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Top 10 brake problems every driver needs to know

Is your car’s brakes squealing, is the car pulling to the side, or is there a giant puddle of water on the garage floor? All of these indicate a problem with your brake system.

A vehicle’s braking system is an essential component to the safety of both driver and passenger. While the brakes are fairly reliable, the system needs regular maintenance and problems can develop as the vehicle ages.

How does the car brake work?

The brake system in most modern cars is either a drum or disc brake system (disc brake is common nowadays). Disc brakes use brake discs (also called rotors) attached to the wheel hubs, brake calipers, brake pads, and hydraulics to slow the vehicle and stop it.

When the brake pedal is pressed, the hydraulic system multiplies the pressure from the pedal, transfers it to and causes the brake calipers to push the brake pads into the brake disc, which causes the car to slow down and stop.

The drum brake system works on the same principle. When the brake pedal is depressed, the hydraulic system pushes the brake shoe into a drum that is attached to the wheel hub. This slows the vehicle down and stops.

Modern brake systems are extremely reliable, but there are many components and some of them require periodic maintenance and replacement.

Top 10 brake concerns every driver should know

1. Brake pads: Worn brake pads will increase the braking distance and can cause metal grinding on the brake disc surface. If the brake pads have cracks in the surface – due to overheating – they will cause a squeal when braking. If the brake pads and discs become hot, the stopping distance will increase. Once you hear the occasional squeal when braking, it’s time to change the brake pads.

2. Brake disc: The surface of the brake disc needs to be flat to keep good contact with the brake pads. If the brake disc surface is warped due to thermal damage, it will cause the brake pedal to vibrate up and down and the vehicle to jerk when stopped. If the rotor is overheated, its surface will be discolored from blue to purple and this hardens the surface and the brake pads will not be able to grip them. This will prevent the vehicle from stopping as quickly as it should.

3. Leaks: Leaks in the brake system are usually caused by hydraulic problems. If the brake pedal is low to the floor, it can often leak. Leaking brake fluid will lead to loss of brake fluid and eventually the brake system may fail completely. Leaks that need to be addressed immediately, a puddle of brake fluid on the garage floor, or a low brake pedal are all symptoms of this problem.

4. Sticky brake calipers: brake calipers hold the brake pads and press them against the brake disc to stop the vehicle. Pistons can get stuck in their cylinder bores, and when this happens, the vehicle will often shift to one side when braking or the brake pads and discs will overheat or wear out too quickly. It will also affect performance when accelerating when the brakes are sticky. Sticky brakes are not only annoying, but they can also be dangerous and require immediate repair. Sometimes the brake caliper sliders will become bound causing the same problems as a stuck brake caliper except that only one brake pad will wear out too quickly instead of both.

5. Warped Brake Discs: Brake discs can warp if they are subjected to too much force. Mountain driving or towing can lead to warped brake discs. Cold water sprayed on hot brakes can cause warping. Warped brake discs will often cause the steering wheel and vehicle to vibrate when the brake is applied. Warped brake discs can even increase stopping distance or cause the anti-lock braking system to work prematurely.

6. Brakes are degraded and blurred: If the vehicle stops longer than usual, it may be because the brakes are degraded. In most cases this is a short term problem but it can turn into a long term problem. For example, driving down a mountain road will overheat the brakes, making the brake pads and discs less responsive. After the brakes have cooled down, they will return to normal function. Over time, brake wear can become permanent, and when it does, it’s time to replace the brake pads and discs. This is an early sign of overheating and will damage the brake discs and brake pads.

7. Smoked brakes: Smoked brakes are a very dangerous situation indeed. Brakes that are too hot or brakes that smoke mean the brake pads have burned or there is something leaking on the brake. If this happens, the brake pads will develop a glossy glaze, which can severely affect performance. If the shaft seal leaks into the brake, it will damage the brake pads and brake discs.

8. Brake light: If the brake light on the dashboard is on, it could indicate a serious problem with the brake system. In most cases, it indicates a problem with the hydraulic system and the vehicle needs to be checked and repaired as soon as possible. In some vehicles, this light also tells you that the parking brake is on. When the brake light comes on, it is not safe to continue driving.

9. Damaged or collapsed oil hose: A collapsed or malfunctioning brake fluid hose can cause the brake caliper/piston to move unevenly. This will cause the vehicle to pull to the side when braking. If the brake is pulled to the side, the vehicle should be inspected and repaired as soon as possible. Sometimes the brake fluid pressure will not be released by the faulty oil hose and will always keep the brake caliper pressing the brake pad without releasing it.

10. Emergency brake, parking brake: This may seem silly, but it happens more often than you might imagine. It is easy to forget to release the emergency brake and this will cause performance problems as well as damage to the brake system. If the vehicle seems to be accelerating slowly or you hear a hum or noise, check to make sure the parking brake is being released.

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Written by Fields Nguyen

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