How to Keep Your Brakes in Top Condition – Safety Checks for Brakes
When it comes to vehicle safety, the brake system is at the top of the list. Brake Safety Awareness Month in August is the perfect time to have your brakes inspected to make sure they are in safe working condition before school starts and cold weather hits, says the Car Care Council.
Brakes are a normal wear item for any car and eventually they’re going to need to be replaced. For routine maintenance, check your vehicle’s braking system at least once a year. A thorough inspection should include brake lining wear, brake fluid level, rotor thickness, condition of hoses and brake lines, brake and dash warning lights, as well as taking the car for a test drive to detect other potential brake system problems.
- Check Your Brake Fluid Level
Most, if not all, vehicles on the road today have a brake fluid reservoir that allows you to see through so you can check the fluid level without opening the cap. The brake fluid reservoir will be located toward the back of the engine bay on the driver’s side, up high where it’s easy to access.
Once you locate the brake fluid reservoir, you will see markings on the side that tell you if you need to add any brake fluid. You may need to clean off a little road grime to see the marks clearly. They are usually labeled simply MIN (for minimum) and MAX (for maximum). These level markers indicate the minimum and maximum safe levels for brake fluid in the reservoir. If it’s been forever since you bled your brake system, you may consider bleeding first, as this can change the fluid level considerably. Any fluid level that is found to be between
If you do need to add some brake fluid, be sure to follow these tips.
If you check the level of your car’s brake fluid and discover it low, don’t sweat it, you can have things tip-top in no time at all.
Before you remove the cap to the brake fluid reservoir, wipe the area down thoroughly with a rag. Your braking system is sensitive, and foreign materials creeping in can clog or degrade its components. Start off clean and avoid any problems.
With the cap off, slowly add fluid until it rises to the appropriate level.
Replace the cap and go about your business. Give the brake pedal some strong pumps to gurgle out any air that might be at the very top of the system, then recheck the level and add more if necessary. In a day or two, recheck the level to be sure you don’t need to add any more.
- Check for any veering while driving
If your car is pulling to the left or right, or if you hear odd noises when you apply the brakes, you should inspect your brakes. Other warning signs include an illuminated brake warning light, brake grabbing, low pedal feel, vibration, hard pedal feel and squealing.
Several factors that affect brake wear include driving habits, operating conditions, vehicle type and the quality of the brake lining material. Never put off routine brake inspections or any needed repair, such as letting the brakes get to the “metal-to-metal” point, which can be potentially dangerous and lead to a more costly repair bill.
Car Safety Checks: Other Things to Look For
- Loss of Hydraulic Pressure
Losing hydraulic pressure in the front or rear of the brake system can be an indicator of a leak. Your dashboard warning system should illuminate if this happens.
- Worn or Uneven Brake Pads
Brake pads are fitted with an indictor that will contact the rotor and make a squealing noise when the pads have worn too thin. You will hear a screeching, clicking or grinding noise when applying the brakes. When the squealing turns into a grinding sound, you have worn through your brake pads and the backing plater is grinding against your rotors. This can severely damage your rotors and dramatically raise the cost of the repair. Uneven brake pads can result in the car pulling in one direction when the brakes are applied.
- Stuck Calliper or Slide Pin
If a calliper or slide pin is sticking, you will notice your vehicle is pulling to one side when you brake. This and a collapsed brake hose (see below) can cause an acceleration problem. You may feel like your car is dragging along.
- Collapsed Brake Hose
This can result in callipers that move unevenly, which will pull the car to one side. This will present as an issue with the pads on one side thinner than the other.
- Brake Line Issues
Air in the brake lines or damaged brake lines is a serious issue that should be addressed immediately. The major symptom of this would be a brake pedal that can be pushed nearly to the floor before the car stops. In order to check for a leak put an old white sheet or some cardboard under the car during the night. Look for a clear fluid that has the consistency of cooking oil in the morning.
- Worn Parts
Bad wheel cylinders, bad disc calipers, a worn master cylinder or bad brake booster can all cause serious safety issues. Mushy brakes can mean one or more of these parts is failing or malfunctioning. You should call your mechanic immediately if the brake pedal goes almost to the floor before engaging.
- Malfunctioning Brake Booster
This is the opposite of the soft pedal, if you must put a lot of pressure on the pedal before the brakes engages, there is a good chance your brake booster is malfunctioning or failing. Sometimes if you hear a whoosh noise when applying the brakes this, can be caused by the brake booster.
- Dirty Brake Fluid
Brake fluid that has been contaminated by moisture or has gotten dirty will also cause your brakes to grab and pull to one side. Having the fluid changed should clear up this problem.
- Warped Rotors
A rotor will warp when exposed to extreme stress for an extended period of time. Stress can be caused by towing, mountain driving or any other situation that would put abnormal stress on the brakes. Warped rotors will cause your brakes to vibrate. Be careful not to park your car next to where your sprinklers are spraying after driving. The cold water hitting the hot rotor will also cause warping.
- Sticking Shoe Adjusters
This is a common drum brake problem and will cause the brake pedal to go almost to the floor before engaging. This is often caused by sticking or rusting shoe adjusters on a drum brake. While adjusting the drum brakes can fix this problem in the short term, it will return until the adjusters are replaced.
- Worn Brake Shoes
This is the drum-brake version of worn brake pads. When the brake shoes wear too thin you will notice a squealing noise when you apply the brakes. Your brakes should be serviced immediately. If the noise turns into a grinding, the shoes are completely worn out and you are grinding on the drum. In most cases the drums will have to be resurfaced. Note that sometimes this squealing can be caused by brake dust. It is still better to have your brakes checked to make sure worn brake shoes are not the problem.
- Broken Retracting Springs
If the retracting springs on a drum brake are broken you will experience a pull to one side. This condition can quickly accelerate the wear on the brake shoes and cause the brakes to run hot. This can also cause your vehicle to not accelerate as it normally would.
- Bent Backing Plate
The backing plate on a drum brake can be bent if the brakes are serviced improperly. You will notice grabbing brakes, noise and even brake lockup. This can also happen on the front brakes, causing a high pitched squeal when the wheel is turning but not braking.
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