What’s one of the most critical systems in your car? It would be hard to argue against the braking system. Imagine your brakes failing as you’re exiting the highway, or as you’re slowing down to round a corner.
Which is why it’s important to pay attention to the little things your car tries to tell you every time you drive. Many common automotive brake problems can be solved quickly – if you catch them early enough. The more you listen to what your vehicle is telling you, the safer you’ll be.
How to stop
The art of stopping is based on kinetic energy. Every object on earth has kinetic energy based on its mass and velocity. The object’s mass (weight) determines its velocity (how fast it will go).
To stop, you have to remove the kinetic energy. For you and me, we simply slow down our speed. But for large objects – cars – the braking system is built for the process.
Take a moment to look through your front wheel, you can see a metal disc just inside. Most cars today use what’s called a disc brake system. As you apply pressure to the brake pedal inside your car, a brake pad clamps onto this disc and rubs it to stop the motion. It slows it down depending on the force you apply to the brake action.
Cars not only have a lot of weight, but they can also reach very high speeds. Have you ever hit 70, 80, or more on the highway? Your brakes have to be able to stop quickly even at these speeds without throwing your vehicle into a tailspin. When you hit the brake pedal, all of this energy is immediately transferred to the brake pads. That means these pads have to be able to withstand a lot of heat (950 degrees F or more) and be able to function properly.
For that reason, brake pads are made of materials that won’t melt, such as alloy, ceramics, or other carbon-based materials. Eventually, these pads start to wear down. The thinner they get, the more pressure you have to apply to perform the same function. Until eventually they wear out altogether.
You want to get a full lifespan from the brake pads. You have to parallel that with replacing them before they put you at risk. That’s why it’s important to have a mechanic on your side, who will provide you with honest, accurate feedback on what to expect from your investment.
A lot happens in between installing new brakes and replacing them when they’re worn out. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
What is brake dust, and what causes it?
Have you ever washed your car and noticed gray-black dust covering your wheels? That’s brake dust.
As the brake pads apply pressure to the disc, iron particles slowly grind off. These small iron and metal particles are nothing more than residue from the brake pad material as this process occurs.
Brake dust is not an indication that your brake pads are malfunctioning. Yet it is important to clean brake dust away from your wheels, as it can erode the clear coat of your alloy wheel, which causes more problems to your vehicle.
Fortunately, that’s an easy process. You can purchase wheel cleaner at your local automotive shop. Just use a soft bristle brush and rinse it away.
What is brake fade?
Have you ever pressed down on the brake pedal and it’s felt like the brakes aren’t working? It could be brake fade. There are several reasons this could be happening.
Friction fade occurs when you overuse your brakes. This happens quite frequently here in Colorado because of the Rocky Mountains. As you’re coming down a steep hill, to keep the car from gaining speed, some unsuspecting drivers will put their foot on the brake pedal and keep applying pressure. That constant friction creates enormous amounts of heat. This can cause the brake pad and rotor to stop working.
Older cars might experience brake fluid fade, which is caused by a degradation of brake fluid. Different manufacturers have different requirements on when to replace your brake fluid. If you ignore these guidelines, it begins to absorb water and other debris. That causes the brake fluid to boil at lower temperatures, causing steam to build up in the system. If you’ve ever felt your brakes getting a little “spongy”, this is the cause.
While not one of the most common reasons for brake fading, you can occasionally experience mechanical fade. New brake pads have a resin in them that can break down as it heats. If they weren’t created properly, it may produce a gas that prevents friction between the pad and the disc. This causes the brakes to stop working.
If you experience any of these, it’s important to allow your brakes to cool down. Pull over to the side of the road and give them time to cool. If you’re coming out of the mountains, downshift to lower gears to take the pressure off the brake pads. Do not touch any part of the wheels or brakes – they will be very hot to the touch.
What if my car shakes or has vibrations?
Another common automotive brake problem leaves your vehicle shaking or vibrating.
Have you ever noticed your steering wheel shaking? It could your brake pads are contaminated with dirt, oil, or other substances. It can also occur if your brake pads are warped, damaged, or excessively worn.
It could be your brake disc or rotors are worn down. As the surfaces continue to function and take heat as you brake, they sometimes wear in different ways. That can cause unevenness over the surface areas. When you apply the brakes, the brake pads grab the discs unevenly, and you’ll feel a vibration as you come to a stop.
It could be alignment issues. If your car has experienced damage from potholes, for example, it can impact the way the entire suspension system works. If you feel vibration in the pedal as you press down, it most likely has to do with your alignment.
Lastly, the more wear your entire suspension system has, the more parts could malfunction. Ball joints, wheel bearings, tie rods – there are many possibilities. This is when it’s important to notice when you have most of your problems. If you notice it primarily during turning, it’s your suspension system. If it’s primarily when you brake, it’s your brake pads or rotors.
Is it time for brake repair?
Have you noticed any of these common automotive brake problems with your vehicle? Maybe it’s time to have a mechanic thoroughly evaluate your car.
Schedule your appointment today and ensure your car is safe for you to drive, and your family to ride in. It will give you peace of mind as you head out and enjoy all the Rocky Mountains has to offer.