Let’s talk about brakes. I want you to know everything you need to know about your car’s brake system to help keep you and your family safe. Plus, brake repair cost is much lower if you maintain your brakes properly.
It’s an important topic because your car’s brake system is a complex grouping of parts which serve a critical role in keeping you safe. No other system in your car is as important for your own as well as your family’s safety. Keeping your brake system in tip-top shape should be your top priority.
I’m going to attempt to explain how everything works from the brake pedal on down to the braking system in easy to understand terms that I hope will make sense to you.
The Brake Pedal. This is a strong steel lever which transmits the force from your foot to the master cylinder. The pedal typically has a switch attached to it, to turn on your brake lights when you press the pedal down.
Here’s what happens. When you push down on the brake pedal, the master cylinder is pushed via a push rod. The master cylinder consists of a piston and a fluid reservoir. When the piston is moved, it pushes the brake fluid through the brake lines and into the “brake calipers” or “wheel cylinder”.
Most all cars today have disc brakes on the front wheels, and many have disc brakes on the rear also. When disc brakes are not what’s on the car, you’ve probably got drum brakes. The fluid being pushed from the master cylinder through the brake lines pushes a piston in the brake caliper. This in turn applies force to the brake pads.
The brake pads are typically made from a hard organic or metallic compound. You can imagine the kind of heat friction that builds up when force is applied to the brakes so it makes sense that they are made to survive under high heat and pressure. When the brake pads contact the rotor, there is friction and heat is created. This is how your car stops, by turning the rotating energy of your wheels into heat through friction.
The last part of your braking system is what are known as the rotors. Brake rotors are typically made from cast iron and are made heavy enough to dissipate heat and not warp over time. Unfortunately, in today’s cars, many of the rotors are not large enough, and can warp within a just a few thousand miles. The rotor is bolted between the wheel and the spindle, and rotates at the same speed as the wheels.
The Two Most Common problems:
1. Wear: The braking system does a lot of work and the brake pads take the brunt of the abuse. You need to have your brake pads checked every 6 months or whenever you suspect a problem. Symptoms of wear can include squeaking, grinding, or increased stopping distance. Most brake pads have a thin metal tab which vibrates against the rotor when the pads wear down to a dangerous level. However, some manufactures brake pads do not have this tab and if not checked periodically can wear down far enough to ruin the rotors. A modern trend is to make the brake pads very hard thus extending life. This harder material sometimes squeaks and sounds like the wear indicators mentioned above. Another common cause of brake squealing is simple brake dust. Brake dust can be eliminated by simply spraying brake cleaner on the brake system to remove the dust however caution on the side of error and have any sounds checked out by your auto repair technician.
2. Warped Rotors: More common in newer cars, but possible on all disc brake systems. Rotors warp due to being overheated or the incorrect tightening of the wheel. A warped rotor will give a pulsing feeling when applying the brakes. This pulsing can be annoying AND dangerous. In an effort to cut costs, many new cars have rotors which are very thin and warp very easy. In addition, the manufacturer has not left enough material to resurface the rotor so in many cases, the rotors will have to be replaced when they warp. Check with you mechanic and ask if he recommends having the rotors machined or replaced with new rotors. It is a matter of safety.
If your auto repair shop will be resurfacing the rotor, the warped rotor will placed in a lathe and a cutting tool will remove a thin layer of material from the braking surface. This restores the flatness of the rotor and eliminates the pulsing sensation in the pedal. Make sure when your mechanic puts everything back together that he torques the lug nuts to the proper specifications and that he never uses an impact wrench. If the lug nuts are not tightened evenly the rotor can warp again from the uneven pressure and you’re back right where you started. Note: Some shops use a torque stick, which attaches to an impact wrench and does not allow the torque wrench to tighten more than it should. This is acceptable. If your mechanic does not use a torque wrench or torque sticks, find another mechanic.
Avoid “riding” your brakes. It’s better to slow down with moderate pressure and then allow the brake to cool when released than to keep your foot on them constantly. Riding your brakes causes brake overheating.
When traveling through areas where there are steep grades, consider downshifting to save on your brakes. Driving in a lower gear allows your engine to do some of the braking giving your brakes a break. Remember though, that’s its only safe to do this when traction conditions are good. Using this method on wet, icy, or snow slick roads can cause skids!
Keep your wheels and braking system clean. Clean brakes work better and keep temperatures down. Use a good wheel cleaner which you know if safe for your wheel finish.
What You Should Know About Your Auto Mechanic:
Be wary of low priced brake jobs advertised online, in the newspaper or on TV. Some unethical auto repair shops will try a bait and switch or find other parts which “need” to be replaced. Also, untrustworthy mechanics may claim you need the premium pads and rotors, of course at a higher price. Again, using a mechanic that you trust will save you money in the long run.
A good brake technician will clean all the components of the brake system to ensure a dust and squeak free job.
Your brake technician should apply an anti-seize compound to all the threads on all bolts including the lug nuts to prevent them from rusting fast and causing them to wear.
Ask your mechanic if he uses an anti-squeak compound on the back of the brake pads. This keeps the pads from vibrating. There are both spray and paste forms of this compound.
If you are trying a new auto repair shop for the first time, insist on seeing the pads they removed from your car. There is no use in paying to replace something that doesn’t need to be replaced. Tell them you’ll want the old parts and ask them to save them for you.
National brake shops are not all bad however, since your own mechanic will be familiar with your car and its maintenance, it’s probably better to have your brakes serviced by your regular auto repair shop. Quality work depends almost solely on the expertise of your auto technician.
Do you need the lifetime brake pads? Maybe. That depends on how long you will keep the car and how many rotors you plan on buying in the next few years. This initial cost is a little higher due to the fact the manufacturer knows he will most likely have to give you another set when yours wear out. Also these pads are made from a harder material and tend to wear down the rotors instead of the pads. You might be better off buying the basic pads and replacing them periodically instead of costly rotors every year or two. Ask your mechanic for his recommendation.
Make sure your mechanic uses a torque wrench or torque sticks as discussed above on their impact guns. If in doubt, ask.
The safety of you and your family can depend on the brakes of your car. If you think you have a brake problem, take your car and have it checked by a mechanic you trust.
If we can be of service to you, please call us today at 843-851-2800 to schedule an appointment to have your brakes inspected.