Carb cleaner vs. brake cleaner comparison

Carb cleaner vs. brake cleaner: Which one do you need?

Comparing carb cleaners and brake cleaners based on their composition, cleaning purpose, application, and more.

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Key Facts

  • A carb cleaner is a chemical solution made for cleaning carburetors without damaging their delicate parts.
  • A brake cleaner is a fluid that removes oil, dirt, and debris from the discs, pads, and other brake components.

First-time car owner? Or maybe you’ve had your vehicle for a while? Regardless of how long you’ve had your vehicle, you probably know that cleaning it is one of the most vital parts of maintenance. That’s why you need to know exactly what each part does and what you can use to polish them by heart.

With the various car solutions you’d encounter, the carb cleaner vs. brake cleaner question would surely pop up. Due to their similar packaging, it can be difficult to set them apart. However, they’re actually quite different from each other.

This guide will do a deep dive into what makes carb cleaner suitable for carburetors and why brake cleaners should be used exclusively in the braking system. By the end, you’d be able to choose the right cleaning solution for your car maintenance needs.

What is a carb cleaner?Carb cleaner vs brake cleaner - What is carb cleaner

Carb cleaner is essentially a chemical whose main purpose is to clear the sludge and varnish off of a carburetor. It’s usually oil-based, but that’s a good thing because the residue further coats the gaskets and parts it’s cleaning.

But, before diving into the carb cleaner, what’s a carburetor first? Well, it’s basically a remnant from the past. Before, a carburetor was needed to mix fuel and air for a petrol engine. This mixture is then fed into the combustion chamber, which powers up your car. 

Nowadays, most cars have fuel injectors or throttle bodies that do the same thing automatically and more efficiently. However, older and larger car models still rely on one to make a combustible fluid for the motor. That’s why the know-how of cleaning and tuning a carburetor is still important to master.

The carb cleaner is a staple of carburetor maintenance as it ensures that the machine’s sensitive parts like the fuel line are not blocked by buildup and grime. Not preventing these can lead to a less efficient engine that degrades and shuts down over time.

What is a brake cleaner?

Carb cleaner vs brake cleaner - What is a brake cleaner

Brake cleaner, from the name itself, is a chemical that’s used to remove oil, dirt, and debris from the brake’s discs, pads, and other system components. 

Brake cleaners aren’t made of oil, so they won’t leave any residue. Instead, they evaporate quickly and leave the surface dry and clean. This is on purpose because the brake parts need a completely oil-free surface to work optimally. You can’t risk it becoming too slippery when you eventually need to put your car to a halt.

When braking systems become caked with buildup and grime, the go-to solution is usually to replace the whole thing. However, that can be expensive if you do it all the time. Routinely cleaning the brake’s components with the specified cleaner ensures that you get as much performance from the mechanism as possible before having to buy another one.

Brake cleaner vs. carb cleaner: What are their key differences?

Now that we have an overview of brake cleaners and carb cleaners, you might have a bit of an idea of what you need to use for your next car revamp project. But we’re gonna drill down more into these two to settle the carburetor cleaner vs. brake parts cleaner debate once and for all.  

In terms of composition

The best way to define chemicals is usually to figure out what they’re made of. In the case of carb and brake cleaners, there are typically two types: chlorinated and non-chlorinated.

Chlorinated brake or carb cleaners have chlorine and are often more toxic because of it. They can easily damage plastic parts and cause irritation to the lungs when inhaled. In contrast, non-chlorinated ones don’t have any chlorine in their formula. Hence, they’re less toxic but weaker as a result as well.

But, if we’re going to consider each cleaner’s specific composition, it’s important to remember that carb cleaners are oil-based. They don’t wash away easily within the machine and don’t dissolve any non-metal parts. The acetone, toluene, and heptane that they contain lead to a clean carburetor without any undue risks. Sometimes, carbon dioxide can also be added to act as a propellant.

Meanwhile, brake cleaners have the same initial components as carb cleaners but with the addition of methanol in most formulations. The presence of this chemical makes brake cleaners more aggressive and also results in them being able to evaporate quickly. However, it also means that brake cleaners would easily destroy rubber.

Recommendation: The carb cleaner is weaker and more appropriate for a mix of metal and non-metal components that carburetors have. While brake cleaners are stronger and evaporate quickly, they are suitable for brake metal parts.

In terms of cleaning purpose

Carb cleaner vs brake cleaner - Comparing them in terms of cleaning purpose

As mentioned above, carb cleaner is made and used for overall carburetor cleaning. Its main purpose is to polish parts with varnish or tough grime deposits. It’s also effective in freeing stuck components in the mechanism. Since it doesn’t damage rubber, vinyl, and neoprene, it’s perfectly safe for carburetor seals and gaskets.

On the other hand, brake cleaners’ main use is the removal of oil buildup. It also serves as an oil-free brake dust cleaner that evaporates easily. Because of this, it won’t leave any residue that might impair the performance of the car’s brakes. 

Now, you might be thinking, they’re all cleaners anyway. Maybe you can just clean your entire engine bay with the two. However, that’s a bad decision.

As we keep on saying, carb and brake cleaners have distinct chemical components that make them suitable for carburetors and brake systems, respectively. The latter can damage non-metal parts of the engine bay, while the former would be too oily for the remainder.

Recommendation: Choose the cleaner based on the car parts you’re going to maintain. Both brake and carb cleaners are made exactly for their purpose.

In terms of application

Now, it’s time to talk about how to clean a carburetor. The fortunate thing is that it’s relatively easy to do so with a carb cleaner. Just pour the fluid directly into the carburetor’s internal and external parts. You wouldn’t need to disassemble anything, too.

This is also the reason why carb cleaners are suitable for small engine components in lawn mowers and snow blowers. Just make sure that an oily residue won’t harm the machine.

When it comes to cleaning brake parts, you just need to be extra careful that the solution won’t come into contact with rubber seals, plastics, painted surfaces, and electrical components. As we established early on, brake cleaners can be extremely strong due to their methanol contents. Therefore, it might do more harm than good in other non-braking systems.

Recommendation: Carb cleaners are easier to handle because brake cleaners need more care to ensure that they don’t land on non-metal parts.

In terms of potential hazards

Carb cleaner vs brake cleaner - Comparing them in terms of potential hazards

Even though carb cleaners are less aggressive than brake cleaners, they’re still fairly harmful when inhaled. Plus, they can irritate the skin if it comes into contact with an unprotected area, and even damage painted surfaces if a significant amount is sprayed on them.

The brake cleaner is another conversation, though. Since it contains chemicals that are more harmful, you have to make sure that you’re wearing proper protective clothing when handling it.  There are even chlorinated formulas that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are known for being health and environmental risks.

Wearing a mask, safety glasses, and gloves would do if you’re just going to use it for a short period of time. However, if you work in auto shops and are gonna be around brake cleaners for longer than a few minutes, make sure you’re wearing overalls or personal protective equipment.

Recommendation: Brake cleaners are harsh chemicals that are significantly more toxic and harmful than carb cleaners. Handle both of them with care.

In terms of post-application residue

Since carb cleaners are meant to prevent carburetors from drying out and cracking, they leave an oily residue after application. This is a double-edged sword, though, because it makes them unsuitable for any car parts where oil and grease are not desired.

In contrast, brake cleaners dry up quickly and leave no residue post-application. This ensures that the braking system’s components are free of any particles or substances that could impact their performance. This is critical for braking efficiency but not so much for protective films on the mechanism.

Recommendation: Brake cleaners don’t leave any residue after use. However, they can damage delicate engine parts, so they aren’t as versatile as carb cleaners.

In terms of cost

Carb cleaner vs brake cleaner - Comparing them in terms of cost

It’s no secret that car servicing can be quite costly. In fact, the average in the US is $350 to $1,100. However, if you ask me, the significantly lower risk of damaging your car engines and parts is worth the buck.

Luckily, both carb and brake cleaners are generally affordable and widely available in automotive stores. You can even order them online. 

The specific prices can differ based on the brand, formulation, and quantity, but carb cleaners on 14 oz cans usually cost $3.84 to $9.59. Meanwhile, similar-sized brake cleaners can go from $3.07 to $7.92 each.

Anyway, the choice of buying either one highly depends on your purpose rather than the cost. In other words, if you’re aiming to clean the carburetor, go for the carb cleaner. If you’re going to tackle the brakes, then go for a brake cleaner.

Recommendation: Brake cleaners, on average, can be cheaper, but the carb cleaner’s price is typically in the same bracket as well.

Maintain a clean carburetor and brake system with Airtasker

Getting to know every nook and cranny of your vehicle is definitely a challenge–it might even take you longer than a year! But keep in mind that the hard work pays off with a well-maintained, fully-efficient car that would last for a long time.

If you’re too busy for car cleaning, though, it doesn’t have to be a problem. With Airtasker’s cleaning experts, you’ll be able to find the right person to tackle your vehicle maintenance needs in a jiffy.

Post a task today and connect with pros in the automotive game. Make sure your car gets the tender loving care it deserves.

Carb cleaner vs. brake cleaner

Carb Cleaner
Brake Cleaner
Contains acetone, toluene, and heptane in an oil-based solution
Contains typical carb cleaner ingredients with methanol added
Cleaning Purpose

Polishes parts with varnish and grime deposits

Removes oil buildup in the system
Can be applied directly to the carburetor parts
More care is needed to avoid contact with non-metal parts
Potential Hazards
Can be toxic when inhaled, and it comes in contact with the skin
Extremely toxic and chlorinated variants can even harm the environment
Post-Application Residue

Leaves oily residue

Leaves no residue as it evaporates quickly
Generally cheap and accessible
Can be slightly cheaper than carb cleaners

FAQs on carb cleaners vs. brake cleaners

You can use electrical contact cleaners for general brake parts, and then degreasers for metal parts that might be covered with heavy oil. However, these alternatives are not advisable in the long run as they won’t evaporate as quickly and effectively as official brake cleaners.

Yes, but you need to use an aerosol carb cleaner that’s clearly designed for application through the carburetor’s throat. However, take note that it won’t be as thorough as removing and disassembling the carburetor for a deep clean.

No, it’s not a carb cleaner alternative because it can destroy the plastic and rubber components of a carburetor. Plus, the said car part needs the protective oil residue that carb cleaners offer and would not benefit from the easily evaporating brake cleaning fluids.

No, it’s not advisable because even though fuel injectors are mainly made of metal, they still need a much gentler cleaner that won’t damage their delicate components. You’re better off investing in a specific fuel injector cleaner.

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