Some people like to keep their heads buried in the sand. You know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That is not a very good philosophy when it comes to caring for your car, especially your brakes. Just like caring for your own body, an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure. And knowing what signs to look for if something does go wrong helps to prevent a situation from getting worse.
In recent months, while the world has been invaded by a novel coronavirus, it has been essential that health experts identify the signs of illness and let people know what to look for. As time has gone on, the list of symptoms has grown to give a clearer picture of what can go wrong with the body should someone be exposed to the pathogen and what to do if they are infected.
Likewise, when you understand what can go wrong with your brakes, you can mitigate problems either before they begin or before they create more damage – or danger if they fail.
Some brake problems are a result of normal wear; others because of negligence, age, environmental conditions, or abuse. Each component will display symptoms when it is going bad. So, here is a list of system components, the problems that happen to them, the symptoms they present, why it happens, and what to do about it.
(If you want to read more about how your brakes work, read The Basics of Brakes: The Components of Your Car’s Braking System)
1. Brake Pads
The brake pads are directly responsible for creating friction that is used to slow and stop your car. Over time, the sacrificial friction material, whether organic, ceramic, or semi-metallic, will wear away. That is why brake pad replacement is part of your car’s routine maintenance schedule. Brake pads wear thin. They also can become glazed over and less effective due to overheating if you tend to “ride your brakes” or brake aggressively.
The first sign of worn brake pads should be when a technician notices them during a routine oil change and 21-point inspection. Failing that, many vehicles today come equipped with brake pad monitors that alert you of excessive pad wear with a warning light on the dash. The pads themselves are fitted with wear sensors that sing out a shrill squeal when you step on the brakes. Ignore those signs and you might hear a grinding sound as the severely-depleted pads make metal-to-metal contact with the discs (rotors) that they grab hold of.
In addition, glazed brake pads might cause your car to take longer to stop, and uneven pad wear can cause a vibration or a pulsing brake pedal.
The fix for worn brake pads should be obvious: have them replaced with new pads. Just don’t make the mistake of simply slapping on a new set of pads. Cheap brake service can end up costing you more in the long run. Ask a trusted shop about a complete brake job.
2. Brake Rotors
The brake rotors are the “discs” in a disk brake system. They are attached to and spin with each wheel. When you step on the brake pedal, the brake pads are squeezed against the rotors. While the brake pads are designed to be sacrificial, your rotors are not. They are made of metal. Still, they do wear out over time and are an essential element of brake maintenance. The metal wears away and they get thin. Your vehicle manufacturer sets a minimum thickness for the rotors; if they wear past that minimum specification, they need to be replaced. Sometimes a worn rotor can be resurfaced, but some manufacturers recommend replacement rather than resurfacing.
Besides wearing thin, a rotor can also become glazed from overheating and develop cracks. It can also wear unevenly.
A pulsing pedal or vibration can be caused by a bad rotor. Sometimes people refer to a rotor as being “warped”, but the effects are usually caused by uneven wear or hot spots. Severe wear can cause grooving, especially when the brake pads are significantly depleted.
As with brake pads, rotors should be inspected regularly. Whenever a brake job is performed, a technician should measure them for thickness and runout (how true they spin) and determine if they should be resurfaced or replaced.
The fix for a bad brake rotor is usually a new rotor. Fortunately, rotors for many vehicles have come down in price in recent years, making replacement a preferable alternative to machining.
Your brake calipers are the hydraulic clamping mechanisms that squeeze the brake pads against the rotors. They respond to the pressure exerted on the brake pedal, and they release the rotors when you let the pedal go.
Sometimes a brake caliper gets stuck in either the open or closed position. This is usually due to dirt or corrosion, or both. Rusty brake calipers are known to seize, rendering them useless. Being a fluid-filled device, a caliper can also spring a leak and stop working.
The way you might experience a bad brake caliper is when you step on the brake pedal and your car pulls to one side (when a caliper is stuck open) or if your car strays to one side when you are not braking (caliper stuck closed). You might also hear a scraping or grinding sound if a caliper refuses to release a rotor. In fact, if it gets bad enough, your wheel might not even turn at all.
Sometimes a stuck caliper can be repaired with a good cleaning, some new clips or other hardware, and new lubricated guide pins. Other times it must be replaced completely.
4. Brake Lines
Connecting the brake calipers to the master cylinder pump is a network of tubing and hoses called “brake lines”. The tubing is made of metal and can deteriorate over time from corrosion. When a brake line rusts, it gets weak – not a very good thing for a tube that must handle a lot of pressure from the fluid inside in order to protect you and your passengers.
Occasionally a flexible brake hose will become crimped and cut off the movement or force of the brake fluid. That is not very common, but it can occur. When it does, it can make your brake system act like a caliper is stuck.
When a brake line is compromised, so is your brake system. You will lose pedal pressure and your car will take much longer to stop – if it stops at all. It will also leak fluid. So, if your brake pedal goes all the way to the floor, or if you notice a fluid leak on the ground under your vehicle, you may have a bad brake line. If the fluid level gets low, you will also see a brake system warning light on the dash.
The only way to remedy the problem is to have the brake line replaced.
5. Master Cylinder
The master cylinder is the hydraulic pump that puts pressure on the brake fluid in the system to close the calipers. To make it easier for you to actuate the brake pedal, a vacuum-assisted power booster multiplies the force of your foot. A problem with the master cylinder can prevent the system from working at all, or it might make it much more difficult to operate.
You might notice that your brakes are soft or that the pedal goes all the way to the floor. You might see the brake warning light. If there is no obvious fluid leak, it could be that the master cylinder is leaking internally or has a bad seal. If, on the other hand, the brake pedal is far too hard to push, the power booster may have lost its way. A booster that has a vacuum leak can also make your engine run roughly.
A master cylinder can be rebuilt or replaced, as can a power booster.
In addition to these five components and their respective problems, the anti-lock braking system, or ABS, can also develop issues that affect your brakes.
To learn more about your vehicle’s ABS, read How Do Anti-Lock Brakes Work?
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright
This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs, and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.