There are many annoying little niggles that can arise when something is wrong with your car, but perhaps some of the most rage-inducing, are squeaks, squeals and scraping sounds that occur when your brakes need attention. Not only are the issues involved with worn or damaged brakes annoying though, they can also cause very serious safety concerns. In this article we will highlight a few of the most common signs that your brakes may need replacing - whether the pads, rotors, drums or calipers, or just the fluid - so that you may enjoy both minimal annoyance factor and can rest assured, knowing that your safety isn’t impacted by poor stopping power.
Why are my Brakes Squealing?
The most obvious sign that there is something untoward about your brakes is usually a terrible, high-pitched squealing noise when slowing or stopping. Depending on the nature of the sound, it may indicate one or more different issues that can arise in the braking department. On cars without ABS, a constant screeching sound when you stop is usually a clue that suggests worn or excessively hardened pads, since the contact surface is uniformly causing friction. Whereas if the squeaking sounds as though it is pulsing, then this will usually point towards the rotors themselves being warped or otherwise unevenly worn, since the area that the pad contacts the rotor will be undulating. ABS will usually cause a pulsing screech either way, so a visual inspection is definitely the best way to be sure where the cause of the sound lies. Drum-brakes can also squeak, screech or squeal when the meat of the internal pads are worn down to the metal, or heat and age has caused the material to harden up too much. It is fairly unusual for the drums themselves to become warped, however if the vehicle has been sitting unused for some time, then it can still happen.
Ultimately, no matter what type of brake system your vehicle has, if you find them to be excessively noisy then inspection is definitely recommended!
Why is there Vibration when braking?
This may vary in intensity from a subtle vibration, to a violent shuddering. But no matter how strongly you feel it, any shaking that occurs when you brake will usually indicate that something’s not working the way it should. If you find that your steering wheel shudders when you brake, then it usually indicates that the front brakes are the culprit, whereas if the whole body of the car vibrates, then that’s usually due to the rear brakes needing attention. Vibrations can be caused by uneven wear in any one of the components that make up your braking system, though possibly the most common cause will be warped, contaminated or damaged rotors. If your pads or rotors are worn, then the area at which they touch may be uneven - thus causing the vibration when you brake. If they are contaminated by rust or dirt, then the build-up may cook into solid chunks that will cause a shudder when the pads contact the braking surface - either way it is best to have a closer look, to determine which parts need replacing. Another, less common cause of (usually more noticeable shuddering) is your brake fluid. The hydraulic fluid in your brake lines should be free from water, air or grime but if it isn’t, then you may find that your brakes tend to pulse somewhat.
What causes Excessive brake dust?
If you find that your wheels always seem to be coated in a film of dust, then this may well be coming from the brakes. Excessive brake dust is a good indicator that the material in your brake pads is on its way out. This can be caused by poor quality pads, though will also occur when even top quality pads are overheated or if your brakes are having to work harder than they should. This latter point is most commonly encountered when larger wheels have been fitted to cars with small brakes or power has been increased considerably from factory output. Since the brakes generally need to work a bit harder to stop the car, they are liable to wear faster, and therefore produce more dust. Some pads that contain higher metal content can also have a scraping effect on the rotor surface itself - causing metal dust to be produced from the discs too, though an excess of the dust will still indicate potential misalignment (or excessive contact) of the pads. Excessive dust can build up on the surface of the pads or rotors, and will inevitably impact your braking performance, and potentially make a horrible racket when it does.
What is Brake fade?
Brake fade refers to failure in your braking department that is caused by excessive or prolonged use. Usually this is due to heat buildup, that can cause a sort of glazing of the contact surface of your brake pads and therefore reduce their ability to generate enough friction to actually do their job. Brake fade is mostly caused by hard driving that is outside of the scope of your brakes, meaning that the solution is actually an upgrade as opposed to direct replacement. However, it can also be caused by poor quality pads, or pads that have hardened up over time and use are therefore too slippery to grip properly. The rotors too can end up with a smooth surface - usually due to brake dust or other contaminant being cooked onto them - and so will exhibit the same issues once they get hot. Brake fade is probably most commonly encountered in cars with drum brakes, since cooling has always been an issue with that particular design of brake system, though pads with higher heat tolerance can be purchased to reduce the risk of brake fade occurring.
Why don't my brakes work?
Poor braking performance in general is a major safety concern, and if you find that your car doesn’t stop as well as it used to (or should) then it is imperative that you address the problem as soon as possible. The most common issue with general performance may be a soft and squishy brake feel, or a feeling that your brakes don’t seem to come on until you really kick the pedal down. This will generally mean that your fluid needs replacing - either due to age and degradation, foreign contaminants, or air bubbles that are reducing the ability of the hydraulic fluid to actuate the brakes themselves. Brake fluid does have a lifespan and will deteriorate due to age or heat buildup - so always be sure to change it within the recommended period. It is far better to do it early than to wait until you have issues. If all pads are evenly worn, you may find that the braking performance will suffer across the board. It is a good idea to check the pads if you feel that your brakes don’t seem to come on as hard as they used to. Finally, poor performance could also be caused by the rotor pistons becoming gummed up or sticky. This is particularly obvious if your brakes tend to stick on shortly after you release the pressure. Calipers can be rebuilt or replaced, with many manufacturers providing the means to grease the pistons to aid in their movement. Be sure not to over-grease them though as this can actually cause them to be unable to retract fully, and therefore stay on all the time.
Why is my Check engine/brake light on?
Modern cars with fancy sensor setups will often tell you that there is something wrong with your brakes before you even notice the issue. Some may have individual warning lights or messages that refer specifically to your brakes, whilst others will use the infamous “check engine light” instead. If you do get a warning come up on the dash, always pay attention to it and carry out proper diagnosis, since it is there to help you reduce issues and keep your car in tip-top shape - not to simply annoy you.
As you can see, there are a few clues as to there being an issue somewhere in your braking system. Always be sure to check your pads, fluid level and the surface of your rotors, if you notice something odd about the way your car stops. Addressing braking issues is one of the simplest things that can be done to ensure your continued safety, and the safety of those who share the road with you!
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