AAA experts weigh in on brake fluid and engine noises.
Q When my car was serviced, I was shown a "test strip" indicating that the brake fluid was bad and a system flush was needed. I'd never heard of this nor had I ever needed to add brake fluid. Are test strips for real? Is something different about brakes today that requires flushing? Is this a scam?
A Yes, yes, and no. Test strips are real; they're analogous to do-it-yourself pregnancy tests except that you dip them in brake fluid and the color they turn shows whether it's contaminated. The most common contaminant is water—brake fluid has a self-destructive affinity for it. Water not only reduces braking efficiency, it promotes corrosion. Modern brake systems are more sensitive, more complicated, and possibly more susceptible to corrosion than those of yore. Decent care is so important that some car manufacturers have added flushing to the list of regularly scheduled maintenance like oil and filter changes. As for never having had to add fluid, the level doesn't necessarily decline because of contamination—a reservoir might be full of fluid that can't earn its keep. When the level is low, it's usually due to a leak or to wear in components such as pads.
Q My '99 Cadillac's engine clicks or ticks for a moment on starting. When I run the engine without the serpentine belt, the noise is gone. I have had the power steering pump and tensioner changed, but the noise remains; the only way I can get rid of it is by removing the belt. What can I do?
CHARLIE F. HOLLINGSWORTH
A Cheapest place to start: Replace the belt. Belts and hoses lead stressful lives and can become stealth problems, looking hale even when they have enough internal troubles to be at death's door. They may warn of worse to come through noises, slipping, or cracking, or may approach their end in apparent glowing health. Hobbes might have cited them as exhibit A when describing life as nasty, brutish, and short. Replacement at five or six years is an easy way to avoid later difficulty.
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This article was first published in November 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.