All things being equal, a brake caliper replacement on your car is going to potentially cost you a good deal of money. Depending on the make and model of car you try you could end up paying between $350 and as much as $800 to get your calipers fixed along with your rotors and pads. That said, as potentially intimidating as that price tag might be at the high end, this is a job you never want to leave to chance or let go for too long if you are sure that your calipers need to be replaced. They are an important safety mechanism for your vehicle, and you could be endangering yourself and others if you don't get them repaired when they're not working properly.
A single caliper may be much cheaper and only cost around $150 or so, which means determining the replacement cost really depends on what all need to be replaced and why.
With that in mind, let's take a look at just what your brake calipers do, signs that they're not working the way they're supposed to, and what you can do to get them working again. There's always a possibility that it won't require an entire replacement to get them working and that could save you some money in the long run.
What are Brake Calipers?
Brake calipers are a part of your car's brake system and, if you have disc brakes, are located on the front of your vehicle. These are the part of the entire mechanism that hold the brake pads and pistons in place. The calipers are what allow the pads to squeeze down against the wheel, creating the friction that in turn slows your vehicle to a stop. If you had no brake caliper, you would be entirely unable to stop your vehicle.
If you were to take a look at where your calipers are located in your brake system you'd see that they are fitted over the wheel rotor and look kind of like clamps. They hold the pads in place and work by way of hydraulic pressure transmitted through the brake lines when you put your foot on the brake pedal. That pressure is transmitted to the pistons in your brake caliper which cause it to clamp down and squeeze the pads against a rotor stopping your car.
Can I Replace Just One Brake Caliper?
Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast answer to this particular question. If only one of your brake calipers is working poorly then yes, you can just replace that one single caliper. However, many mechanics would recommend that you replace them both at the same time because if one is wearing out on you then the other is likely sure to follow.
The reason it's best to replace calipers in pairs is because they work in pairs. When you apply your brakes, you're not applying brakes to a single wheel at any given time, right? So, they should be wearing down equally. However, if you swap out one but not the other one, then you're going to have one brand new one and one that is already experiencing wear and tear. That means the unchanged caliper could end up wearing out on you.
If your calipers were relatively new already and one of them failed for some kind of mechanical or accidental reasons, then you may not need to replace them both at the same time. In this instance it would be more economical and more reasonable just to replace the damaged one with a new one. However, if your caliper has failed because it has been on your car for a long time, maybe it was sitting for a long time and moisture caused it to seize up and get damaged then it's safe to assume that the second caliper has also suffered much of the same wear and tear and for that reason you should replace it.
You don't need to replace all 4 calipers at any given time, but you should do either the front pair together or the back there together if it's a result of age that has caused it to wear out. Otherwise, you may be safe just to do a single caliper replacement. Since it's such a relative issue, your best bet is to have a mechanic take a look at your calipers together and see whether or not your unaffected caliper is safe to stay where it is or not.
How Often Do Brake Calipers Need to be Replaced?
Although brake calipers will last longer than your brake pads typically, they are not meant to last forever, and they will need to be serviced or replaced at some point in time. Typically, you can expect that you will need to have your calipers checked out after about 75,000 miles, or somewhere between 7 and 10 years of driving. The calipers do have rubber seals on them that will wear out after this much time so they will need to be inspected and replaced if necessary.
You'll have the option of rebuilding the calipers or replacing the calipers depending on what mechanic you take your vehicle to. Rebuilt calipers are becoming more and more rare these days however because it is usually much easier and faster to simply replace the calipers rather than rebuild them. Often it's considered safer as well because a rebuilt caliper does have the potential to wear out again and fail on you.
In addition to the average lifespan of a caliper, if it has started to leak fluid or it has any serious wear and damage to it it's a good idea to swap it out completely. That could potentially occur at any time depending on what caused the problem to happen.
If you've been driving problem-free for at least 75,000 miles, it wouldn't hurt to get your brake calipers inspected just to see how they're doing. If it hasn't been that long but you are experiencing certain signs and symptoms of bad brake calipers then you also want to go in to get them checked out because mechanical failure is definitely a possibility, especially in terms of those seals wearing or leaking on you.
Can I Drive with a Bad Brake Caliper?
If you were to try to drive your car with a stuck brake caliper it would essentially be like driving with your brakes on at the same time. When your caliper gets stuck, the brake pad will not completely pull away from the rotor which means it will continually be grinding against the wheel as you drive. That's going to affect the overall performance of your vehicle by seriously slowing you down, it will wear down your brake pad much more quickly, and it's also going to stress your transmission which can cause it to fail as well.
Conversely, depending on how your brake caliper failed, you could be in a position where you're not able to adequately apply pressure to the brake pad to stop your wheels when you're in motion. If that were to happen, you would find your vehicle having to rely on the other three brakes to stop your car which may be sufficient, but it may also cause your car to veer in one direction or the other because of the uneven application of brakes. If you have to brake in an emergency, this could potentially lead to an accident as it causes your car to jerk in whichever direction your brakes are actually still working.
As you can see, either one of these outcomes could potentially be dangerous and lead to some costly repairs as a result. So, if you are aware that you're having an issue with your brake calipers there is no good reason to let it continue for any longer than you have to.
Can You Unstick a Brake Caliper?
There are a number of reasons why your brakes could seize on you that can be fixed without actually having to replace the brake caliper. If you have a seized caliper, and it's caused by something going wrong in the parking brake cable or mechanism, or the pads themselves are sticking to your disk you can lubricate the parking brake system and that should get things working again. Sometimes calipers will just seize up if a car hasn't been used in a long time and moisture has caused it to corrode slightly.
There are occasions when the caliper pistons or slide pins can get stuck and cause the caliper to seize up as well. These can be freed up with a specific tool for the job, or even a C-clamp. In some cases all you need to do is remove the caliper from the disc and then try using the brake pedal a little bit to get the hydraulic pressure of your brakes to get things working again. The piston will work through the corrosion and you can take the breaks apart and reassemble them.
That said, all of this requires you to be comfortable doing some work on your brakes themselves. If this isn't something you've done before, or you don't feel like doing you may still want to take it to a mechanic. Just know that it is a possibility that, under the right circumstances, they can unstick the calipers rather than replace them out right. This could potentially save you some money in the long run but you'll need to discuss this with your mechanic and get them to show you exactly what's going on so that you know how they're fixing it and why.
Signs of a Bad Brake Caliper?
If your brake calipers are not working the way that they are meant to be there are some clear signs that you can be on the lookout for to let you know there's a problem. Let's take a look at the most common ones.
Car Pulls to One Side: As we mentioned, when one of your brake calipers is working but the other one is not, your vehicle is going to pull to one side or the other when you apply the brakes. This could potentially lead to accidents as you are forced towards another lane of traffic or the side of the road when you break.
Soft Brake Pedal: If you have a leak somewhere in your brake caliper then when you put your foot on the brakes it's going to feel kind of like pushing into a sponge. You're not going to get the resistance that you're used to because the hydraulic pressure isn't in the system anymore and the fluid is actually leaking somewhere. You can also experience this if a piston is seized in your caliper because it's causing there to be a greater gap between the pad and the rotor so you're going to have to push harder to get it to work.
Leaking Fluid: You can have a problem with fluid leaking from your brake calipers. Fluid can start leaking around either the piston and there's also a bleeder screw on the caliper that could come loose and result in leaks as well. You'll have to investigate around wheels to see for sure if this is a problem, however.
Uneven Brake Pads: When one of your calipers is sticking then you can end up suffering uneven wear on your brake pads. One is going to wear down much faster than the other, which will of course reduce your overall driving ability as well as a result.
Grinding Sounds: As your brake pads wear down because of a stuck brake caliper, you're going to end up hearing that warning sound that comes with a worn-down pad. It will be a squealing kind of grinding sound to alert you that your brake pads are wearing out.
Dragging: When your brake calipers are stuck, and your break is always partially applied you're going to definitely notice a feeling that your vehicle is not able to move the way it's supposed to. Essentially, you're always going to be having that same dragging sensation you get when you apply your brakes to try to come to a stop.
The Bottom Line
Keeping up with routine maintenance is an important part of ensuring that your car works as well as it can for as long as it can. Your brake calipers need to be inspected to make sure that they are performing the job they're supposed to, and if they are starting to wear out you need to get them replaced as soon as you can to ensure your safety and the safety of everyone else on the road with you. You never want to take a chance with something as important as the brakes on your car.