How to Take Care of Hydraulic Disc Brakes and Avoid Problems

take care of hydraulic disc brakes featured image

Every part of a bicycle is essential for a smooth and safe ride. To ensure safety, all parts need to function properly. Thus, cyclists do regular maintenance on their bikes. By doing so, not only safety is assured, but also comfort while riding. One of the parts is the disc brake. While there are two types of disc brakes, this article will mainly focus on hydraulic disc brakes and how to maintain them.

The kind of brake you have on your bike makes a huge difference. This factor is often taken for granted by new cyclists. However, seasoned cyclists know better. As such, one can expect hydraulic disc brakes to be more expensive than a mechanical disc brake.

What are Hydraulic Disc Brakes?

The hydraulic disc brake is a kind of brake found in bicycles that does not require any brake cable as opposed to a mechanical disc brake. Basically, hydraulic disc brakes work with the help of brake fluid. As you activate the brake lever, the brake fluid is released down to the brake caliper. This will compress the brake pad to the rim of your bicycle tires, which will eventually lead it to slow down and stop.

Though mechanical brakes have the capacity to make you stop, hydraulic brakes have more stopping power. As such, riders who have little hand strength can benefit from these powerful brakes. You can still slow down or stop even if you cannot pull the brake lever hard.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Everything has its own pros and cons, and hydraulic disc brakes are no exemption. Before deciding if this type of brake works for your bike, know the pros and cons first.

Advantages

Lightweight

Unlike mechanical brakes, a hydraulic disc brake is lightweight. It helps a lot when you have to bike for long periods. Due to its lightweight ability, you’ll have better chances of maneuvering through up hills. This works well when you are mountain biking, or even for daily exercise routines within the city.

More durable

The use of hydraulic disc brakes provides the cyclists the peace of mind that they won’t quit even through a rigorous journey. These brakes are more durable and longer lasting than their mechanical counterparts. So, you can guarantee that you’ll get from point A to point Z without any brake issues at all. Just make sure that you do your regular checks and maintenance.

Less maintenance required

Speaking of maintenance, one of the best advantages of hydraulic disc brakes is the fact that it requires less maintenance than mechanical brakes. The biggest concern in a mechanical brake is the condition of the brake cables, which a hydraulic brake does not have. The brake cable often gets stretched, especially when you are out and about most of the time. The cable can get broken anytime and this ultimately leads to unsafe riding.

crc brakleen brake parts cleaner
CRC BRAKLEEN Brake Parts Cleaner

On the other hand, hydraulic brakes do not have to deal with such a problem. Since it does not require a brake cable, you only need to focus on the brake pad. The frequency of checking for a brake pad is less compared to checking for the condition of the brake cable. Additionally, the frequency of changing the brake pad in hydraulic brakes is less compared to cables in mechanical brakes.

Impressive brake power

As mentioned earlier, hydraulic disc brakes have more power and strength for your braking needs. Even if you are tired and not strong enough to pull the brake lever, you can still successfully tell the bike to stop. The brake power of a bike ensures your wellbeing. Having hydraulic disc brakes helps a lot during dangerous occasions that require sudden stops.

Disadvantages

Complex maintenance

Though hydraulic disc brakes have fewer maintenance routines, maintaining them can be quite an arduous task. There are several things you need to consider in maintaining this type of disc brake, which we will discuss further in the following section.

Oil Problems

Cyclists using hydraulic brakes worry about oil leaks. If there is an oil leak, it can be harder to fix. Also, you need to be knowledgeable enough about the fluids you are using. Each fluid has its own genetic make-up and substituting one for the other will damage the seals.

Expensive

For cyclists on a tight budget, acquiring hydraulic disc brakes for their bikes may not be an option because of the difference in the price range. The hydraulic version is more expensive to buy and maintain compared to the mechanical one.

General Maintenance of Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Hydraulic disc brakes also require a different approach to maintenance. While mechanical brakes need to get checked regularly for cables and pads, the maintenance of hydraulic disc brakes primarily focuses on the brake pad. You also need to be wary of the fluids you use as well as the things you need to avoid doing.

Bed in the Rotor and Pads

New hydraulic disc brakes won’t perform efficiently unless the rotor and pads are bedded in. Manufacturers usually include a step-by-step process on their instruction manuals on how to properly bed in the new brake into the system. However, most bed in routine follows the steps below:

Look for an uncrowded street where you can increase the speed of your bike to a decent moderate speed. Pull on the brake until you slow down to a walking pace. Repeat the process 20 times and focus on one brake at a time. Afterward, go at a higher speed and firmly pull on the brakes until you are back at a walking pace. Repeat the faster speed to walking pace 10 times. In all of these repetitions, make sure that you do not come to a full stop and the wheels should never lock up at any point.

So what’s the purpose of bedding? Bedding distributes pad material to the rotor. The distribution will help improve the friction between the pad and the rotor. Thus, leading to a smooth ride. You need to do the bedding process before you go out for an actual ride.

Check the Rotor

Rotors are usually made with thin aluminum. Thus, it can bend when too much force is applied when you use your bike. When bendy rotors happen, it becomes misaligned. So, slowly rotate the rotor in the caliper. Then, using an adjustable spanner while protecting the rotor with a rag, gently maneuver the rotor until it becomes straighter.

Regularly checking the rotor is a very essential part of avoiding problems too. Rotors wear off, especially when you ride quite often. Since they are thin to start with, you need to replace them as they start to wear off. A number at the side of the rotor shows the minimum thickness it has. To check if it’s time for a rotor replacement, use digital calipers to see your rotor’s current thickness. When replacing the rotor, however, make sure that you get the perfect match for the caliper and pads you already have.

Replace Pad

Another thing that needs replacement is the pads. However, one of the benefits of having hydraulic disc brakes is the fact that the calipers adjust the pads automatically during wear and tear. The pads kept their proper alignment despite being worn out. So, there’s mostly no need for you to readjust them. What you need to look out for, however, is the time of replacement.

Technically, pad replacement happens once the pad material wears off to 0.5mm thickness. But each manufacturer may differ, so check the instruction manual carefully. The replacement pad needs to be compatible with your caliper and rotor as well. Make sure that you check about compatibility first before purchasing one.

Before starting the replacement process, you have to clean your hands and work area. Cleaning prevents contamination of the pad and the rotor. It is also best to remove the wheel when you replace the pad. Use a brake pad setting tool to push the pistons to the original position. Remove the clip and the pin that holds the pad in place. Take note of the placement and set-up of the return-spring (if applicable) and the pads. Stabilize the pistons in their places by inserting a bleed block.

Put the new pads with the return spring into the caliper. Secure it with the pin and clip. Condition the new pad so that it works well with your rotor. Then, re-attach the wheel to the bike. Cleaning is also done during this time. Clean the rotor as well as the wheel.

Pistons Maintenance

Pistons correlate with wearing pads. As the pads get worn out, the pistons adjust themselves to keep the rotor distance the same. Every time you take the wheel out, the pads move out whenever you pull the brake lever with the wheel. Hence, you have to place pad pacers or thick cardboards to ensure the pads stay in their position.

But in an unlikely time when the pads get pulled, all you have to do is to push them back. You can use a thin flat blade screwdriver to gently pry the pads apart. Afterward, use a rounded spanner or tire lever to further move them while pushing the pistons back to the caliper. Do not use too much force as this may damage the pads. Return the wheel and pull the brake lever several times.

Bleeding Hydraulic Brakes

Without any cables, hydraulic brakes need a sealed tube for the fluid to run from the lever to the caliper. Sometimes, these fluids overlap or contaminate each other. As such, you need to bleed and replace the fluids from time to time.

Bleeding can be tricky and complicated, especially for beginner cyclists. That is why we highly recommend that you take your bike to a cycle shop for professional assistance. Also, it is important to note that different brands of fluids may have a different process of bleeding depending on the fluid components.

Using bleed blocks is further highly encouraged as well. These blocks support the piston by keeping them in place once the wheels and pads are removed for the bleeding process.

How often will you need to bleed the hydraulic disc brakes? Whatever bike you have – from mountain to cruises and any bike in between – bleeding is a necessary step to ensure safety and proper function of the brakes. However, the frequency depends on several factors such as how often you use the bike, and the conditions of the road you use it for, among many others. For most cyclists, they bled their bike once a year.

What Should I Do During Brake Contamination?

For minimal contamination, cleaning the brake using a degreaser will suffice. You may also get some of the disc brake cleaners like the CRC BRAKLEEN Brake Parts Cleaner. Do not use any degreaser or chemicals on the brake pads. To clean the brake pads, you may use sandpaper to grind the pads. Isopropyl alcohol is also one of the things that cyclists use in cleaning disc rotors. Simply soak a rag and wipe the rotors to remove any oil residue and dirt.

Once you thoroughly clear the contaminants away, normal braking conditions will return and will give you a smooth and safe ride. However, if these simple cleaning tips fail, you need to replace the problem parts.

Examples of Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Just getting started learning about hydraulic disc brakes? Here are some examples you can look at online along with advantages that are specific to each product.

SHIMANO Dura-Ace ST-R9120-L Lever Hydraulic Disc Brake

shimano dura ace st r9120 l lever hydraulic disc brake

Without question, Shimano is a leading brand that many bike enthusiasts depend on. So, it is also without doubt that this hydraulic disc brake lever from the brand tops our best list. The hydraulic disc brake technology of Shimano was combined with light action mechanical shifting to give riders quick shifting operation.

It features a shorter lever stroke, which is specifically redesigned as an internal shifting unit. The front derailleur was also redesigned to cater to a lighter front shifting operation. You can also customize the lever position for a comfortable grip and operation.

Why we like it

  • Titanium clamp band
  • Easy control hydraulic disc brake
  • Consistent performance regardless of the weather
  • Dual control lever

SRAM Force 22 Hydraulic Disc Brake

sram force 22 hydraulic disc brake isolated on white background

SRAM is another brand to behold! Many cyclists find SRAM’s Force 22 a trustworthy choice for their braking needs. Force 22 comes from the brand’s top-end RED road group. It boasts of modulation and shift precision while keeping the weight low. Thanks to its carbon brake lever and shift lever made from aluminum.

The ergonomic design also allows for better grip to ensure better control while on the ride. You can appropriately wrap your fingers on the lever without sacrificing comfort. It also features an improved bleed port location that you can access easily during maintenance checks. If there’s one disadvantage though, it would be the fact that it is only compatible with 11-speed SRAM road drivetrains. Thus, limiting its usage.

Why we like it

  • Lightweight shift levers
  • Better finger clearance
  • Read Adjust Technology
  • Fully-sealed hydraulic system

SHIMANO DEORE Hydraulic Disc Brake BR-M6100

shimano deore hydraulic disc brake br m6100

Some usually settle for low-quality yet inexpensive brake systems when the budget is tight. However, you don’t have to do that. Remember that brakes are important to keep your safety a top priority. That is why you shouldn’t compromise the braking performance regardless of the cost.

To solve the financial dilemma, SHIMANO Deore was conceived. Despite being priced less than other high-end brands in the market, it still produces high-quality performance to ensure that braking works efficiently.

It contains 2-pistons and makes use of mineral oil as its fluid. You can rely on its power consistently. Modulation is good too considering its low price range. It also features hinged bar clamps accompanied by safety pins, which you don’t usually see unless the brakes are expensive. With all of these amazing benefits for an affordable price, we truly believe that SHIMANO Deore is one of the best hydraulic disc brakes today.

Why we like it

  • Compatible with SHIMANO ICE Tech brake pads, aluminum-finned
  • Friendly on the pocket
  • Reliable
  • Great power

Magura USA MT7 Pro Disc Brake

magura usa mt7 pro disc brake

Magura MT7 Pro Disc Brake is another one of those hydraulic disc brakes that are up for grabs. It has 4-pistons in total, which ensures that power isn’t undermined. The brakes are relatively light and can be customized to adapt to your arm’s length.

The disc brake also has the capacity to match with your respective SHIMANO and SRAM gears as long as you get the appropriate shifter adaptors. The pads are magnetic as well. This allows easy replacement since it does not require the springs that push the pads on the pistons anymore.

Why we like it

  • Extra pair of pistons to the caliper
  • Powerful break
  • Each piston has its own brake pad
  • Easy pad swaps
  • Carbotecture SL construction
  • Lightweight and efficient

Hayes Dominion A4 Disc Brake

hayes dominion a4 disc brake isolated on white background

Dominion A4 is powered by four pistons designed strategically to provide the best power and brake system. It also has a KingPin structural pad retention bolt as well as a cold-forged caliper. Inspired by motorsports, the Two-stroke dual port bleeding system ensures optimal performance from your bicycle.

Moreover, it boasts of Hayes’ QuickBite2 system. It further comes with the D-series rotor for heat management and less braking noise.

We also love the fact that this is available in Small Finger Lever. Hence, even people with the smaller hand can comfortably grip and control the lever during their cycling experience.

Why we like it

  • King Pin pad retention
  • Two-stroke dual port bleeding system
  • Flip-flop lever
  • Tool-free reach adjustment
  • Easy set-up
  • Quiet

Hope Tech 3

hope tech 3 disc brake pair isolated on white background

Hope Tech 3 features a 2-piston caliper. It is lightweight and provides smooth modulation. The most unique feature of Hope Tech 3 is its adjustable Tech 3 lever. This lever allows the rider to adjust it to their braking needs. However, it can be heavier compared to other levers in the same price range.

Among the listed hydraulic disc brakes, Hope Tech 3 is best for cross-country biking. Proudly made in the UK, you can be greatly assured of its high quality make-up.

Why we like it

  • Cross-country biking
  • Tool-free bite
  • Bite-point adjustment

Tektro HD-M290

tektro hd m290 hydraulic disc brake isolated on white background

Tektro HD-M290 is an open system and 2-piston brake system. What we like about it is its easy installation. It also has hassle-free adjustment and maintenance. So, it is a great pick for beginner cyclists. It further features a reach-adjust system so that you can adjust the lever even without any tools. Additionally, the lever is made from cast aluminum and a reach of 86 to 90mm. That is why, even riders with short hands can perfectly maneuver it.

Typically, you can use this hydraulic disc brake for MTB road, BMX, e-bike, recreation, and cyclocross. This also becomes a good choice for those who need an everlasting and trustworthy brake system for big events such as triathlon.

It uses the Tektro mineral oil. This oil is non-corrosive. It also has impressive heat expansion properties. Meanwhile, the rotor provides more heat tolerance since it has a drilled brake surface to dissipate more heat.

Why we like it

  • Impressive braking power
  • Good price
  • Works well with short-handed people

Takeaway

One of the most important parts of a bicycle is the brake. A failing brake system will result in unwanted accidents that may cause injuries or even death. For this reason, cyclists need to make sure that their braking system is always functional and works efficiently.

Choosing between the mechanical and hydraulic disc brakes solely depends on the rider. Both braking systems provide pros and cons as discussed earlier. And though hydraulic disc brakes may be more expensive than mechanical ones, they are still worth every penny. With all the advantages of power and convenience, a hydraulic disc brake will surely make every riding experience worthwhile. Hydraulic disc brakes also work for the safety of every rider, that we can totally agree!

Last Updated on April 28, 2021 by Matthew Carpenter

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