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How Can You Tell if a Brake Caliper Has Gone Bad?

April 23, 2020

How Can You Tell if a Brake Caliper Has Gone Bad?

They say you can tell an egg has gone bad by submerging it in a glass of water. If the egg falls over in the bottom of the glass, it is still fresh. If it sinks to the bottom and stands up, it is less-fresh but can still be eaten. But if the egg floats on the surface of the water, leave it alone. It has gone bad. Of course, if you ignore the signs of a rotten egg, your nose will figure it out as soon as you crack it open.

The same can be said of your brake calipers. When your brakes are wearing out, they will send you signs. Just as with a rotten egg, if you ignore the signs of a bad brake caliper, they will become far less subtle. The symptoms will escalate and the problem will become more evident. Damage will likely be the result.

But that does not need to happen to your car. Here are the signs of a bad brake caliper.

What is a brake caliper?

First, let’s take a look at your brake system and understand what a caliper does. A caliper is a component of a disc brake system – the most common on today’s passenger vehicle. That system relies on hydraulic pressure to operate. When you press on the brake pedal, force is exerted through fluid inside a network of hoses and tubes to the wheels. Attached to each wheel is a heavy metal disc called a brake rotor. As your wheels roll down the road, the rotors spin with them. Sandwiched around each rotor is a pair of brake pads. Those pads are suspended in a hydraulic clamping mechanism – the caliper.

Every time you step on the brakes, the calipers squeeze the brake pads against the rotors in the same way someone in a wheelchair might grab the wheels to slow down. A bicycle works in a similar fashion. When you grab the brake lever, a cable actuates a caliper to squeeze a pair of rubber brake pads against the sides of your bike wheel. In each case, friction is created and the kinetic energy of a body-in-motion is converted to thermal energy to slow you down and bring you to a stop.

What are the signs that a caliper has gone bad?

Fortunately, your brake calipers are designed to last. Where your brake pads are designed to wear out with use (your rotors too, to some degree), a caliper is not considered a wear item, one that needs regular replacement. That said, they do sometimes fail. How can you tell? A bad caliper might present itself in the following ways.

During an inspection.

The best way to detect a faulty brake caliper is to have your brake system inspected regularly. A technician can spot the early warning signs of a failing caliper – corrosion, dirt buildup, leak, reluctant guide pins, and more – before they become a major issue. If a caliper already has problems, the technician might notice uneven brake pad wear resulting from a caliper that is either stuck open or stuck closed. Many repair shops offer some form of courtesy check with every oil change service where a technician will check the condition of major vehicle systems and components, including your brakes. Otherwise, you should schedule an inspection at least once a year.

See 21-Point Inspection.

Through routine maintenance. 

Since your brake pads contain a sacrificial friction material that is made to wear away over time, you need to have them replaced occasionally. The amount of time your brake pads will last can vary quite a bit. That is why inspections are important. If you tend to brake aggressively, or you “ride the brakes”, your brake pads will wear faster. Same goes if you drive a lot on dirt roads. The composition of the friction material on your brake pads makes a difference too. Organic brake pads do not last as long as ceramic or semi-metallic pads. In general, brake pads can last as long as 60K miles or as few as 20K miles before they need brake repair service.

Your vehicle pulls to one side. 

One way in which a caliper goes bad is by seizing up, often as the result of cheap brake repair where all of the necessary components were not replaced. Your brake pads need to “float” along either side of the rotor when you are driving. When you press the pedal, they squeeze; when you release the pedal, they let go. But if a caliper is stuck, the pads might not release from the rotor – or they might not grab it at all. The result would be that your vehicle pulls to one side. It would pull in the direction of a caliper that will not release, and wander away from one that will not grab. If you take your hands off the steering wheel, you might even notice the vehicle pulling to one side when you are not braking (although this could also be a sign to shop for tires that need replacement).

You notice a fluid leak. 

Sometimes a brake caliper will leak. This is not normal; in fact, it can be dangerous if your brake system loses hydraulic pressure because of a leak. If you see signs of a fluid leak on the ground just inside of where a tire sits, you could have a leaking caliper that should be addressed as soon as possible. Do not drive your car if it is leaking brake fluid from the calipers or anywhere else. Have it towed to a repair shop for brake service.

You hear strange sounds. 

Odd noises coming from your car could signal a number of problems. Brake pads, for instance, will squeal when they are getting old. If they have worn beyond their limits, they will begin to scrape and grind. A seized brake caliper undetected will often let out a noise similar to that of worn-out brake pads. Early on, it might sound like something is rubbing when you let off the brake pedal. Ignore that and you will eventually hear a metallic grinding, scraping, or rubbing sound that indicates metal-on-metal contact in your brake system. A less-common occurrence is the sound of a “clunk” when you hit the brake pedal. This can be a sign that the caliper or caliper bracket has broken. In such a case, do not drive the vehicle, have it towed to a repair shop.

As you can see, the signs of a bad brake caliper can escalate the longer you let them go. Neglect your routine maintenance or fail to have your brakes inspected regularly and a faulty caliper can go undetected. At least until you hear funny noises. Ignore those, and your brake system could fail. That would be like knowing an egg is rotten and cracking it open nonetheless. Why risk the rotten egg smell of a severely damaged caliper and failing brakes?

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.

COLUMBIA AUTO CARE & CAR WASH
|
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.