On most days, you hop in your car and drive where you’re going trouble-free. You think little about how your car is operating, because at least on the surface, everything is fine.
Then occasionally something goes wrong, and it’s impossible to ignore. You’re driving your car, and suddenly you begin to notice a strong odor of smoke. You look around and see a trail of smoke either in front or back of your vehicle. This can cause a moment of panic, one you can’t ignore.
In this situation, it’s often your car’s brakes.
What causes brakes to smoke?
The first question to ask yourself is: How old is your brake system?
For older vehicle brakes, the most common reason your brakes will start to smoke is a stuck caliper.
Brake calipers are essential to help your vehicle stop. Your car probably functions with disc brakes. With a disc brake system, the car’s wheels are attached to metal discs (also known as rotors) that make the wheel spin. A caliper’s job is to push against the rotor like a clamp, cause friction, and slow the wheel down.
Of course, that process depends on everything working as it should. If dirt or corrosion sets in, it can cause the caliper to stick. It will heat up as the friction continues until eventually, it smokes and creates the familiar odor.
What if brake pads are brand new?
What if new brakes smoke a few miles outside of the repair shop?
This isn’t unusual after brake pads are replaced. In fact, it’s so common that manufacturers have a name for it: polymerization, or a curing process.
Again, when brake pads move against the rotors, friction causes a lot of heat. As brake pads connect with the rotors the first few times, the curing process takes place.
Your new brakes aren’t burning up; they aren’t faulty from the shop. The smoke smell you incur are gases formed during this curing process.
It’s important to be gentle with your new brakes for the first few miles. If new brake pads overheat too quickly, it can cause something called brake fade. Check with the technician and follow manufacturer’s guidance. They often recommend a “bedding” process to ensure your brakes pads are working properly. This:
- Cures the brake pad material
- Embeds the material into the rotor to cause a film for proper stopping
- Smooths out the rotor surface
Brake pads come in many different formats, made from several different materials. Therefore, every brake pad will come with its own set of guidelines and rules. And if you go with a more specialized product for higher end performance, it may have an even more distinct smell as it goes through the curing process.
Why do brakes smell like they are burning?
Sometimes it’s not about what you see, but what you smell. Every part of your vehicle creates different sounds, smells, and noises. You’ll find your brakes can sometimes create a distinct burnt smell.
If this occurs and you’ve been driving for a while, especially down a very steep hill, and you’ve been riding your brakes, it’s probably the friction building up from the process.
Brake pads are designed to produce friction when you need it to stop. But too much of anything can lead to problems. The more pressure you apply, the more friction occurs, and slowly, heat develops. If it gets too hot, you may start smelling a burnt smell. It can also cause your brakes to smoke.
This isn’t a problem once in a while. But if you start to notice it regularly, or if you notice a burnt smell during normal driving conditions, you have a bigger problem. It might be a caliper has seized, which causes the brake pad to drag against the rotor. It might also be a parking brake is still being applied, or you leave your foot lightly on the brakes, and it continues to drag.
If you can’t find a reason for it, it’s time to get your car into the shop.
How do I cool down my brakes?
Brakes overheat when constant pressure is applied between the brake pads, calipers, and rotors. The more pressure, the greater the chance of problems developing over time.
Your pads can wear and become damaged when friction “cooks” them onto the same spot on the rotor. This means as soon as you discover overheating, your best course of action is to cool your brakes down quickly.
Overheated brakes can cool down simply by not using the brakes. Slow down your speed, leave plenty of space around you, so that you won’t need your brakes for a bit. Try to do this for five minutes or so, to give your brakes a chance to cool. This will keep the pads and rotors from warping because of the concentrated heat.
Can your brakes catch fire?
You’ve heard the adage: where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
Applying this to this discussion on brakes, one could assume that if brakes heat and smoke, then they must be able to catch fire as well.
That assumption would be correct.
Brakes can catch fire for a variety of reasons. It can be from improper car maintenance. Or from careless driving.
You’ll find brakes catching fire with aggressive drivers. They often brake too hard, keep their foot attached to the brake pedal, and pound on the brakes on a regular basis. The friction it causes between the brake pads, calipers, and discs is a continual process. Eventually, that heat has nowhere else to go, and it catches fire.
In some cases, the parts that make up the braking system no longer fit well together. The pieces aren’t positioned correctly, they fit tightly together, or are simply worn out from wear. When pressure is placed on parts in the wrong manner, that pressure can cause sparks, which leads to fire.
Take care of your brakes
Every car owner should realize that brakes are one of the most important parts of your vehicle. You can’t drive without them. You should be watchful of the care you give them.
If you suspect anything wrong with your brake system, don’t hesitate to stop by. In the case of your brake system, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
How can we help you with your brakes?