As a car owner, you know how important brakes are for safe driving. Over time, brake rotors can become coated in grease, oil and brake dust, reducing braking performance. Typically, brake cleaner is used to thoroughly clean rotors, but you can achieve similar results without it using common household products.
In this guide, we’ll walk through the step-by-step process for cleaning rotors without brake cleaner. With a little bit of elbow grease and the right products, you can clean your rotors right in your own garage.
Here’s a quick answer: You can clean rotors without brake cleaner by using hot soapy water or dish soap, scrubbing with a brush, and rinsing thoroughly. Mix hot water and dish soap like Dawn to dissolve grease and oil. Scrub the rotor surface with a medium brush, rinse away residue, and dry completely. Avoid abrasives that could damage the rotor. Thorough cleaning removes contaminants for optimal braking performance.
Why Clean Rotors?
Before we dig into the cleaning process, let’s review why rotor cleaning is important:
- Contaminants reduce friction – Oil, grease and dust act as lubricants, decreasing friction between the brake pads and rotors. This can reduce stopping power.
- Cause uneven wear – Built up debris can cause uneven pad wear, shortening the life of your brakes.
- Produce noise – Squeaking or grinding noises during braking can be caused by dirt buildup on rotors.
- Cause vibrations – Uneven pad deposits on the rotors can lead to pulsing brake pedal vibrations.
Regular cleaning helps avoid all these issues and extends the service life of your rotors and brake pads.
Cleaning rotors without brake cleaner takes common household items you may already have:
- Bucket of hot water – This helps soften and dissolve built-up grime.
- Dish soap – An all-purpose cleaner like Dawn that cuts through oil and grease.
- Clean rags – For scrubbing and drying the rotors. Microfiber cloths work well.
- Brush – A medium-hard plastic or brass brush to help scrub away debris.
- Brake parts cleaner (optional) – This solvent helps remove stubborn deposits.
- Rubber gloves – To protect your hands while cleaning.
That’s all you need for a thorough DIY rotor cleaning! Now let’s go step-by-step through the process.
Step-by-Step Rotor Cleaning
Follow these steps to clean your rotors like a pro without brake cleaner:
1. Remove the Wheels
Put your car on jack stands or ramps so the wheels spin freely. Remove all the wheels so you have full access to the rotors.
Safety tip: Ensure the car is securely supported before getting underneath!
2. Remove the Brake Caliper
The brake caliper houses the brake pads and pistons. Removing it allows easier access to the rotor surface for cleaning.
To remove the caliper:
- Clean the caliper area from brake dust. This prevents debris getting into brake parts.
- Remove the two bolts securing the caliper to the caliper bracket.
- Hang the caliper out of the way using a bungee or piece of wire. Don’t leave it hanging by the brake hose!
3. Prep the Rotor Surface
Before scrubbing, hose down the rotor surface to remove loose dust and debris. This prevents any larger particles from scratching the rotor as you clean.
4. Mix Your Cleaning Solution
Grab your bucket and mix up an all-purpose cleaning solution. For heavily soiled rotors, a mix of hot water and dish soap works great to cut through stubborn oil and grease deposits.
If the rotors just have surface dust, soap and warm water is sufficient. Mix the solution so it suds up well.
5. Scrub the Rotors
Now the scrubbing work begins! This process helps lift off all the built-up gunk on the rotor:
- Dip your brush in the cleaning solution. Apply plenty of suds to the rotor surface.
- Scrub back and forth along the rotor surface. Apply moderate pressure as you scrub.
- Focus on any heavily soiled areas. Use a rag to wipe away any loosened deposits.
- Rotate the rotor and repeat the scrubbing until the entire surface is cleaned.
- For stubborn deposits, use brake parts cleaner and re-scrub.
- Rinse the soap residue off with clean water.
6. Dry and Clean the Calipers
Before reassembly, thoroughly dry the rotors and calipers:
- Use clean rags to soak up rinse water and dry the rotor surfaces.
- Use compressed air or a hair dryer to completely dry out the caliper internals. Moisture can damage brake components.
- Wipe down the caliper body to remove dust and road grime.
7. Reinstall the Brake Calipers
Once fully dry, you’re ready to wrap up:
- Remount the brake calipers using your original caliper bolts.
- Torque the caliper bolts to spec – usually around 30-40 ft-lbs.
- Reinstall the wheels and torque the lug nuts.
- Make sure the brake pedal feels firm, then take your freshly cleaned rotors for a test drive!
And that’s it – with these 7 steps you can thoroughly clean your brake rotors without brake cleaner. Just a little bit of work pays off in improved braking performance and safety.
DIY Rotor Cleaning Tips
Follow these tips for best results cleaning rotors yourself:
- Inspect the rotors – Make sure they are thick enough and not heavily grooved prior to cleaning. Severely worn rotors need replacement.
- Avoid abrasives – Steer clear of wire brushes or abrasive pads. They can gouge and damage the rotor surface.
- Dry thoroughly – Eliminate all moisture to prevent rotor rusting. Consider using a duster like brake cleaner at the end.
- Check runout – Excessive rotor runout can cause vibrations. Have a shop measure runout if pedal pulsation exists after cleaning.
- Readjust pads – New pads or those with plenty of material are ideal after cleaning. Readjust pads that are near the end of their service life.
- Consider professional help – Some heavy rotor contamination may require more aggressive cleaning methods best left to a professional.
Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about cleaning rotors without brake cleaner:
Is brake cleaner absolutely necessary for cleaning rotors?
No, you can get rotors clean without brake cleaner using hot water, dish soap and some scrubbing. However, brake cleaner does provide convenience and helps eliminate residues.
Can I use rubbing alcohol instead of brake cleaner?
Yes, isopropyl alcohol makes a good DIY alternative to dissolve and remove oily deposits from rotors. Avoid using higher concentration alcohol products.
How often should I clean my rotors?
Most rotors should be cleaned whenever changing brake pads, or if brake performance seems to be decreasing. For severe use, clean rotors every 1-2 years.
Will cleaning rotors accelerate wear?
No, proper cleaning extends rotor and pad life by removing contaminants causing uneven wear. Avoid gouging the rotor surface during cleaning.
Can I clean plated/coated performance rotors the same way?
Check manufacturer guidance, but most performance rotors can be cleaned like standard rotors. Avoid aggressive scrubbing and use a brush softer than the coating.
Do I have to remove both front or rear wheels to clean all the rotors?
Yes, removing all wheels allows full access to thoroughly clean the front and rear rotor surfaces. Work on one axle at a time.
Cleaning your rotors periodically is one of the best ways to maintain optimal brake system performance. Follow the steps outlined in this article and you can keep your rotors in great shape without brake cleaner. Just be sure to take the proper safety precautions and fully dry all components before reassembly. With a little time invested, you’ll gain the satisfaction of brake maintenance done right.