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A brake caliper is a U-shaped clamping mechanism that fits over the top of a brake rotor. When you press the brake pedal, brake fluid is pushed from the brake master cylinder’s reservoir and delivered to the brake caliper piston. The pressure caused the piston to squeeze the inner and outer brake pads on the rotor. This creates friction and slows the rotor's speed.
Brake calipers are one of the most critical components in a vehicle's disc brake system. Without them, the disc brake system wouldn't work. Brake calipers include a number of subcomponents including the caliper pistons and inner and outboard brake pads. These sub-components use hydraulic forces to create the necessary friction on the brake rotor to safely slow or stop a car.
There are two types of calipers used in performance applications. The first is a "fixed caliper" configuration. With the typical fixed caliper configuration, the caliper houses 2 to 4 pistons that squeeze the brake pads on both sides of the rotor. The caliper is bolted to the steering knuckle. It is fixed in position and does not move. All the motion needed to squeeze the pads occurs when the pistons move. The second type is a "floating caliper" system. In a typical floating caliper system, a single piston pushes against the inner brake pad. The caliper can float (slide) a short distance on guide pins, allowing it to force the outer brake pad against the rotor. A bracket supports the guide pins, and bolts to the steering knuckle.
Most passenger cars use floating calipers while many performance cars use fixed calipers. Most floating caliper brakes only have one piston. This allows the floating caliper setup to be less expensive and lighter. It works well for passenger car applications. The fixed calipers provide a smoother and stronger braking, improving both brake feel and stopping power. Fixed calipers may use from 1 to 4 pistons on each side of the caliper, or 2 to 8 in total. This has performance benefits, but the fixed calipers are heavier, take up more space, and are more complex to maintain due to the additional pistons.
Like any other component, brake calipers fail over time. They can wear out or start leaking hydraulic fluid. The goal is to catch problems early so larger problems don't occur. Brakes, including brake calipers, should be inspected periodically for leaks, cracks, or abnormalities.
To help prolong the life of your calipers, it's important to replace the brake pads and flush the brake fluid when needed. It's also helpful to clean your calipers and rotors, and keep the brakes lubricated.
Rebuilding or repairing brake calipers is something left to an experienced mechanic with a fully equipped shop.
In the event of a caliper failure a couple of things can happen. First, if only one caliper fails to produce the right amount of friction while the other three operate properly, the braking system will cause the vehicle to pull to the side opposite the failed brake caliper when braking. The vehicle will lose brake efficiency and take longer to stop.
Second, if the failed caliper causes the pads to drag on the rotor, the car will pull to the side of the failed caliper when not braking. This can cause excess heat to build up, which can eventually damage the wheel bearings in the affected hub. The pads will quickly wear out, and the rotor may be worn down prematurely.
More often than not, "long pedal" is a symptom of problems like failing brake lines or fluid leakage. It could also be an issue with the master brake cylinder or air in the hydraulic system. Only in very rare cases does "long pedal" indicate complete hydraulic failure.
We encourage customers to collaborate with expert brake providers like Buybrakes.com. Unless you are an experienced mechanic, it is best to ensure that all questions are resolved prior to choosing one or more components relating to a brake system. This will ensure that your purchase meets your needs.
Replacing brake calipers is often done when changing brake rotors. It is possible to do the work yourself, if you have the right tools and a good understanding of how braking systems work. Otherwise, it's best to leave the work to a professional mechanic.
Here's a short video on what's needed to change brake pads and rotors - it provides a good overview of how to change a brake caliper: