Every driver should know how to check for problems with car brakes. Warped rotors, leaky brake hoses, and squeaky brakes are among the most common.
Are the brakes on your car squealing, is the car pulling to one side, or is there a giant puddle on the garage floor? All of these problems point to an issue with your braking system.
The brakes of a vehicle are an essential component to the safety of both the driver and the passengers. While brakes are quite reliable the system does require routine maintenance and problems can develop as a car ages.
How brakes work
The brake system in most modern vehicles is either a drum system or disc. Disc brakes use a rotor, which is attached to the hub of the wheel, calipers, brake pads, and a hydraulic system to slow the car and bring it to a stop.
When the brake pedal is depressed, the hydraulic system multiplies the pressure being put on the pedal, which causes the calipers to push the brake pads against the rotor, which slows the car and brings it to a stop.
A drum system works on the same principle. When the brake pedal is depressed the hydraulic system pushes the brake shoes against the drum, which is attached to the hub of the wheel. This slows the car and brings it to a stop.
Modern brake systems are extremely reliable but there are numerous parts and some of them require routine maintenance and replacement.
The top 10 brake concerns every driver should know
Brake pads: Worn out brake pads will cause the braking distance to increase and may cause a metal to metal grinding on the rotor surfaces. If a brake pad gets cracks in its surface - caused from overheating the pad - then they will squeak or squeal when stopping. If the pads and rotors get overheated then the stopping distance will be increased. Once you hear a squealing sound on a regular basis, it's time to replace the brake pads.
Rotors: The brake rotor surface needs to be flat to keep contact with the brake pads. If the rotor surface is warped from heat damage it will cause the brake pedal to pulsate up and down and the vehicle to jerk when stopping. If a rotor is overheated its surface will be discolored blue to purple and this hardens the surface and the brake pads will not be able to grip them. This will cause a vehicle to not stop as quickly as it should.
Leaks: A leak in the braking system is usually a hydraulic issue. If the brake pedal goes to the floor, it can usually be traced back to a leak. A leak in the brake line will result in a loss of brake fluid, and eventually the brake system may fail altogether. Leaks should be addressed immediately, a pool of brake fluid on the garage floor or a low brake pedal are all symptoms of this problem.
Sticking caliper: The caliper and caliper brackets hold the brake pads and force them against the rotor to stop the vehicle. Caliper pistons can become stuck in their bore, and when this happens the car will usually pull to one side when the brakes are applied or the pads and rotors will be overheated or worn down too fast. It will also affect performance under acceleration as the brake is sticking. A sticking caliper is more than a nuisance, it can be dangerous and should be repaired immediately. Sometimes the caliper bracket slides will bind causing the same issues as a stuck caliper except only one pad will get worn down too fast instead of both.
Warped rotors: Rotors can become warped if they are exposed to extreme stress. Mountain driving or towing can result in warped rotors. Even something as simple as parking a car next to a sprinkler system can warp a rotor. The cold water hitting the hot brakes can result in warping. Warped rotors will usually cause the steering wheel and vehicle to shake when the brakes are applied. Warped rotors may even increase stopping distance or cause the antilock brakes to prematurely engage.
Brake fade: If the vehicle is taking longer than normal to stop it is probably due to brake fade. In most cases this is a short-term problem but it can turn into a long-term issue. As an example, driving down a mountain road will heat up the brakes making the pads and rotors less responsive. Once the brakes cool down they should return to normal functionality. As time goes on brake fade can become permanent and then it is time to replace the brake pads and rotors. This is the early sign of overheating the brakes and will damage the rotors and pads.
Smoking brakes: While smoking brakes sound sort of cool, it is actually a very dangerous condition. Overheated brakes or brakes that are smoking means the brake pads have been burned or something is leaking onto the brakes. If this happens, the pads will develop a glaze, which can severely affect performance. If axle seals are leaking onto the brakes it will ruin the brake pads and rotors.
Brake light: If the brake light on the dash illuminates it can indicate a serious issue with the braking system. In most cases it indicates a problem with the hydraulics and the vehicle should be inspected and repaired as soon as possible. It is never safe to drive if the brake light is illuminated. The light also doubles duty to let you know the parking brake is on in some vehicles.
Faulty or collapsed hoses: A collapsed or malfunctioning brake hose can result in calipers that move unevenly. This will cause the vehicle pull to one side when the brakes are applied. If the brakes are pulling to one side the vehicle should be inspected and repaired as soon as possible. Sometimes the fluid pressure to the caliper will not be released by the faulty hose and will keep the caliper applied.
Emergency brake on: This may seem silly, but it happens more often than you would imagine. It is pretty easy to forget to release the emergency brake, and this will cause performance issues as well as damage to the brake system. If the car seems to be accelerating slowly or you hear a squealing or grinding noise check to make sure the parking brake is not engaged. If the parking brake cables seize after the parking brake is applied and then you try to release then can cause the vehicle to not be moved at all.