What You Need to Know About Brakes

28. March, 2018


What you need to know about brakes is one of the most important things for a car owner to be aware of.  Clearly, stopping is more important than anything else that occurs when operating a vehicle.  Interestingly, the brake system is something that is often overlooked by many car owners.  Proper maintenance and keeping your brakes in good working condition is the key to personal safety and avoiding costly repairs.  This article focuses on disc brakes and indication that service is needed, however, noises or shudder coming from drum brakes should be looked into as well.

Listen to Your Car

When you hear noise when applying the brakes, that is a pretty clear indication that it needs attention.  There are a couple of tell-tale sounds that give an indication as to what is going on, what you need to know about brakes, and how critical it is.  The first sound brakes make on most vehicles is a high- pitched squealing sound.   Most vehicles have a wear sensor on the brake pads that will hit the brake rotor (disc) and create a high pitched squealing sound.  That noise is telling you that the brake linings are getting thin and service is needed.

Squealing sounds are a high frequency vibration.  It is possible to get a squeal from disc brakes when brake pads become glazed.  Also when a vehicle is parked for a period of time, the rotors often get a small coat of rust that can create noise.  These types of squeal are different from the wear indicator squeal, but if you can’t tell the difference do not assume you are safe.

The other sound you can get from brakes is a grinding noise when the brakes are applied.  Whenever you hear a grinding noise from your brakes, it is time for immediate service.  Grinding noise is likely a metal on metal condition, meaning the brake linings are completely gone.  Not only are the brakes not operating efficiently, but when ignored, can cause serious damage and dangerous conditions.  I have actually seen situations where vehicles have been driven to the point that the rotors are worn down so thin that the piston pushes out of the brake caliper.  This scenario can cause a wheel to lock up and potentially cause a accident.


Vibration, shudder or shaking when applying brakes indicates an issue with the rotors, also known as discs.  This condition can also be felt in the brake pedal or steering wheel in some conditions.  The brake pedal can at times oscillate up and down, or the steering wheel can shake on brake engagement.  These symptoms all indicate warped rotors.  Rotors can warp from overheating, or improperly torqued lug nuts.

Brake Pull

Pulling to the right or left when braking is another sign that it is time for service.  When a vehicle pulls or, in extreme cases, dives in one direction on brake engagement, it is telling you that one wheel is grabbing.  This can be caused by uneven pad wear, or a hydraulic problem.  Brake calipers can hang up and not engage evenly.  This condition can lead to further issues as well as being unsafe.

Soft Pedal or Not Responsive

Hydraulic problems are generally the problem when your brake pedal feels soft or low.  Air in the system or a failing hydraulic component can create a soft feel, or needing to “pump up” the brakes.  A fluid leak will likely cause a low pedal, sometime allowing the pedal to go to the floor.  Modern vehicles have a split master cylinder to prevent total and complete failure in the event of a leak, but the pedal will still go nearly to the floor and only half the brake system will function in that case.

How Does Your Brake System Work?

Let’s take a look at a brief description of what happens when you step on the brake pedal.  When the brake pedal is engaged, it is pushing a piston in the master cylinder.  The piston forces fluid out of the master cylinder into the brake lines.  As the fluid is forced through the brake lines it pushes a piston in the brake calipers which causes the brake pad to squeeze against the brake rotor.  The brake rotor is what the wheel is attached to, so it slows or stops the wheel.  In addition to this there is a power assist component, either vacuum or hydraulic that reduces the pressure needed to stop your vehicle.  Clearly, there is a lot going on to get your vehicle to stop properly, and keeping all components in good working order is essential for your safety.

Brake Inspection

A thorough brake inspection will involve the components of the entire syetem, including fluid condition, lining on the pads, calipers for leaks and smooth movement, brake rotors for scoring or warping, brake hoses and the steel lines.  Brake cable for the parking brake should be inspected as well as all hardware involved in the parking brake.  If the vehicle is equipped with drum brakes, wheel cylinders and hardware should be part of the inspection.

Get An Honest Evaluation

Unfortunately the automotive repair industry often will oversell brake repairs due to the fear factor with car owners.  Everyone wants to be safe, which make an easy target for unethical repair facilities.  I have seen many instances where a customer is told their brakes are needing immediate attention when they may easily have 6 months to a year depending on driving conditions.  Other examples are when a car owner is told they need to have all the calipers replaced whenever brake pads are replaced.  Brake repairs can be quite costly when overselling occurs.  Understandably, brakes are very important, however, proper maintenance and proper evaluation of what needs to be done will keep the expense at a reasonable figure.  It is unfortunate that often brake repair costs are driven up unnecessarily.  If you feel you are being oversold, do not hesitate to get a second opinion.