When it comes to your car's safety, brakes top the list of systems that need monitoring. However, many people are unaware of the signs that indicate a car's brakes may need maintenance or repair.
For routine maintenance, it's important to check the vehicle's braking system at least once a year. A thorough inspection should include brake lining wear, brake fluid level, rotor thickness, condition of hoses and brake lines, brake and dash warning lights, as well as taking the car for a test drive to detect other potential brake system problems.
Check out this brake system diagram to better understand how the braking system works.
It is important to be alert and recognize the danger signs of brake problems. Other warning signs include an illuminated brake warning light, brake grabbing, low pedal feel, vibration, hard pedal feel and squealing.
"Sometimes it's only a few miles between a soft brake pedal and a pedal that goes clear to the floor," said Stephen Powell, NAPA/ASE Technician of the Year and owner of Thoroughbred Transmissions & AutoCare, Inc. in Laurel, Md. "But consumers easily can protect themselves from brake failure by watching and listening for a few simple clues."
Powell says noise is one of the leading indicators that something is awry with brakes. "Any out of the ordinary sound is often a sign that brakes have worn to the point they should be checked," he said. "Watch especially for a grinding noise, and if your brakes typically throw off brake dust on your wheels, look for a sudden increase or decrease in dust." He added that finding small metal flakes on the wheels is also a sign that brakes should be checked.
Another leading indicator is the feel of the brake pedal, Powell said. If the car pulls left or right when braking, or if the front end shakes, those are both signs of excessive brake wear. If the brake pedal begins to feel spongy, it could be a sign that air has entered the brake system or fluid is low.
"A mushy brake pedal, along with a decrease in brake fluid, could also indicate brake wear," Powell added. "Check the brake fluid reservoir to make sure it's topped off. If not, then brake fluid is likely remaining at the wheel to fill the space caused by wear."
Many cars now have ABS (Automatic Braking System) that initiates a rapid-fire pumping sequence to the brakes to keep the car straight during sudden or hard braking. "If the ABS light illuminates on your instrument panel, then it's likely that the wheel sensors have detected excessive build-up of metal particles from the brake system," Powell said. "Most cars are designed to shut down the ABS when excessive particle build-up occurs." Powell added that a shutdown ABS does not prevent you from stopping, just that the ABS feature isn't working.
- Wheels should be pulled and brakes checked once a year by an ASE-Certified technician. "It's not uncommon to replace brakes after 12,000-15,000 miles," Powell explained. An inspection typically includes the rotors, calipers, drums, pads, pistons and brake lines.
- Brake systems should be flushed and brake fluid replaced every two years. "Brake fluid absorbs moisture in the system and becomes acidic after two years or 30,000 miles," Powell said.
- Check your owner's manual or ask your ASE-Certified technician to see what kind of brakes your car has and how they are adjusted. For example, most drum brakes are self-adjusting by backing up or engaging the emergency brake.
- Regardless of care, brakes should most likely be replaced every 20,000-30,000 miles. "Of course, how and where someone drives will greatly influence when brakes should be replaced," Powell emphasized.