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Wheel cylinders are a component of the hydraulic system for drum brakes. They function in a similar manner as brake calipers on disc brakes. When the brake pedal is applied, hydraulic fluid pushes the wheel cylinder pistons outwards. This action presses the brake shoes against the inside of the brake drum, applying friction to slow the wheel.
Wheel cylinders and the wheel cylinder components are located inside the brake drum, at the top of the brake assembly. When preparing to work on your cylinders be sure to have a wheel cylinder removal tool at hand, they can save you lots of time removing the part. Your should compare your wheel cylinder to a wheel cylinder diagram when preparing to work on the cylinders. This will ensure your wheel cylinder has all the OEM parts and is working correctly. At this point you can inspect for leaks and other wear issues. This article on how to change drum brakes provides a good overview on how they work and what to look for.
Over time, the wheel cylinder's rubber seals crack or dry out, causing it to leak brake hydraulic fluid. This causes several issues. If only one wheel cylinder fails and the other three operate properly, the braking system will cause the vehicle to pull to the opposite side of the bad wheel cylinder when braking. As with disk brakes, the vehicle will lose brake efficiency and take longer to stop.
More seriously, the leaking hydraulic brake fluid will affect the performance of the entire braking system. If the leak is not addressed, the braking system will run low on hydraulic fluid. When this happens, your brake pedal feels soft or goes to the floor. Eventually, the braking system could fail entirely.
Bottom line: If a wheel cylinder leaks or otherwise goes bad, it needs to be replaced. Following that, you will need to bleed the brakes. The better option is to replace the wheel cylinder(s) proactively. Whenever you replace drum brake, it's always a good idea to replace the wheel cylinder, adjuster, and springs at the same time that you replace drums and shoes.
Wheel cylinders are usually side-specific, but it depends on the make and model of the car as well as the manufacturer of the wheel cylinder. In most cases, wheel cylinders are interchangeable between the front and rear drum brakes on the same side of the vehicle. (Front drum brakes are very rare these days.) However, they are not interchangeable between the left side and right side of the vehicle.
Left side and right side wheel cylinders usually have different part numbers and part descriptions. If you put a wheel cylinder on the wrong side of the vehicle, it may be difficult to reassemble the brakes or make it hard to perform maintenance or other adjustments like bleeding the brakes.
Wheel cylinders consist of the one-piece cylinder, internal spring, two pistons, two piston seals, and two rubber boots. They will not leak inside the cylinder itself because of how they are designed. Instead, leaks occur when the piston seals or pistons wear out. In rare cases, the cylinder itself could crack or be damaged. But the most common issues are with the rubber parts.
As noted above, when a wheel cylinder fails, it is designed not to leak internally. This makes inspection of the cylinder easy. If you see fluids leaking around the cylinder, brake drum, or the tires themselves you know that either the rubber seals, or the wheel cylinder components have failed. At this point you know the wheel cylinder will need to be removed and replaced. If you think your wheel cylinders need replacement, search our large selection today.
Wheel cylinders are located inside the brake drum, at the top of the brake assembly. They should be inspected for leaks when you check your brakes for wear and other issues. This article on how to change drum brakes provides a good overview on how they work and what to look for.