Question: My brake pedal slowly sinks to the floor when I hold my foot on it. What's wrong?
Answer: You either have a fluid leak in your brake system or your master cylinder is defective. Either way, your brakes need immediate attention.
If the brake warning light is on, you most likely have a fluid leak. Your vehicle may not be safe to drive in this condition! You should have the brakes inspected as soon as possible to determine where the fluid is leaking (usually a hose, brake line, brake caliper or wheel cylinder) so the necessary repairs can be made.
If the brake warning light is not on, it does not necessarily mean you do not have a leak. The warning light only comes on when there's been enough fluid loss to create a pressure differential between the two sides of the hydraulic system that actually apply the brakes.
The brake system is divided into two hydraulic circuits. On most rear-wheel drive vehicles, it is divided so one circuit applies the front brakes and the other applies the rear brakes. On front-wheel drive cars and minivans, the system is usually split diagonally. One circuit works the right front and left rear brake, and the other works the left front and right rear brake. This is done for safety purposes so if one circuit loses all its brake fluid and fails, the vehicle will still have one remaining circuit to apply two wheel brakes.
A quick way to check for leaks in either circuit is to simply check the fluid level in the master cylinder reservoir. The reservoir is divided into two chambers (one for each brake circuit). If one chamber is unusually low or empty, there's a leak somewhere in that circuit. The brakes should then be inspected to check for fluid leaks. Wet spots around hose or line connections, or fluid leaking from a disc brake caliper or drum wheel cylinder would indicate a serious problem that needs immediate attention.
If the brake warning light is not on and there are no apparent leaks, then the master cylinder may be worn or leaking internally allowing the pedal to slowly sink when pressure is applied to it. This type of condition will be most noticeable when holding constant pressure against the brake pedal at a stop light. If the pedal sinks or requires pumping to keep the car from creeping ahead, the master cylinder needs to be replaced.
On some vehicles with rear-wheel antilock brake systems (ABS), it's also possible that a leak in the ABS unit may cause a similar sinking pedal condition.
My brake pedal is low when I step on it, but it comes up when I pump the brakes. Do I need new brakes?
A low brake pedal that has to be pumped repeatedly to bring a vehicle to a stop may be due to a low fluid level, drum brakes that need adjustment or air in the lines. It usually has nothing to do with the condition of the brakes and certainly isn't grounds for a brake job.
If the pedal feels "soft" or "spongy" instead of firm, there's probably air in the system. This will require "bleeding the brakes" to remove air from the lines, calipers and wheel cylinders.
The first thing that should be checked is the fluid level in the master cylinder reservoir. If the level is low, there's a leak somewhere in the hydraulic system that must be found and repaired. Adding fluid will only cure the symptom, not the cause, and sooner or later the level will be low again creating a dangerous situation. So check for leaks around the master cylinder, wheel cylinders, brake calipers, rubber brake hoses and steel brake lines.
If the fluid level is okay, the adjustment of the rear brakes should be checked next (assuming the vehicle has drum brakes in the rear -- if it has drums all the way around, check the front drums first, then the rear). The shoes should be close enough to the drums to produce just a hint of drag when the wheels are rotated by hand. An excess of slack probably means the self-adjusters are either frozen or fully extended.
If adjusting the drum brakes fails to eliminate the low pedal, the wheel and drum will have to be removed so the adjusters can be freed up or replaced, and/or so the worn brake shoes can be replaced.
If the vehicle has rear disc brakes, the adjusting mechanism in the rear caliper pistons that maintain the correct pad-to-rotor clearance may be corroded, frozen or worn out. In most cases, the piston assemblies cannot be rebuilt and must be replaced.
If the fluid reservoir is full and the brakes are properly adjusted, but the pedal is low (or feels spongy), there is probably air in the brake lines. Air is compressible, so every time you step on the pedal, the bubbles collapse instead of transferring pressure to the brakes. The cure here is to bleed the brake lines following the factory recommended sequence.
Brakes are usually bled in a specified sequence (always refer to a shop manual for the exact procedure for your vehicle). Usually the rear brakes are bled first, then the ones up front on most rear-wheel drive cars and trucks. But on front-wheel drive cars and minivans, the hydraulic system is split diagonally so the brakes are bled in opposite pairs (right rear and left front, then left rear and right front). Following the proper sequence is important so air doesn't remain trapped in the lines.
On late model GM and Ford cars with quick take-up master cylinders, the quick take-up valve takes about 15 seconds to reseat after the brake pedal has been depressed. If the pedal is pumped too quickly while manually bleeding the system, you may never get the pedal to firm up. Most professionals use pressure bleeding equipment to bleed the brakes because it is faster and easier.