Car brakes (or the car brake system), besides the drive train, is the most important part of the car.
Not being able to stop or slow down the car on time is dangerous to you, your passengers and other participants in traffic.
Having this in mind, the system should be regularly checked for any problems or malfunctions.
Recognizing symptoms and reacting to them on time means the difference between driving safely and a potentially hazardous situation.
Before starting, if, you have the time and will, click here for a great explanation on Wikipedia how the brake system actually works.
In the article below, you’ll find some of the most common symptoms, causes and solutions of problems with car brakes.
CAR BRAKES-REPAIR THAT HAS TO BE DONE PROPERLY AND IN QUALITY
Before we start with this article I would just like to lay down a few words about safety.
Having a 100% percent functional braking system is of course obligatory. Having faulty car brakes is liking waving a loaded gun around the road, nothing less.
On the first sign of any problem with car brakes, react immediately. Don’t wait.
When repairs are made, always make sure that every car brake tune-up is done in quality and with care.
Make sure you have a good and trustworthy mechanic. Always ask for a guarantee on the job done and the parts installed.
If you’re going to DIY the job, previous experience in this line of work is necessary.
If you don’t have it, I wouldn’t recommend working on the brakes at all. At least not without professional supervision.
Experimenting is not an option with car brakes.
Use quality parts, from well-known manufactures. More money spent now on quality parts is less in future repairs.
LOW BRAKE FLUID LEVEL
Low brake fluid level is the first tell-tale sign that something is wrong with the car brakes system.
Car brakes work on a hydraulic principle so maintaining a constant and stable pressure within the system is crucial.
In short, low brake level means low pressure and this means weak brakes.
Soft brake pedal, need to pump the brake pedal several times before achieving brake power, brake warning light turns on.
Various leaks (connections, hoses, brake lines, brake cylinders etc) or not regularly checking the brake fluid level.
Of course, re-filling the brake fluid. This task can be easily done on your own.
When re-filling, make sure that you refill with the same-specification brake fluid (look up DOT grading). Mixing different brake fluids is not recommendable.
Refill the brake fluid container to the level between minimum and maximum. Don’t overfill.
If you need help on how to properly refill the brake fluid, click here to read a separate article on that topic.
After this, it would be preferable to monitor the brake fluid level for a few days (or weeks).
If the level is OK and stays the same, then everything is pretty much OK with the system and the lack of brake fluid was the only problem.
On the other hand, if there is a constant lack of brake fluid (level frequently goes down), then you have a more serious problem.
Check it out as soon as possible.
WORN OUT CAR BRAKE FLUID
Brake fluid overtime loses its properties, mainly viscosity (or density).
Once that happens, the pressure in the car brakes system decreases causing problems.
Soft brake pedal, need to pump the brake pedal several times before achieving brake power,
POSSIBLE SUDDEN LOSS OF BRAKING POWER (this is the most dangerous aspect of this problem!).
Not changing the brake fluid on time, constantly over heating the car brakes
- Change the brake fluid on time:
Brake fluid is meant to be changed like every other fluid on the car.
What causes most car owners to make a mistake is the long service interval. This gives a picture that it simply doesn’t have to be changed which is a mistake.
If you have your mechanic or dealership, they will know the proper service interval.
On the other hand, if you’re experienced and going to do it on your own, I would recommend 80.000 kilometers or every three to four years.
Have in mind that the brake fluid is susceptible to moisture which also changes the properties of the brake fluid.
So, even if you don’t make lots of kilometers (miles) with the car, change the brake fluid every three to four years.
- Use the car brakes wisely, improve you’re driving habits:
If the car brakes are fully functional, overheating is mostly caused by improper use of the braking system.
Car brakes are not some endless source of braking power.
Like with every system on the car, if you use it wisely and with care, it will last much longer and be more effective.
Forcing the car brakes to the maximum can lead to overheating the system which can, in extreme cases, lead to total loss of car brakes (like in steep downhill drives, for example).
Also, driving at a normal pace, keeping a safe distance etc. means less abuse to the car brakes.
So, good driving habits mean both saving yourself and your car, in the long-term.
LEAKS ON CAR BRAKES-HOSES, LINES, CONNECTIONS,…
The whole car brake system depends on quality distribution of brake pressure.
Hydraulic pressure is distributed through a network of metal lines and plastic/rubber hoses.
Calipers, brake drums, brake cylinders etc. are all connected through these lines.
Having leaks on this system means losing brake pressure.
Problems like these mostly appear on older, high mileage cars. On newer cars, problems appear mostly due to physical damage.
Gradual loss of brake pressure (the brake pedal resistance gradually decreases), brake fluid leaks , constant low-level of brake fluid.
Mostly material fatigue.
Overtime, if gone unchecked, brake lines crack, rust or break. Not only lines but connections. This goes double for points that are in motion (like the front wheel hub).
More rare is improper repair of the brake system ( like lack of proper tightening, not changing washers etc.).
Regular maintenance and inspection.
Depending on part quality, the brake lines can last for a long time.
With every regular brake tune-up, a careful inspection of the brake lines should be done.
At any sign of material fatigue (cracks, corrosion or else), the lines should be changed completely. Any improvisation is not recommendable.
You as a driver (especially if you have the means like a car canal), should also go under the car and make an inspection from time to time.
Here, the main solution is prevention.
CAR BRAKES SQUEAK WHEN YOU PRESS THE BRAKE PEDAL
One brake problem that is, perhaps, more annoying than it is dangerous.
In most cases, the brakes continue to function although the squeaky sound is very distracting.
Maybe this is the worst part of this problem.
Squeaky sound appears when you press or release the brake pedal,
In extreme cases, excessive heating of brake discs and brake drums (mostly recognizable by hot-to-touch rims).
Main causes, unwanted friction or low quality car parts.
If the car brakes squeak when you press the pedal, it’s probably due to low quality brake pads, brake shoes or brake discs.
Friction material of these parts should contain compounds that reduce or eliminate the squeaking sound.
Low budget parts lack these and contain “harder” materials which cause the squeaky sounds when friction starts.
If the car brakes squeak when you release the pedal, there’s a good chance that the calipers and brake pads are stuck thus being unable to separate from one another.
Same goes for drum brakes. Here, the mechanism inside the drum causes most of the problems.
For brake discs: removal of brake calipers and brake pads, cleaning everything from rust and grit, breaking in the calipers.
For brake drums: removal of the brake drum, cleaning the whole mechanism from rust and grit , slightly lubricating the mechanism (not the brake shoes).
Always use premium manufacturer parts if possible.
This way you’ll both be more safe and be certain that the car brakes don’t squeak because of low-budget car parts.
Spending some more money in the beginning will pay off in the future.
WORN OUT BREAK PADS AND BRAKE SHOES
Very common reason why people have brake problems.
Brake pads and brake shoes wear out over time and are a part of regular maintenance (on the same level as engine oil, transmission oil, timing belt, filters etc.)
Soft brake pedal, need to pump the brake pedal several times before achieving brake power, low-level of brake fluid.
Brake pads and brake shoes have friction material “glued” on to them. This is what actually causes friction and braking force.
Since they’re made from softer material then the brake discs or brake drums, they eventually wear out.
Problems of this sort can only come from the lack of proper knowledge for maintenance intervals.
To put it more simply, people don’t either know or care when they’re supposed to change the brake pads or break shoes.
These problems don’t occur if you do regular maintenance. Period.
Regular maintenance and quality parts.
Have in mind the service intervals and obey them.
Make sure that quality parts are installed on the car brakes, whether you’re doing the job on your own or by a mechanic.
If you don’t have a good and trustworthy mechanic, click here and read a separate article on how to find one.
CAR BRAKES SHAKING; WHEN YOU PRESS THE BRAKE PEDAL, THE STEERING WHEEL SHAKES
Problem that is very upsetting and fairly dangerous.
How wouldn’t it be, if the steering wheel shakes like crazy when you’re braking.
Although the brakes continue to function and you won’t be in that much of danger, an unattended problem like this can be harmful.
During medium or hard braking, the steering wheel shakes.
In most cases the cause is warped or worn out brake discs.
Warping mostly happens due to instant “shock”heating and cooling of the brakes discs (like simultaneously hard braking and entering a plash on the road),
Overheating due to excessive and prolonged braking can also damage the brake discs.
If the brake discs haven’t been changed on time, material fatigue can also cause problems.
It all boils down to obeying the maintenance interval and having good driving habits.
Replace the brake discs on time as part of regular maintenance. Don’t forget that brake discs have a prolonged interval of replacement.
Adjust or change your driving habits, avoid as much as possible, excessive or sudden braking.
If the situation allows, don’t brake when hitting a puddle or splash.
Also to mention on this part, when replacing use quality parts from known manufacturers.
As mentioned the brake disc replacement interval is long and using quality parts is a long time investment.
Don’t cheap out, more money now means less in the long run.
About material fatigue: high temperatures, constant exploitation, weather conditions are some of the facts that give the brake discs a hard time.
For instance, the brake discs may look good at first sight.
But if not replaced on time, they can get micro cracks on them which can lead to the disc breaking apart.
DAMAGED OR SEVERED BRAKE LINES
As mentioned, the distribution of the hydraulic pressure in the brake system is done through a network of metal and rubber lines and hoses.
What veins are to a man, the brake lines are to the brake system.
Any damage to these lines means loss of brake system pressure and of car brakes.
Losing brake power overtime, soft brake pedal, need to pump the brake pedal several times before achieving brake power, constant low-level of brake fluid, visible leaks.
In worst case scenarios (which are very rare) total and almost instant loss of brakes.
Main reason for this mishap is either material fatigue (mostly on used cars) or physical damage (for instance, potholes, rocks, accidental damage while other repairs are done etc.).
Replacing the faulty car brakes lines.
Once there is a puncture or any kind of damage, replace the line or hose completely.
The lines are made in such a way that they can be separately replaced.
Bit of pain this job is, but complete replacement is the only guarantee for longevity and quality of repair.
Any sort of mending (like welding, soldering or else) is not recommendable.
If you get in a situation where you suspect you’ve damaged the undercarriage (potholes, high curbs, car accident or else) make an immediate inspection of the damage.
Regarding material fatigue, mostly happens to older, high mileage cars. In this case, a more frequent check of the brake lines (and whole brake system) is preferable.
LEAKING OR DAMAGED BRAKE CYLINDERS
Brake cylinders are mechanical devices that transfer hydraulic power to kinetic power.
Once you press the brake pedal, the brake cylinder builds up pressure which moves the piston in the caliper or brake cylinder.
This puts in motion the brake pads and shoes which produce pressure on the disc or drum thus causing friction and braking.
There are various cylinders on the system (master and slave cylinders, rear cylinders in the brake drums, pistons in the calipers etc.).
Losing brake power overtime, soft brake pedal, need to pump the brake pedal several times before achieving brake power, constant low-level of brake fluid, leaks (that are rarely visible).
Mostly material fatigue (especially on used cars) and lack of proper maintenance.
Replacement of the brake cylinders or in some cases, repair of the cylinder mechanism.
Repair is seldom done, mostly on rare car models.
Repair sets are available (seals, springs etc.), mostly for master and slave cylinders.
Brake calipers rarely cause problems. Breaking them in or overhauling (in worst cases) mostly solves the problem.
Replacing any of the cylinders is considered a routine job and shouldn’t be a big problem. All depends on the car model and accessibility of the car brakes cylinders.
Making a visual inspection of the cylinders when working on the brakes is a preferable thing to do.
Here also, use quality parts. The brake cylinders should last for a long period of time.
CAR BRAKES WITH JAMMED CALIPERS AND DRUM BRAKE MECHANISMS
Brake caliper pistons and drum breaking mechanisms have small motion when in function (about one to two millimeters).
Combine this with constant presence of dirt, filth and rust and problems can appear.
Overtime, mostly due to gathering of filth and rust, the cylinder inside the caliper can get jammed.
Stuck brake pads or brake shoe mechanisms can also jam the piston or brake cylinder (piston or cylinder can press but can’t move the brake pads/shoes).
In case of brake drums, rust and filth is the most common cause of problems.
Lack of brake power, pedal feels “funny” (to soft or too hard), squeaky sounds when braking, overheating brakes (recognizable when touching the rims after a longer drive), the hand brake doesn’t function properly.
Brake discs: breaking in the caliper cylinders or complete overhaul (in worst cases). Complete replacement is also an option but much more expensive.
By the way, the breaking in procedure is done in such a way that the caliper is taken off and brake pads are removed.
The piston is then pressed back into the caliper to the maximum.
After that, the pedal is pressed so the piston comes out to the maximum.
The process is repeated several times.
Brake drums: replacing the brake cylinders.
If they get jammed, they are usually on their last legs or have totally malfunctioned.
After replacement, thorough cleaning and slight lubrication of the braking mechanism (not brake shoes) is recommendable.
ELECTRIC OR ELECTRONIC PROBLEMS
Today’s brake systems (like almost all car systems) are accompanied by electronic helpers.
Since the dawn of ABS, later ESP and so on, they have become a necessity on the car brakes system.
But as with almost all electronic systems, this one also isn’t immune to problems.
Good part on this one is that all car manufacturers have multi-layer insurance (meaning that the brakes continue working although there is an electric problem).
Mostly bad connections (connectors are subdued to moist, heat, dirt etc.), faulty sensors, broken wires and in very rare cases faulty ECU units.
Standard “haywire” symptoms; brake warning light or ABS light going on for no apparent reason.
In some cases, these kind of problems may cause malfunctions of other systems, fault codes that can’t be solved etc.
Perhaps more solvable than the dreaded “CHECK ENGINE” problem.
Quality diagnostic and experience is key for this solution. If you don’t find out exactly whats wrong, you’re in for a wild goose chase.
In most cases this is solved by cleaning connectors or contacts, changing faulty sensors or simply resetting the ECU unit.
Replacing a burn out fuse is also a common solution.
Handbrake is also a part of the car brakes system, it would only be fair to mention it.
The classical hand brake functions this way : two metal cables connect the hand brake lever and the rear calipers or brake drums, depending on what kind of car brake system you have.
Once you pull or press the hand brake, you produce force which tensions metal cables that are connected to small levers on the calipers or a mechanism inside the brake drums.
These then press the brake pads/brake shoes against the brake disc/drum and the car is held in to place.
Car moves although the hand brake is pulled/pressed, no resistance when pulling/pressing the hand brake, with electric hands brakes:getting stuck in place as the hand brake won’t release.
Stuck hand brake cables, small hand brake lever on the brake caliper gets stuck, brake drum mechanism gets stuck, faulty electric motors on the calipers (for electric hand brake), hand brake mechanism located inside the passenger cabin (very rare case), material fatigue.
In case of brake drums, improper installment and setting of brake shoes will cause problems with the hand brake.
Replacement of the brake cables:
The hand brake cables are made of metal within a protective plastic/rubber sleeve.
Overtime, filth and moist get inside this sleeve causing rust (corrosion) which reduces or stops movement of the cable.
Fairly easy to replace, mostly depends on the car model.
Breaking in or overhauling the rear calipers:
On brake disc systems, a small lever is located on the rear caliper.
The brake cable is connected to these levers. When you pull-push the hand brake, they pull these levers activating the caliper piston and pressing the brake pads against the brake disc.
Overtime, this mechanism can also get stuck and lose proper movement.
Taking off, breaking in, overhauling or replacing the whole brake caliper will solve this problem.
Rear brake drums:
The mechanism inside gets rusty or stuck and the hand brake becomes pretty much useless.
Especially if you don’t use the hand brake often.
Then you’ll have to clean, slightly lubricate or even better, change the whole mechanism.
With the brake drums, proper installing and setting up the brake shoes and brake cables is key for having a good hand brake for a long period of time.
I would advise to leave this replacement and setting job to the mechanic.
Properly setting the hand brake is something a professional mechanic should do since it demands expertise and experience.
Electric hand brakes:
Instead of pulling the hand brake, a little electric motor does that job for you. You just press a button.
Pressing the button activates the motors which activate the caliper which then pushes the brake pads against the brake disc.
These systems mostly suffer from electronic motor failures rendering the hand brake useless or can even jam the rear brakes (leaving you stranded on the road as the rear wheels get jammed).
Mostly solved with breaking in the calipers, replacing the electric motors or replacing the whole caliper/electric motor assembly (which is very costly by the way).
Use the hand brake frequently:
One of the worst enemies of the hand brake is not using it.
Lack of motion causes things like: brake cables getting stuck inside the protective sleeve, the break mechanism rusts etc.
With frequent use, you significantly reduce these kind of problems.
Pulling the hand brake regularly goes double if you drive a car with manual transmission.
So, when you park, remember to pull the hand brake at least every three drives,