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Contaminated brake fluid conducts electricity. In the automotive repair world, brake fluid is considered contaminated by two ways:

  1. Brake fluid is hygroscopic. Higher water content in brake fluid means lower boiling point. Brake pads/rotors get hot which can boil the water near near the pads/rotors. Boiled water is steam which is a compressible gas. Having a gas in the brake lines leads to a spongy brake pedal. So, high water content absorbed by brake fluid is considered contaminated.
  2. Brake lines contain copper. When microscopic bits copper get in the brake fluid, they can build up in the ABS unit causing failure of the ABS system. Thus, high amounts of copper mean contaminated brake fluid.

Since pure water and copper are both nonelectrolytes, how can brake fluid conduct electricity? Is there some other contaminant I am missing here that is an electrolyte? Is the water being absorbed, somehow, by the brake fluid not strictly H2O?

I am asking because I want to know if I can use a voltmeter to test if there is too much water contamination in brake fluid.

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  • $\begingroup$ It is possible break fluid contains organic compounds that are weak electrolytes and partially dissociate in water. $\endgroup$
    – Poutnik
    Feb 7 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ Beside the point that Poutnik made, copper wouldn't be floating around in the brake fluid as metal flakes. The copper would be as ions so the copper ions would be conductive. $\endgroup$
    – MaxW
    Feb 7 at 9:14
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Even pure water is somewhat ionized. If water is more conductive than pure brake fluid, the test is valid. Why don't you try this as an experiment? To sample(s) of brake fluid fresh from a new, unopened, can, add distilled water, drop by drop, stirring each time and look for a change in conductivity. Measure the proportions, and you can graph the effect of moisture on conductivity.

N.B. There are two types of automotive hydraulic brake fluid in common use: glycol-based and silicone-based. You should test the conductivity of each, and the effect of moisture on each.

BTW, unless so much metal was suspended in the fluid to make a thick slurry, that would not affect conductivity. It is possible some metals, such as aluminum, would react with the fluid and ionize, but those metals should not be part of the brake system.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes. Experimenting is a good idea. I will be testing the conductivity of freshly opened DOT 3, 4, and 5.1 brake fluids in separate open containers (each container will be the same type). I’ll test each fluid’s conductivity at 15 minute intervals. If the conductivity rises for each fluid as time passes, then it is confirmed moisture absorbed from the hygroscopic brake fluids causes an increase in conductivity. This will be good as I know I can test brake fluid for water contamination with a voltmeter. $\endgroup$
    – Josh M.
    Feb 9 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ If the conductivity does not rise, well then I’ll have to use boiling point for testing water contamination. I will be conducting this experiment on Saturday, Feb 13 2021. If there are any ideas as to how this experiment can be improved, please comment below. Results will be posted the next day. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Josh M.
    Feb 9 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @JoshM. How did the experiment turn out? $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn
    Mar 10 at 7:06

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