Monthly Archives: May 2017

What need you do if your brakes are squeaking

If your brakes are squeaking, squealing or making ominous grinding noises when you apply the pedal, you might need new brake pads and/or rotors. Ditto if the pedal has more travel than usual before you feel much braking force, or if it just feels like your car requires longer distances to stop. If the red brake warning light on the dashboard lights up when you push on the pedal, you probably missed earlier warning signs and need to head straight to your repair shop.

Related: How Do I Know When to Change My Brake Pads and Rotors?

Sometimes, though, you may hear squeaks or squeals because the brakes are coated with moisture, light surface rust or dirt or grime, particularly after the car has been sitting either overnight or for several hours. Those noises might go away after you apply the pedal a few times or more (and the pads have cleaned the offending substance off the rotors or drums). Noise can also be caused by a loose brake pad or caliper.

If you hear a high-pitched scraping sound, that could be pad-wear indicators sounding the alarm that you’re late in getting your brakes fixed.

Because there are several possibilities, the best way to tell if you need brake work is to ask a repair shop to inspect the condition of the entire brake system, including the rotors (or rear drums on some vehicles), the pads (the friction material that squeezes against rotors or drums), the calipers and other hardware, and the master brake cylinder and fluid lines going to each wheel.

Your ears and how the brakes feel and perform can tell you a lot about the condition of your braking system, but a repair shop can tell you more about what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed. Excessive pedal travel could mean worn pads, for example, but it could also be caused by low brake fluid. While the symptoms may be the same, the treatments are very different.

A repair shop should not only eyeball the brakes to see what’s wrong but also measure the thickness of the pads and rotors and whether they’re evenly worn. Manufacturers have different recommendations for when brake pads should be replaced, but as a guideline, some shops recommend new ones when only 20 percent of the original thickness remains. Others say it’s necessary when the pad is down to 3/32 of an inch. New pads can range from about 3/8 to half an inch, depending on the vehicle.

If you’re worried that a repair shop is trying to take advantage of you by recommending brake service you don’t need, first get a detailed explanation of what they say you need (ask them to show you the worn parts, as well), then get a second opinion.

Meaning lead foot versus slow and steady

Trying to put a time or mileage limit on how long brake pads and rotors should last is harder than trying to predict what kind of gas mileage you should expect. Brake life depends on how much we drive, where we drive (think city versus highway) and how we drive (meaning lead foot versus slow and steady).

Related: Brake Pads: What You Need to Know

As a guideline, brakes will wear out much faster if most of your driving is in a major urban area where stop-and-go is the rule, as opposed to those who spend most of their miles on the open road, where they might not touch the brake pedal for an hour or more.

If you drive in Boston, New York City or Chicago and spend more time stopping than going, you could need new brake pads every 15,000 miles. If you live in western Iowa and commute from Moville to Holstein, your pads could last three or four times that.

But if you’re a driver who frequently applies the brakes when it isn’t necessary — or even drives with one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brake — it might not matter where you live. Your brakes are going to wear out sooner than later.

If you own a hybrid or electric vehicle, your brakes should last longer because the regenerative brake systems they use provide much of the stopping power, reducing wear on the pads and rotors. In addition, applying the brakes early for a slow, gradual stop doesn’t increase brake wear, and it helps recharge the batteries for powering the electric motor. Some hybrid owners say their pads and rotors have lasted more than 80,000 miles.

Brakes wear gradually, so you might not notice a mild but steady degradation in stopping ability, or that the pedal goes farther down when you apply the brakes (which is one sign that the pads are worn).

Your ears can help. Turn off the stereo and listen when you apply the brakes. Squeals, squeaks and rattles are indications that your brakes need attention, though they don’t necessarily mean you need new pads or rotors. A metal-to-metal grinding sound, on the other hand, probably means your pads are worn down so far that it’s well past time to replace them.

Because brakes are so important, monitor their condition instead of waiting for something to go wrong. For example, some rotors can be resurfaced for far less than it would cost to replace them if you don’t wait until they’re too far gone and have to be scrapped.

After the first year or so of driving a new car, it’s a good idea to have the brakes inspected at each oil change. Repair shops can measure pad thickness as well as check the condition of the rotors, calipers and associated hardware, the brake fluid and give you a status report.

The reason that you need check at a glance

Most cars have see-through reservoirs for brake fluid under the hood so that owners can check at a glance to make sure it’s at the proper level. That, however, tells you nothing about the condition of the fluid.

Brake fluid absorbs water over time, particularly in areas with high humidity, when moisture seeps through rubber hoses and seals. Water reduces the boiling point of brake fluid, and in situations that put high demands on your brakes — such as mountain driving, towing or making repeated hard stops — the fluid can become so hot that it impairs stopping ability or causes temporary loss of braking power.

Because of this, some manufacturers recommend changing your brake fluid as often as every two years. Others have longer intervals, and some make no recommendation about changing brake fluid. Owners should consult their car’s owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer recommends. If you’re unsure what to do, consult a repair shop and ask them to test your brake fluid.

One sign that your brake fluid is contaminated with water is that your brake pedal will have more travel than normal; that could also be a sign that your fluid level is low, the brake pads are worn or there’s air in your brake lines. Because the same symptom can suggest a variety of issues, having a trusted mechanic perform a thorough diagnosis is your best course of action. Seasoned mechanics can usually tell if fluid needs changing, as it will be dark and murky; if in doubt, ask your mechanic for more proof than an eyeball test.

Though some repair shops use maintenance or repair visits as an opportunity to sell additional services, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss a sales pitch for fresh brake fluid. In addition to affecting brake performance, water in the brake fluid can also cause corrosion over time. Down the road, you may need to replace rusted components in your brake system.

Do You Need to Change My Brake Fluid

The recommended intervals for changing brake fluid are all over the board depending on the manufacturer, from as often as every two years to never. Really.

Related: Can Brake Fluid Go Bad?

For example, Chevrolet says to change the brake fluid on most models every 45,000 miles, but Honda says to do it every three years regardless of the vehicle’s mileage. Three years is also the recommended interval for most Volkswagens, but Mercedes-Benz vehicles typically call for fresh fluid every two years or 20,000 miles. In contrast, on the Ford Escape, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Camry and other models from those manufacturers, there are no recommendations for replacing the brake fluid, only instructions to inspect it periodically.

This leaves it up to the owner to consult what the manufacturer says in their car’s maintenance schedule and rely on the advice of a trusted repair shop.

Brake fluid lives in a sealed system and can survive for years, but moisture from the surrounding air can work its way in through hoses and other parts of the brake system. Water in the brake lines lowers the boiling point of the fluid, so stopping ability can diminish in hard stops as heat in the system increases. In addition, over time the moisture can cause internal corrosion in the brake lines, calipers, the master cylinder and other components.

Flushing and replacing brake fluid might cost $100 or less on many vehicles, but replacing rusted brake lines and other parts can run several hundreds of dollars, so clearly there’s value in keeping up with maintenance. As a rule of thumb, it’s wise to have the brake fluid inspected and perhaps tested for moisture content every few years and no more than every five if you live in a high-humidity area.

You might be able to tell it’s time for a change by looking to see if the fluid is still fresh. Brake fluid is often light brown in color, but in some vehicles it’s clear (at least when new) and will darken with age, becoming murky from water contamination. A better way is to have it tested by a professional for moisture and see what they recommend.

Brake fluid is as vital to stopping a vehicle as engine oil is to keeping it going, but it doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.