Brake calipers are important components of the braking system. A seized brake caliper (also called a sticking brake caliper) is what happens when the brakes clamp down, but don’t release when you take your foot off the brake pedal.
Common Sticking Brake Caliper Symptoms
Below are seven of the most common symptoms of brake caliper stickiness.
1) Car Pulling to the Side
This is one of the most common symptoms of a seized brake caliper. If you notice your vehicle pulling too far to the right or too far to the left, then replace your brake caliper immediately.
2) Brake Pedal Stays Down
Another common symptom of brake caliper sticking is when the brake pedal stays down after you’ve taken your foot off it. The brake pedal will eventually come back up but it will likely take a few seconds.
3) Brake Fluid Leakage
One easy symptom to lookout for is when you have brake fluid leaking from your vehicle. If you check under your vehicle, around your wheels, or notice a trail of fluid coming out as you’re slowing down on the road, then you could possibly have a leak causing your brake caliper to stick.
4) Hard to Stop Vehicle
The brake caliper depends on the proper amount of brake fluid pressure to slow the vehicle down. If you have brake fluid that is leaking from your vehicle, then it will be hard to stop the vehicle. Furthermore, it will make the brake caliper sticky as well.
5) High Pitched Sounds
You will notice problems with the brake caliper right away when you start hearing these high-pitched sounds occurring while applying pressure to the brake pedal. This could mean the caliper is seized or some other caliper problem too.
6) Difficulty Steering
If one of the front calipers is stuck closed, you may notice the vehicle start to pull to one side.
If one of the front calipers is stuck open, you may notice the vehicle pull strongly to one side under braking. This is because only one of the front brakes is working to slow the vehicle. The front brakes do the vast majority of the braking on most vehicles.
7) Burning Smell
If you notice smoking or an acrid burning smell coming from one wheel, you might want to check on the brakes. When a brake caliper gets stuck in a clamped position, it generates an excessive amount of heat.
This heat will melt the brake pads and heat up one wheel more than the others. In extreme cases, this may even start a fire. The rotor will often have a bluish tint to it once it’s been overheated.
If you’ve overheated your brakes, it’s a good idea to replace the rotors, the brake pads, and flush the brake fluid. Once braking components take on more heat than they were designed to, they will be less effective at stopping your vehicle.
8) Brake Fade
Overheated brakes don’t stop very well, and may even quit working altogether. A spongy brake pedal or increased stopping distance with the same pedal pressure is known as brake fade. A sticky brake caliper may cause brake fade due to the excess heat generated by the brakes constantly dragging.
Brake fade is very dangerous if not addressed quickly. In severe cases, you won’t be able to stop the car at all.
Common Causes of Sticky Brake Calipers
Here are the top causes of a brake caliper sticking.
1) Caliper Slides
The caliper has grooves which secure the brake pads in place and allow the pads to slide inward after you put your foot on the brake pedal.
However, there are shims on the brake pads which can get caught in these grooves from built up debris that may be there. This will make the brake pads unable to slide, causing caliper sticking.
2) Caliper Bolts
There are slides on the brake caliper bolts which must always be lubricated. Each bolt has a rubber boot which maintains their lubrication. If this rubber is torn, it could lead to less lubrication and soon cause stickiness with the brake caliper.
3) Brake Hose
Brake hoses eventually get worn out and then break apart inside. This will direct the brake fluid to possibly flow one way only after you apply pressure to the brake pedal.
If that happens, the fluid can’t get back into the master cylinder after you take your foot off the brake pedal. The result is brake caliper stickiness.
4) Caliper Piston
A caliper piston that doesn’t fit right in the caliper housing could cause the piston to bind under braking or with the release of the brake pedal.
This is more likely to happen on a lower quality remanufactured caliper, but any caliper assembly could have a defect.
5) Brake Pads
If you don’t replace your brake pads soon enough, they are going to get worn out. Then your caliper won’t be able to create the necessary friction against the rotor, causing extreme stickiness in the caliper.
6) Torn Piston Boot
Wheels, tires, and brakes are some of the dirtiest parts of your vehicle. If the caliper piston boot is torn, dirt, dust, and debris may sneak past the boot and into the piston housing.
This debris will then rub against the piston and its housing, causing excessive wear on the internal components of the caliper. Eventually, this may interfere with the piston’s movement. The piston could even seize in the housing.
If the caliper piston or slide pins corrode, they may get stuck in one position. This is more likely to happen in areas that are already prone to rust, such as those that salt their roads in the winter.
8) Debris Buildup
Debris buildup inside the brake caliper can potentially cause issues with the brakes releasing, much like corrosion can. Check for debris around the caliper piston(s). Verify that all necessary brake hardware is present and functioning correctly. Clean, replace, and lubricate worn components where applicable.
What Does a Stuck Caliper Sound Like?
A stuck caliper may sound like grinding, brushing, metal on metal screeching, or it may not make any sound at all. If the sticky brakes make a noise, it will come from the same side the car is trying to pull toward.
For instance, if your front left brake caliper is stuck, your vehicle will want to pull to the left while you’re trying to drive in a straight line. Any strange noises will also come from the left side of the vehicle.
What are Binding Brakes?
Brake binding or brake dragging is sometimes used interchangeably with a seized or sticky brake caliper. Sometimes the word “binding” is used to describe an intermittent issue with the brakes, where the brake caliper will seize when the vehicle is cold. Sometimes a seized caliper will release after it heats up considerably.
Binding brakes should still be serviced as soon as possible, even if the brakes work some of the time. You will likely need to rebuild or replace the caliper. Depending on how long the brakes have been binding, you may need to replace the brake pads and rotors as well.
What Does it Cost to Fix a Stuck Brake Caliper?
The cost of a stuck brake caliper will vary by vehicle. Replacement cost may be as low as $200 if you are doing the work yourself, but could creep up around $1,000 for more expensive components on larger vehicles.
Bigger brake calipers, rotors, and pads will cost more. It’s a good idea to replace the brake caliper, rotor, and pads all at the same time if you’ve overheated the brakes excessively. Defer to a trusted mechanic for your particular situation.
Some brake calipers can easily be rebuilt, saving you a bit of money if you or your mechanic buy a rebuild kit.
If you’re not doing a caliper rebuild and the brake hose isn’t the root cause of the issue, you will probably have to replace the caliper. Remanufactured calipers are calipers that have been rebuilt by someone else. These units cost less than OEM parts and may suit you just fine, depending on the condition and quality of the rebuild.