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(see updates at the bottom)

My bike uses Shimano hydraulic disc brakes. I can't find any markings on the calipers or handles, but the manufacturer's website says they're BR-M315.

Over the past few months I've had issues with the rear brake: very low braking power, definitely not enough to lock the rear wheel up, and horrific squealing when coming to a stop. I've now gone through three sets of (resin) brake pads; each time I've followed this procedure to clean the disc up:

  • pour boiling water on it to dissolve any grease or oils
  • scrub it while using dish soap
  • apply automotive brake cleaner and wipe it off with paper towels
  • apply isopropyl alcohol and wipe if off with paper towels

I was also careful to bed in the new brake pads. Each time it's fine for around 2 weeks to a month (200-300km), but after that I end up with the same result.

The bike uses a belt, not a chain, so accidentally spraying oil while lubing the chain is not a danger here. I've also wiped the frame parts around the brake rotor and removed the kickstand, since it's right next to the rotor, just in case it was contaminating it. But all this made no difference.

How do I go about diagnosing this? Could it be a caliper leak? I have a spare rotor lying around - would it be worth it to try installing that with new pads, or will that definitely not help? Would it be better to just get the caliper replaced?

Another thought I had is that since the bike uses an internal hub gear, maybe this is a leak from inside the hub shell. But I haven't greased it at all recently, it seems doubtful there'd be so much grease there that it would suddenly start leaking out.

Here's what the rotor looks like; to me the black streaks look a lot like some kind of oil: enter image description here


I can't find any markings on the brake calipers or levers, but the manufacturer website says it's BR-M315.

IGH is an 8-speed Nexus, SG-C6001-8D to be precise. But I haven't opened or greased it at all.

edit: I've swapped the caliper for a new BR-MT200; the rest of the system is the same (same brake hose, same rotor). So far it's been three weeks and I've had no issues, so that seems to have been it. I've also opened up the Nexus IGH to do some maintenance and I've confirmed there weren't really any signs of oil leaking from it.

Although FWIW, when looking at the contaminated brake pads, I haven't really seen a noticeable ring of oil like mentioned in the accepted answer. Perhaps the caliper was leaking oil directly onto the disk somehow, or from the bleed port, or ...

edit2:

A month or so after the previous update above the issue came back. I swapped the brake pads again and also installed brand new rotors, and have had no issues since (it's been six months since then) - so I guess maybe the rotor surface was somehow worn out or contaminated with something even brake cleaner couldn't remove.

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  • 1
    Do you ride on roads? Is it possible you’re picking up diesel or oil contamination from the road. Also don’t clean your brake rotors as a regular thing. Attempt to never clean them. Jan 9, 2022 at 13:27
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    The pertinent model number markings will be on the back side of the caliper. BR-M315 is safe from the cracking ceramic piston issue though. When did this start? Was it recent? Did you mess with the caliper before this started? How old is the bike?
    – MaplePanda
    Jan 9, 2022 at 17:47
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    @Jeff The risk is that you remove the layer of built-up braking material that makes your rotors "bedded in".
    – MaplePanda
    Jan 10, 2022 at 1:16
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    The transfer layer is very tenacious, to the point that if a brake is bedded in unevenly (hard stops as opposed to gradual continuous braking), it can't always be readily smoothed out even by sanding. I'd like to see evidence that it's diminished meaningfully by detergent or solvent cleaning. Jan 10, 2022 at 4:33
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    @Jeff that "why not clean the rotors?" comment would make a good question of its own.
    – Criggie
    Jan 10, 2022 at 10:07

1 Answer 1

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Leaky Shimano brakes very commonly leave a characteristic ring of oil where the piston contacts the pad. If that spot is dry, the bias becomes looking elsewhere for the leak, namely the hub. If you have the ring prominently, you're probably replacing the caliper.

Sometimes with leaking calipers you can get to an answer by using alcohol and a rag to get the caliper bone dry, put in a pad spacer or bleed block, and then do a number of hard compressions of the brake lever (about what you do in a very hard stop), like 10-20 reps. If there's a leaking piston that will often be enough to get it to materialize on the block or the pad, or if it's leaking elsewhere like on the caliper split you might be able to see it weep out a little.

Repeat caliper leak issues will sooner or later give bleed type symptoms. If you have soft feel or limited travel, that's another strike in favor of trying a new brake.

It your hub was leaking enough to do this (which is possible), you would very likely see oil all over the place. Also Shimano brake oil smells like nothing and the hub oil smells like ATF, so that could provide a clue as well.

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  • So the backsides of the brake pads are where I should look for this oil ring?
    – user4520
    Jan 10, 2022 at 8:57
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    @user4520 Yes. Note it's more of a heuristic than an absolute. But the idea is that if you're getting contaminated pads over and over and you're not seeing the oil show up anywhere else, all around the pistons is where you should be focusing your attention. Jan 10, 2022 at 9:07
  • Note that if you have had a leak in the past, some oil can lurk in the rotor vents and reappear later
    – Chris H
    Jan 10, 2022 at 10:50

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