Brake System Troubleshooting Tips


Don’t attempt working on your brakes if you aren’t experienced with brake systems. These troubleshooting tips assume a person is familiar and equipped with jacking and supporting safety stands, brake tools, seal and bearing inspection techniques, shoe, drum, rotor inspections, and knows how to adjust, fill and bleed brakes.

AUTOMOTIVE HYDRAULIC BRAKE SYSTEMS: The car that you drive has hydraulic brakes. The brakes in your car consist of a “pump” (master cylinder) that you operate with your foot (brake pedal) connected by brake line tubing to a hydraulic cylinder (wheel cylinder) that pushes the brake shoes against the brake drum or disc brake caliper and rotor. The harder you push the pump with your foot, the more pressure you generate, thus the harder the brakes shoes are forced against the rotor or drum to stop you. These systems use brake fluid to do the work.

TRAILER SURGE BRAKE HYDRAULIC SYSTEMS: Surge Brakes on a trailer are also hydraulic brakes and work very much the same-with one difference. In a trailer surge brake system, the “pump” is located on the trailer-as part of the hitch assembly. This special sliding hitch assembly is called a surge brake actuator. It has a master cylinder built into it, but instead of using your foot to operate it, it uses the weight and the momentum of the trailer to do the pumping.

Here’s how Surge Brakes work: Picture the truck and trailer traveling down the road at 45 mph. The truck and trailer are traveling at the same speed, and the truck is pulling the trailer. When you apply your brakes in the truck to slow down, the truck is no longer pulling the trailer, and in fact the opposite occurs, and the trailer now tries to push the truck (thus the name “surge brake”). This energy causes the surge actuator to slide, or compress. This compression operates the master cylinder, causing it to build brake fluid pressure. The harder you brake the tow vehicle, the harder the trailer tries to push the truck. The harder the trailer tries to push the truck, the more pressure the surge actuator builds up. The more pressure created, the harder the trailer brakes work. Even though the brakes on the trailer are not connected directly to the brake pedal in your truck, what you do with your foot in the truck is indirectly telling the trailer brakes what to do.

There is a restrictor orifice built into a surge brake system. Its job is to dampen the response of the trailer brakes, and here’s why: Let’s say you were towing a trailer downhill, and were applying steady brake pressure on the truck brakes to maintain speed (to prevent the rig from gaining downhill speed). The trailer is “pushing” against the truck-causing the trailer brakes to apply. Now the trailer wants to slow down, but in the process of doing so, it causes the truck to begin “pulling” the trailer again, and the brakes on the trailer release. The minute the trailer brakes release, the trailer begins pushing on the decelerating truck again, causing the brakes to apply. This on-off-on-off-on-off pulsing trailer brake application is not desirable. The restrictor orifice dampens the on-off pulsing effect by slowing down the travel of brake fluid from master cylinder to wheel cylinder and back. Many people don’t know the orifice is there, or don’t understand its purpose.

Emergency Breakaway System: Federal law requires all trailers to have a “breakaway” system. If your trailer ever came loose from the tow vehicle while underway, the breakaway system will activate the brakes on the trailer to slow it down and stop it-hopefully preventing an accident. The breakaway system usually consists of a cable or chain that is attached to the tow vehicle on one end, and a lever/latch assembly on the trailer surge actuator. Since the chain or cable is attached to the tow vehicle, if the trailer come loose from the truck the cable pulls the lever energizing the trailer brakes. A latch mechanism keeps the lever in the energized mode even if the breakaway chain or cable is ripped away by the separation of the truck and trailer. The lever mechanically pushes the master cylinder piston to generate emergency brake fluid pressure, and the latch assures that the pressure is maintained until the latch is disengaged manually by using tools. The breakaway system can be helpful in performing tests and even for bleeding the brakes, so understand it and use it to help you keep your brakes in top shape.


  • Brakes don’t seem to work at all
  • Brakes work on some wheels, but not on others
  • Brakes operate in reverse when you don’t want them to.
  • Brakes won’t release after a sudden stop.

Brakes don’t seem to work at all: First, do a simple test to see what’s going on. Find the breakaway chain or cable, and pull it until it latches in the locked position. An easy way to do this is to find something that you can use as a lever. Jack up all the tires and wheels that have brakes. Manually rotate the tires/wheels using your hands in the forward travel direction and see if they lock up. Check each wheel that has brakes, as it is possible for some of the brakes to work, but not all of them.

Important: The surge actuator slide must be pulled and pushed (full stroke) to create pressure and bleed air from system when making repairs or tests. The slide will offer resistance due to the orifice and shock absorbers, so expect to stroke it with effort.

Got Brake Fluid? If none of the brakes work, remove the master cylinder cap and look inside to see if there is any brake fluid in the reservoir. If not, we recommend you rebuild or replace the master cylinder and wheel cylinders. The absence of brake fluid-especially for any length of time allows corrosion to form in the entire system-including the steel brake line tubing. Corrosion is the enemy as it creates rough surfaces inside the wheel and master cylinder bores destroying the piston seals. Corrosion will also flow around with the brake fluid and eventually will plug up the orifice. You can test for corrosion contaminants by using Phoenix Systems BrakeStrip Brake Fluid Test Strip and you can stop corrosion by adding a 1oz bottle of Phoenix Systems Brake Shot to your master cylinder. In some cases it is possible to hone the cylinder bores, and replace the seals to rebuild them, but usually the bores are pitted beyond repair. Missing brake fluid means you have a leak. You must find the source of the leak and fix it. Don’t just add brake fluid and go back on the road

Inspect the brakes at the wheel.: If brake fluid exists in the system, a process of elimination is needed to find why the brakes aren’t working. It is possible the brake shoes are worn completely out, or the drum brakes are greatly out of adjustment. We recommend you remove the brake drum and visually inspect the shoe linings. While the brake drum is off, have an assistant manually operate the brake system using the breakaway lever. Have them work the surge actuator from “off to on” and closely watch the wheel cylinder to see if the push rod is moving in and out. If not, the wheel cylinder may be frozen, or the master cylinder is not pumping, or the orifice may be clogged.

INSPECT/TEST MASTER CYLINDER: To test the master cylinder, remove the brake line or hose from the rear of the master cylinder located on the surge actuator. DO NOT remove the orifice fitting that the hose or brake line attaches to. This orifice is very, very small-perhaps as small as the diameter of one strand of hair on your head and can easily clog with debris. Engage the master cylinder using the lever to see if it forces a fine stream of brake fluid thru the orifice fitting. If not, remove the orifice fitting, and then test it again by engaging the master cylinder. If it now pumps fluid, hold the orifice up to a strong source of light and see if you can see thru it. If not, it is clogged and is preventing the brake fluid from reaching the wheel cylinders. Unclog or replace the orifice, reinstall it in the master cylinder, then test again. (If the clog is on the master cylinder side of the orifice fitting, it prevents pressurized brake fluid from operating the brakes. If the clog is on the wheel cylinder side of the orifice fitting, it creates problems when the brakes try to release, because it prevents the flow of brake fluid back to the master cylinder reservoir) If the master cylinder won’t pump in all of these tests, it needs replacement. If the master cylinder does pump, proceed to the next step. (Note: it is possible for a master cylinder to pump fluid at a low pressure, but could have internal piston seal leakage that prevents it from building up adequate pressure to operate the trailer brakes.)

TEST THE BRAKE LINE FOR BLOCKAGE: Remove the brake line from a wheel cylinder, and have an assistant pump the master cylinder using the lever. Look at the end of the brake line you just disconnected. If brake fluid is being pumped thru the line, the master cylinder, orifice and brake line seem to be working, so assume the wheel cylinder(s) should be suspect at this point.

Bad Wheel Cylinder? If you have proven the master cylinder is working, the orifice isn’t clogged, and the brake tubing is clear, the wheel cylinder should operate when the master cylinder is engaged using the lever. If it doesn’t, the wheel cylinder most likely has a frozen piston. Although you really can’t bench test the wheel cylinder, you can peel back and remove the rubber boot to look for rust or corrosion that would prove a stuck piston. If you have a stuck piston, replace the wheel cylinder with a new one. It’s a very inexpensive part.

Brakes work on some wheels, but not on others: If the brakes work on even one wheel, it would indicate the master cylinder and orifice are ok. The wheels that don’t work will have one of the following problems that you’ve already learned how to test and fix:

  1. Frozen piston in wheel cylinder or disc caliper.
  2. Worn out or misadjusted brake linings.
  3. Blocked or kinked brake line tubing to that wheel.
  4. Leaking wheel cylinder that has brake shoes and drum soaked with brake fluid.
  5. Leaking wheel seal that has brake shoes and drum soaked with grease.
  6. Severely worn or glazed brake drum or rotor.
  7. Air in the fluid lines. (Bleeding required. Use a Phoenix Systems Reverse Bleeder for best results.)

Brakes work in reverse when you don’t want them to: The principle of surge brake operation says that the brakes will apply whenever the trailer pushes against the truck while in motion. The reverse side effect of this is that in reverse, the truck can push against the trailer also causing the brakes to apply. If for instance you were backing up on soft grass or mud, (or uphill) the trailer really doesn’t want to back up easily, but must be forced by the truck. This is enough to apply the trailer brakes. The harder you try to force the trailer, the harder the trailer brakes apply. Trailer surge brake manufacturers deal with this in different ways:

  1. Use Free Backing brake assemblies on the axle that allow the brakes to disengage only in reverse. This is the most common method.
  2. Use an electric solenoid valve that allows the brake fluid to bypass back to the reservoir while in reverse. The electric valve is wired to the reverse lights on the tow vehicle. This ensures the brakes only bypass in reverse. This is the second most common method, usually seen on boat trailers more than other types of trailers. This system usually uses a 5pin flat plug trailer wiring connector instead of a standard 4 pin electrical connector.
  3. Use a mechanical pin to prevent the surge actuator from compressing and building up pressure. This pin is supposed to be used when backing up only, but if left installed can prevent the brakes from operating-even if traveling in forward. This is a very uncommon method.
  4. Use a manual valve that bypasses brake fluid to the reservoir. It requires the operator to manually open the bypass valve when in reverse, but to remember to close the valve before towing in forward motion. This is also a very uncommon method.

Brakes won’t release after a sudden stop: This is not a very common problem, but it can occur. What causes this is the brake fluid pressure cannot release and travel back to the reservoir due to a mechanical or hydraulic problem. Check the following items to identify the problem.

  1. The orifice is clogged on the output side of the orifice. The clog is acting as a check valve allowing the fluid to come out of the fitting, but won’t let it go back in.
  2. The surge actuator slide assembly has mechanically jammed (stuck) in the compressed position, and will not allow the master cylinder piston to return to it’s relaxed position preventing the fluid from returning to the reservoir and releasing the brakes.
  3. The piston in the master cylinder is stuck in the compressed position preventing the internal return spring from pushing the piston to its parked position-allowing brake fluid to return to the reservoir and releasing the brakes.
  4. The steel push rod that pushes the master cylinder piston is adjusted too long or is bent and will not allow the master cylinder piston to return to it’s relaxed position allowing the fluid to return to the reservoir and releasing the brakes.

Boat trailers in particular work in a very harsh environment. A boat trailer axle is literally submerged underwater when launching or loading a boat. Fresh water is bad enough, but salt water is extra tough on the brakes, bearings, seals, drums, rotors, etc. Purchase and install a flush kit on your drum brakes. This kit allows you to hook up a garden hose to the brakes and flush the salt water out with clean tap water extending the life of the brakes and running gear on a boat trailer. Boat trailers don’t get used as much as other types of trailers, making them even more prone to brake problems due to rotted seals, corrosion, etc.

A very simple test to perform before you travel on a trip, or after the trailer has been sitting for a while is to hook the trailer to your tow vehicle as you would normally. Engage the brakes while parked by pulling on the breakaway system cable or chain until it latches. Next, place the tow vehicle in gear, and begin to slowly drive forward. You should feel the trailer brakes working and offering very stiff resistance. Don’t forget to unlatch the breakaway system before using the trailer normally.

Heater 101

Heater 101

Heater 101

Winter is here a little earlier than expected and with that comes the chance of your heater system not functioning properly. We have all been there. The first real cold morning comes along, and we patiently wait for our car to warm up, so we can turn on the much-welcomed heater and BAM, cold air. Something within our heater system has failed and that is not ok. Here is a little guide to understanding what might be happening and some suggestions on how to fix the problem.

A car’s heater and heater core are part of the engine cooling system, though the heater does not provide the removal of heat from the engine as the normal function. It is meant to provide in-car passenger comfort during the cold winter months. The heater core is mounted in the air distribution duct system and is usually under the dash area of the front passenger side of the vehicle. The heater core resembles a small radiator and functions as a heat exchanger with the engine coolant flowing from the top of the engine through the heater core and back to the water pump in most designs. Engine heat is picked up by the coolant through the process of conduction and is transferred by convection to the cooler outside air passing through the heater core to the vehicles interior. An electric blower motor is used to force air through the heater core. This provides a ready source of heated air to be used to improve passenger comfort when needed. In some systems the engine coolant is constantly flowing through the heater core any time that the engine is running, whereas in other systems a control valve is used to stop the flow of coolant when heat is not needed.

Most failures of the heater core are due to a leak. This is easily detected by noting a wet floor carpet just below the case on the passenger side of the vehicle or if fogging of the windshield is occurring (moisture coming in from ducts). Replacement of the heater core, unfortunately, is not so simple. Because of the many different variations of installation, it is necessary to follow the manufacturer’s shop manual instructions for replacing the heater core.

The following is a typical procedure only and is not intended for any particular make or model vehicle:

  1. Remove the coolant
  2. Remove the access panel or the split heater/air conditioning case to gain access to the heater core
  3. Loosen the hose clamps and remove the heater core hoses
  4. Remove the cable and vacuum control lines (if equipped)
  5. Remove the heater core, securing brackets and clamps
  6. Lift the core from the case

The heater control valve regulates the flow of coolant through the heater core to control core temperature by opening and closing a passage to increase or decrease flow. The heater control valve may be in the inlet or outlet to the heater core. When the control valve is open, a portion of the heated engine coolant circulates through the heater core. The heater control valve may be cable operated, vacuum operated, or operated by a bidirectional electric solenoid or motor. The control valve depending on the valve position selected, meters the amount of heated coolant that is allowed to enter the heater core, from full off, to full flow. The HVAC control panel temperature selector regulates the operation of most heater control valves, whether actuated by a cable, vacuum diaphragm, or electrically energized. Some heater core assemblies have a mechanical heater control valve integrated into them to regulate coolant flow through the core. Other than a leak, which is usually obvious, the valve fails due to rust or corrosion. To replace the valve:

  1. Remove the coolant to a level below the control valve
  2. Remove the cable linkage, vacuum hose, or electrical connector from the control valve
  3. Loosen the hose clamps and remove the inlet hose from the control valve
  4. Remove the heater control valve as applicable. Remove the outlet hose from the heater core. Remove the attaching brackets or fasteners from the control.
  5. Inspect the hose ends removed. If they are hard or split, cut 0.5 to 1 inch from the damaged ends. The better thing to do is replace the hoses.


Heater hoses and clamps are basically about the same as radiator hoses and clamps except they are generally smaller in diameter. It is a practice of some technicians to use a hose that is too large for the application and overtighten the hose clamp to stop the leak. A hose clamp that is too large for the hose is often distorted when tightened sufficiently to secure the hose.

Heater hoses are replaced in the same manner as radiator hoses. It is much easier to use the wrong size hose, however. For example, a ¾ in. hose fit very easily onto a 5/8 in. fitting. The hose clamp then must be overtightened to squeeze the hose onto the fitting sufficiently to prevent a leak. It is not so easy to slide and 5/8 in. hose onto a 5/8 in. fitting. The intent, however, is to use the proper size hose for the application. It is a goo practice to replace all heater hoses if any are found to be defective. The following is a typical procedure:

  1. Remove the coolant to a level below that of the hoses to be replaced
  2. Loosen the hose clamp at both ends of the hose
  3. Turn and twist the hoses to break them loose
  4. Remove the hose. Do not use unnecessary force when removing the hose end from the heater core.

As with cooling system hose clamps, heater hose clamps should be replaced when a hose is replaced. It is most important that the proper size clamp be used for the hose. If the clamp is too large, it will be distorted before being tightened enough to secure the hose onto the fitting. When this occurs it is extremely difficult to stop a leak. Make sure you test your coolant every six months. You can do this with Phoenix Systems Coolant Test Strips.

CoolantStrip 100 Coolant Test Strips


CoolantStrip is a New test strip used to determine when to correct or replace your coolant. CoolantStrip is recommended for use with all coolant colors. Changing your coolant when needed will help prevent breakdowns, improve safety and extend the life of critical engine components.


Diagnosing Manual Clutch Problems

Diagnosing Manual Clutch Problems


Diagnosing clutch problems is much like diagnosing problems in any other automotive system. The more information you have about the problem, the easier it is to properly diagnose it. Diagnostics should always begin with gathering as much information as possible from the owner of the vehicle by asking questions, such as:

  • When is the problem most noticeable?
  • How long have you noticed the problem?
  • What kind of driving do you normally do?
  • Have you had a similar problem in the past? Was it corrected? What repairs were made?

Be sure to always take careful notes of what the customer is saying. Written notes make it easier to remember the details. It also gives the customer confidence the they are dealing with a professional because you are paying attention and are interested in solving the problem.

Verify the complaint- After you have gathered the information take the vehicle on a road test. If possible, try to drive with the customer. This will help give a better idea of the owners driving habits. For example, does the driver ride the clutch, downshift at high speeds, or miss shifts? This will give you clues about the source of the problem.  Some symptoms of clutch problems are Clutch Slippage, Dragging Clutch, Pulsating Clutch Pedal, Binding Clutch, Noise and Vibrations, Clutch Chatter.

When you are driving the car pay close attention to the action of the clutch during all phases of the operation. Notice where the clutch engages. If the clutch grabs way up on the top of the pedal travel, adjust the freeplay back to specifications. If the clutch slips after adjustment, it needs to be replaced. If the free-play is correct and the car accelerates without slipping, but the clutch slips at higher engine speeds, you can suspect a weak pressure plate. Check the throw out bearing for quiet, smooth operation. Listen for bearing and gear noise while downshifting to make sure that a clutch problem has not caused transmission problems such as a damaged synchronizer.

Clutch Slippage – Clutch slippage is evident when the driver has the clutch engaged and the engine speed increases, but the vehicle’s road speed does not. Slipping is normally most obvious during acceleration and shifting. A road test can determine if the clutch is slipping. Normal acceleration from a stop and several gear positions should provide the conditions needed to witness slipping.

Slippage can also be verified in the shop. Depress the clutch pedal, shift the transmission into high gear, and increase the engine’s speed to around 2200 rpm. Slowly release the pedal until the clutch engages. The engine should stall immediately. If the engine does not stall within a few seconds, the clutch is slipping. If the clutch slips, depress the clutch pedal to end the test quickly.

Dragging Clutch – Clutch dragging occurs when the clutch disc is not fully released when the clutch pedal is fully depressed. This can cause gear clashing, especially when shifting into reverse. The clutch disc, input shaft, and transmission gears should require no more than five (5) seconds to come to a stop after the clutch pedal is depressed. This time is called the “spindown time” and is normal. However, if the time exceeds more than five seconds, clutch drag is evident.

To check for dragging clutch. Start the engine and depress the clutch pedal. Shift the transmission into first gear but do not release the clutch, then shift in neutral. Wait five to ten seconds, then attempt to shift into reverse. If the shift causes gear clash, raise the vehicle and check the clutch linkage. If there are no problems with the linkage, the clutch must be disassembled and inspected. Clutch drag can be caused by a warped disc or pressure plate, a loose disc facing, incorrect clutch pedal adjustment, or a defective release lever.

Pulsating Clutch Pedal – Pedal pulsation is a rapid up-and-down pumping movement of the clutch pedal as the clutch engages and disengages. The movement of the pedal is normally slight but can be felt through the pedal. To test for pulsations, start the engine and slowly depress the clutch pedal. Pay close attention to the pedal as it is being depressed. Very slight pulsations are normal, however if the pulsations are quite noticeable or severe, the clutch assembly needs to be disassembled and inspected. Pedal pulsation is normally caused by broken, bent or warped release levers, a misaligned bell housing, or a warped pressure plate, flywheel, or clutch disc.

Binding Clutch – If the clutch pedal does not operate smoothly, check the clutch linkage or cables for binding. Also check the bearing retainer collar for wear or grooves. Make sure the retainer is lightly lubricated with white lithium grease. If the clutch pedal moves but fails to disengage, check the linkage for wear or improper adjustment. Make sure that the disc is not installed backward. Also check that the disc hub spines are properly lubricated. Examine the release fork to make sure it is on its pivot and that it is not warped, cracked, or excessively worn. Check the condition of the pilot bearing or bushing. A bad pilot bearing can cause the disc to bind by preventing smooth rotation of the input shaft or may allow the input shaft to wobble, causing the disc to be in continual contact with the flywheel or the pressure plate. This problem can cause gear clashing, as well as poor disengagement.

Noise and Vibrations – Noise and vibration problems are best identified by road testing the vehicle. Begin your observations while the transmission is cold. Pay attention to any change in noise as it warms up. Start the engine while the transmission is in neutral. Listen for a change in noise as the clutch pedal is depressed and released. Repeat this cycle with the engine at higher speeds.

Drive the vehicle and shift through all the gears, including reverse. Listen for any change in noise in a particular direction or gear. If the noise is most noticeable in a particular gear, drive the vehicle in that gear and then depress the clutch pedal. Listen for any change in noise. If there is a change, the noise may be amplified by the engine’s vibrations. Release the clutch and wait until the original noise returns. Then shift the transmission into neutral, release the clutch, and allow the vehicle to coast. If the noise remains, the cause is undoubtedly in the drive line.

Clutch Chatter – Clutch chatter is shaking or shuddering that is felt when the clutch is engaged. This normally happens when the pressure plate first makes contact with the clutch disc and will stop when the clutch is fully engaged.

To check for chatter, start the engine and completely depress the clutch pedal. Shift the transmission into first gear and increase the engine speed to 1500 rpm. Slowly release the clutch pedal and listen as it begins to engage. If chattering is evident, depress the clutch pedal and reduce engine speed immediately to prevent damage to the clutch parts.

Clutch chatter is normally caused by broken engine mounts and glazed clutch and or flywheel or pressure plate facings. Leaks into the clutch can lead to glazing. Possible sources of leaks are the engine’s rear main seal, transmission input shaft seal, and clutch slave cylinder. The engine and transmission mounts should also be checked for looseness, breakage, or wear. Chatter can also result from uneven engagement, which can be caused by a worn front bearing retainer or release fork. Other possible causes for chatter are a bent clutch disc, burned or damaged facing, excessive heat, damaged pressure plate, pressure plate has excessive runout, and worn or damaged pilot bearing.

Make sure that you have bled the clutch properly to ensure maximum efficiancy. You can get the best bleed possible by using Phoenix Systems patented Reverse Bleeder Technology. One Person, 15 Minutes, Done.


MaxProHD Brake & Clutch Bleeder


The MaxProHD Reverse Bleeder is one of the newest additions to the Phoenix Systems line of Reverse Brake Bleeders. With the MaxProHD Reverse Brake and Clutch Bleeder, one man can bleed brakes, or clutches, in 10 minutes or less.         **Case color may differ from one shown in image

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