous than driving with no brakes at all. With the parking brake engaged you can try to cautiously make your way to the shoulder of the road. Keep an eye on other vehicles around you because they are going to be expecting you to brake as normal if you get too close to them and there's no way to warn them that there's a problem other than your flashing lights.
If your parking brake isn't working, and that's also a possibility, or you're perhaps on a highway it's going to take some careful driving and some effort to get yourself to a stop. Make sure you have your foot off the gas completely so you're going to be coasting and ideally losing speed. In an extreme circumstance, if you're at a very high rate of speed, or on a decline and actually gaining speed, you may need to take extreme measures. If there is a median wall or a guardrail it's possible that you could very gently and very carefully guide your vehicle towards it so that you start grinding against the side of it. This is definitely going to cause some serious damage to your car, but the alternative could be catastrophic for you and other drivers on the road. Only do this in the most extreme circumstances when it's safe for you to do so.
Again, you need to keep calm if your brakes have failed and be aware of your surroundings. Use natural terrain to help yourself slow down safely whenever possible and do your absolute best to avoid other drivers as much as possible.
What Happens if You Don't Bleed Your Brakes?
If you don't get your brakes bled when you start experiencing some of these symptoms, then the end result is going to be unpredictable braking and potentially a lack of brakes entirely. The longer you let any of these symptoms go the worse they're likely to get as air in your brake lines will not improve on its own. In time it's almost impossible to avoid an accident if you allow this to continue without getting fixed.
How Do You Bleed Your Brakes?
If you're interested in handling a brake bleed on your own to save a few dollars, it's definitely the kind of home repair you could do yourself. If you’re new to DIY car repair you might want to leave this one in the hands of a professional however since it's not overly expensive to get this job done and, since your brakes are such an important system, you may not want to leave anything up to chance.
One of the most important things to keep in mind before trying this job on your own is to make sure you have the right kind of brake fluid on hand. Unfortunately, there is no standardization of any kind of fluid for your vehicle across the board. Coolant, motor oil, and even brake fluid all come in a wide variety of formulations. The result is that if you mix one kind with another kind you can effectively ruin the entire system. You need to make sure you're using the right fluid in your brake lines or you'll need to have the entire line flushed and repaired before it works properly. Check with your owner's manual to find out exactly what you should be using, or have a mechanic take a look for you so you don't make a mistake.
Once you know you've got what you need, if you've never bled your brake lines on your own before you can find a lot of handy videos on the internet that will guide you through the job step by step so you can see exactly what you need to do. That makes it a lot easier to handle the job for the first time if you can see a professional doing it and showing you what needs to be done.
The Bottom Line
As we've said, you never want to take any chances with your brake lines. When a system like the air conditioning fails in your vehicle, you're safe to let it go for a while before worrying about it, but you never want to do that with your brakes. You risk your own safety and the safety of others when you notice that your brakes are feeling spongy or not resisting your foot the way that they're supposed to.
There aren't a lot of warning signs beyond the feeling of the brake pedal to let you know there is a problem with your brake fluid line that you can look out for. Either your brakes work properly, or they start to fail and when that's the case it can be very frightening for a driver. The moment you notice something is wrong with your brakes, you definitely want to take it into a mechanic right away, so the problem doesn't have to get worse.