No one can predict exactly when a brake line or hose will fail. This is why inspecting brake lines should be part of every vehicle inspection. Spotting and replacing a corroded line before it bursts can not only prevent damage to the master cylinder and ABS modulator but save the driver from an accident.
OE brake lines are made from metal that is rolled and welded into tubing. To seal the tube, molten copper alloy is poured into the line. On the outside, a coating or plating material is applied. In some cases, a plastic coating or paint is used to increase corrosion and abrasion resistance.
Moisture and the depletion of the corrosion inhibitors in brake fluid are the main sources of fluid breakdown. Corrosion causes the copper to be leeched from the tubing and deposited in the brake fluid. While it is rare for a brake line to fail completely from this type of corrosion, it can lower the integrity of the metal shell over time.
The main killer of brake lines is abrasion. When the external coating is removed by road debris or rubbing on other components, the line will soon develop corrosion. The corrosion will spread and get under the coating. Soon, the integrity of the line will be compromised. This corrosion is hastened by road salt and deicers becoming alkaline from reacting with the tubing.
Some automakers have changed the way they route and protect brake lines. It is not uncommon to see plastic covers over brake lines. Also, some manufacturers will minimize exposure of the lines by routing them in the wheel wells.
Materials are not changing. Steel is still the material of choice for OEMs. What has improved are the coatings used on brake lines, which are tougher against abrasion. Stainless steel is being used on some high-end vehicles, but it is very expensive and requires special tools to bend and flair due to its hardness.
1. Always pay attention to the position of the line exposed to road splash. This is the area of the line that will fail first due to abrasion. Also look at where the line has to pass through the frame or unibody.
2. Flaking or lifting of the outside coating is the first clue corrosion has set in. This is a clear sign the external coating has been breached and corrosion is starting on the lines.
3. Look at the lines passing above the fuel tank. This area can become very corroded from the buildup of deicing brines and road salt that can’t be washed away. A rainstorm in July, for instance, could activate the compounds and cause winter corrosion in the middle of summer. A boroscope can help to inspect the lines in this area.
4. Document the condition of the lines. Taking pictures and making notes on the repair order can save you a trip to court. A few years ago, a manslaughter case was made against a mechanic because he did not tell the customer about corroded lines during a state inspection. Three months after the inspection, a leaking line caused a serious accident.
5. Inspect brackets and hold-downs. When a brake line is free to move, it can rub up against another line. As the vehicle shakes and vibrates, the outer coating can be rubbed away.
How Much Rust Is Too Much Rust?
Any sign of corrosion on a brake line is reason enough to bring it to the customer’s attention and recommend replacement, even if it is not leaking. If the customer refuses the repair, document it in the customer’s file. Don’t take chances.
Fabricating new lines has gotten easier as new tubing materials and tools have been introduced to combat corrosion repairs.
New very flexible brake tubing made of copper and nickel that can be bent on the vehicle has been growing on popularity. This material is corrosion-resistant and softer than mild steel. This softness makes flaring the connections easier and less prone to leaks. Traditional brazed mild steel tubing is getting better with better coating and plating protection that can resist corrosion.
New tools on the market can flare a line while you have one hand tied behind your back. More expensive bending tools allow you to make bends tighter and closer to the fittings without deforming the line. Better tools will not only save time, they will save raw line and fittings.
Pre-fabricated lines are also becoming more readily available and offer better coverage. These lines can be ordered as individual lines, or as complete sets for the vehicle.
Before you replace a brake line, look at the vehicle to decide which repair method is the more economical for the customer. But, make sure you also look at the productivity of the technician and shop. While fabricating a line in-house might be the least expensive option for the customer, a pre-fabricated line will often reduce the amount of labor, permitting the technician to move on to other jobs and vehicles.