Cars, trucks, planes and trains all require functioning brakes to stop vehicles. “If you’re moving, you have energy—kinetic energy to be precise. Kinetic energy is simply the energy an object possesses because it has both mass and velocity (speed in a certain direction). The more mass you have (effectively, the heavier you are) and the faster you’re going, the more kinetic energy you have.” When it comes time to stop, something must be done with all the kinetic energy you have produced. That’s when car brakes come in. Understanding how your car brakes work will help you better understand how to better take care of them and recognize when maintenance is due.
How Car Brakes Work
If you’re a driver, you know your car brakes are one of the most-used parts of your car. You will either press on the gas or put the brakes on as you steer, so your brakes are very important for getting from one place to another. As explained, your brakes slow your car down, and they do it by using the force of friction to change the kinetic energy of the car into heat. You have brakes, calipers, pads, cylinders and pistons for each of your car wheels.
When you put the brakes on, a lever pushes a piston part into the main (master) cylinder of the car. This is full of hydraulic fluid, which squirts into the other cylinders along each wheel. Using that fluid, this hydraulic system will multiply the force of you pushing on the brake and sends that force through heat and energy. That force stops your car in seconds.
How to Tell If Your Brakes Are Wearing Out
When it comes to traffic jams, objects in the road, winter ice and other driving conditions, you want your car brakes to work correctly. You always want to look out for signs like these that the brakes on your car are starting to wear down:
- Thinning Brake Pads: You have car brake pads that squeeze against discs in each wheel to make your car stop. The friction between your brakes and pads is what makes your car slow. Over time, the friction wears down the braking pads, making them less effective at slowing your vehicle. Check behind the hubcap on each wheel to find the shiny brake disc inside. Look for the pads that should be about 1/4th of an inch thick. If they are thinner, it’s time to get the pads replaced.
- Warning Sounds: Carmakers know you don’t want to spend time checking your brake pads every week, so the pads are designed to emit a high-pitched squealing sound when they start to wear out. Also listen for any grinding while braking and have your brake pads replaced when you hear this. Braking should not make any loud noise on its own.
- Steering Troubles: When you take your hands off the wheel, the car should travel completely straight. If you experience a strange pulling sensation at times, one of the calipers could be stuck. This causes friction on one wheel but not on the others, resulting in the feeling that your car has a mind of its own. There may be another cause, but all need to be addressed by a professional auto shop.
- Vibrating Brake Pedal: If you’ve ever had the antilock braking system kick in on an icy road, you know what a vibrating brake pedal feels like. This action comes from the quick grabs the system applies to the brake discs to slow the car without the brakes locking up. The pedal should only vibrate in rare instances on icy roads. If you feel it on dry roads, your brakes have a problem with the braking discs.
- Mushy or Grabby Brake Pedal: If you find you have to push the pedal all the way to the floor before the car brakes engage, you could have worn pads or a fluid leak. A grabby pedal has the opposite problem, activating intensely at the slightly touch. This could mean the brake fluid is contaminated, something you can fix simply by changing out the fluid.
How to Help Your Brakes Last Longer
The way you drive can make a difference in how long your brakes last you. Consistently driving aggressive or stopping and going too frequently can take a toll on your brakes. Use these tips to avoid wearing down parts and to help make your car brakes last longer:
- Coast before breaking. Coasting can decelerate your car as you drive instead of using the brake pedal. Brake hard only in situations that you actually need to and remember that the faster you go, the harder it is for your brakes to slow the car down.
- Brake with your right foot. Only using one foot to drive (which you should do) improves your reaction time and makes it so you don’t accelerate when you need to brake.
- Don’t tailgate. This habit causes many accidents each year. You will either wear down the car brakes from stop-and-go driving or you will have an accident, which you will likely be at fault for.
- Shift gears to coast downhill. Shifting down a gear gives your brakes a “break” going downhill because it decelerates your vehicle without the brake pedal.
- Bleed and flush the brakes. This process replaces the brake fluid, removes water from the lines, and keeps the system working well.
- Buy good-quality parts. Brakes last longer when they’re of high quality to begin with. Don’t reuse or buy used parts if you can help it.
- Know when brakes need replacing.
Schedule Your Brake Repair
Like an oil change, it seems like brakes are another maintenance issue that sneaks up on you sooner than you’re prepared for. We realize you already have a busy schedule to juggle, so we promise to make it as quick and painless as possible. If you feel that your brakes are acting wrong, call Scott’s Fort Collins Auto at (970) 682-4202 to schedule your brake repair!