Automotive Advisers: Stay safe on the road with a seasonal brake system check
It’s easy to overlook the importance of properly functioning brakes, but you know you never want to find yourself in a situation without them.
Brakes are one of the most important components of your vehicle—ensuring you can stop quickly and safely for traffic lights, obstacles in the road and parking once you’ve reached your destination.
There are signs to both watch and listen for that indicate that it’s time to head to your local car repair shop for a brake check, as well as things you can do as a driver to extend the lifespan of your system.
But first, it’s important to understand how brakes work.
The nitty-gritty of a brake system
When your car is in motion, it has kinetic energy.
To stop the car, brakes are what get rid of that kinetic energy.
When you press your foot down on the brake pedal, a connected lever pushes a piston into the master cylinder that is filled with hydraulic brake fluid.
That fluid then moves into other cylinders, creating a system that magnifies the force of your foot on the pedal—applying the brake pad to the rotor.
When the pad and rotor meet, the friction creates heat. That friction and heat ultimately slows down your car’s outer wheels and tires—and that friction, plus the friction of your tires against the road—is what brings your vehicle to a complete stop.
Signs you may need to visit your local repair shop
Fortunately, your brake system has some verbal and nonverbal communication skills that let you know if something’s wrong.
The following are signs there might be a breakdown in your brake system:
- Soft, squishy brake pedal: If you have to press down really hard to get the pedal to catch and car to stop—or if the pedal sinks to the floor with little or no resistance—it’s likely there’s a leak, likely caused by air or moisture in the system.
Pulsing: If your brake pedal pulses up and down whenever you press it, it’s possible your rotors may be warped. In the stop-and-go of driving, your brake pads squeeze your rotors many times over—putting them through a heating and cooling process that causes them to wear down and lose their shape. If the rotors aren’t too worn down, they can be repaired by bringing them into your local repair shop, where they’ll be ground down and evened out. However, if they are too thin, they will need replacing.
Shaky steering wheel: If your steering wheel quakes when you’re braking from highway speeds, the culprit is likely your front brakes—specifically the rotors. Excessive heat from holding the brakes down too long or from frequent and abrupt stopping can cause the rotors to develop hot spots, which can also be created by moisture from humidity and rainy conditions.
For rotors that have been around many blocks many times and through quite a few seasons, it isn’t uncommon for hot spots to develop. As with the pulsing pedal, the solution is to have them ground down to restore an even surface if they’re in decent shape—or to replace them if they’re too worn and too thin.
Shaky car: If your entire vehicle shudders when you’re braking from slower speeds, the culprit is likely your rear brakes. To remedy this issue and restore your smooth ride, your technician is likely to repair or replace the rear drums or rotors. Some vehicles are equipped with 4 wheel disc brakes.
Strange sounds: If you hear a metallic squeal while driving, that’s an audible sign that your brake pads are worn out and need replacing. Or, if you hear a grinding noise while braking, it’s possible a rock or piece of gravel may have gotten caught in the caliper unit or the brake pads and rotor have gone metal on metal. This can be a safety issue. Other potential, more serious causes for screeching sounds could be a lack of lubrication in the rear drum brakes. If the squealing, grinding or screeching persists, be sure to visit your local repair shop, so a technician can uncover the problem and provide a solution.
Break for maintenance to maintain safe brakes
If you notice any of these problems—or if the dashboard light specific to your brake system fires up—you’ll want to visit your local repair shop for a brake check.
Check with your automotive shop to see if they offer a free brake inspections.
Many shops do. Beyond removing your tires to do a thorough inspection, your technician will also look at your brake fluid and make sure the reservoir is full.
It’s customary to change out the fluid every 48,000 miles or every two years — and always best to consult your owner’s manual for recommendations.
This will also help prolong the life of the hydraulic components, calipers, wheel cylinders and ABS pump.
Meanwhile, there are a few things you can do to lengthen the lifespan of your brakes.
Instead of clamping down on your brake pedal when descending a steep hill (likely beyond our Kansas borders), simply tap the pedal repeatedly.
Also, forgo using your trunk as a perpetual storage space for heavy cargo.
Keeping your load on the lighter side when possible helps reduce stress on your brake system while maximizing your stopping power.
But because driving is something that involves a lot of stop and go, occasional brake maintenance is, well, just the breaks —it’s something that’s not only wise to do, but also one of the keys to staying safe on the road.
-Scott and Tammie Green own Christian Brothers Automotive in Shawnee, 22240 Midland Drive.