“You’re going to need new brakes.”
Nobody wants to hear those words, even though they’re fairly common. As car parts and repairs go, replacing brake parts is one of the most regularly repeated maintenance procedures. After oil changes, brake changes are probably one of the most frequent car repairs.
But what exactly does it mean when you “need new brakes?” Better yet, is there a way to diagnose brake problems yourself? Let’s answer the first question, and then we’ll look at certain things to look for when your brakes start to go bad.
The Key Components of the Brake System
When you’re told you need new brakes, it usually means the parts most associated with slowing and stopping your car: the rotors and brake pads, or drum assembly. Rotors and brake pads are usually in the front of a vehicle, although they’re increasingly popular for rear axle braking, too. Drum assemblies are mostly used on the rear axle only, especially on older automobiles.
The rotor and pad mechanism is pretty simple. Each wheel has a single rotor, with two brake pads on either side, held in place and controlled by a brake caliper. When the brake pedal is pressed, a piston in the caliper forces each brake pad against the rotor, thus creating enough friction to slow or stop the wheel.
Drum brakes utilize “shoes” on the inside of the drum. In this type of brake, the shoes (basically, the brake pads) are compressed outward against the inside of the drum, forcing the stopping action.
The master brake cylinder is responsible for compressing the brake fluid toward the calipers. It’s directly connected to your brake pedal.
Quick word about brake fluid: it’s important to keep it as clean as possible (you should have your brake fluid replaced on a regular schedule), and also air-tight. If air enters the fluid system, you can “bleed” the brakes with the caliper bleeder screw. This process purges all air out of the system.
The brake lines allow brake fluid to travel to each wheel. Keep an eye for rust, small holes and other defects.
And finally, your car’s anti-lock brake system (ABS) ensures that too much braking force isn’t applied to one wheel. This safety features prevents your car’s brakes from locking up.
And there you have it – all major brake system parts. So whenever you “need new brakes,” all of the above terms are in play. When brake issues show certain signs, it could be a combination of factors (pads & rotors), or a single part within your car’s brake system (the master cylinder, for example). And that’s something to keep in mind, when you want to detect and fix your car problems. Speaking of which…
Indications of Brake System Problems
Let’s analyze 5 typical signs & symptoms, along with what those noises, smells and other warnings are telling you.
Everyone’s been there; you approach a bend in the road or stop sign, hit the brake pedal and your car sort of lurches or pulls to one side. This motion indicates that your brakes pads are exerting uneven pressure on the rotor.
Brake system problem area: brake pads, rotor or brake fluid (fluid may be dirty or low in level).
Tip: have your pads & rotors checked immediately, also check brake fluid.
Little or No Brake Pedal Resistance
When you press the brake pedal, it’s supposed to offer some resistance. When it doesn’t, it’s highly probable you have a brake system fluid leak. It could be around the master cylinder, or a brake line somewhere under your car could have a small pin-hole. It’s not terribly important WHERE the leak is, it’s only important that one exists. Because your car’s braking system depends on a steady flow of brake fluid, you should address a “dead” or “sloppy” brake pedal at once.
Brake system problem area: master cylinder, fluid reservoir cap or brake lines.
Tip: check the brake fluid reservoir and top off the fluid, if necessary. DO NOT drive your car with a non-responsive brake pedal.
Scratching / Grinding / Scraping Sound
This unmistakable, awful groan sounds like metal scraping against metal – because that is what’s actually happening! When your brake pads wear to a certain point, the “wear bar” is exposed. This slender piece of metal tells you that your brake pad level is getting low – low enough to change!
Brake system problem area: pads & rotors.
Tip: Replace your brake pads ASAP, and also check each side of the rotor for damage. If you’ve driven enough miles with the grinding / scraping sound, there’s a good chance the rotor may need to be replaced or “cut” (resurfaced).
Call it a shimmy, call it “the wobble,” whatever you call it, this is when your car vibrates upon braking. Similar to the pulling problem we mentioned above, this could be the pads. But it might be your caliper, too.
Brake system problem area: pads, rotors or caliper (specifically, the glide pins inside the caliper which help seat & control the brake pads).
Tip: examine your caliper and make sure the piston or glide pins aren’t stuck.
Locking / Unresponsive Brake Power (Even When Pumping Brakes)
We saved the most serious issue for last. In this case, check to see if your ABS warning light is on. When your anti-lock braking system fails, a critical safety feature isn’t working, and you should pull off the road as soon as you can.
Brake system problem area: ABS module.
Tip: don’t attempt to drive with a bad ABS; get it fixed immediately.
New brakes – rotors & pads, drum assemblies, cylinders, calipers, etc. – shouldn’t send your budget overboard. BuyAutoParts.com has brake parts for practically any make and model – browse our selection today. And you can also use our other online brake resources, including our how-to content and Brake Parts Buyer’s Guide, to give you more knowledge about which brake parts work best for your car.
For help with your brake part order, please call one of our parts experts at (888) 907-7225.