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How to Know When You Need New Brakes

by Jeff Youngs

After one’s home, a car is often the second most expensive purchase most people will make in their lifetime. One of the most important components of a vehicle is the brake system and knowing exactly when a vehicle needs new brakes can be confusing to many people.

Unlike services that are largely odometer driven, such as an oil change, the need for brake service can range widely. New brakes may be needed in as few as 20,000 miles or as long as 70,000 miles depending on vehicle type, driving conditions, and driving habits. Because of this wide range, it’s important to know what signs to look for and what sounds to listen for in your car. Knowing how to recognize these warnings signs can help you better tell when your brakes may need service.

Use Your Eyes and Ears

Car Manufacturers know that a vehicle’s brake life is variable depending on a variety of driving conditions. With that in mind, most vehicles give you both visual and audible warning signs when your vehicle needs new brakes.

First, look between your wheel spokes and see if your brake pads are visible. You may be able to see the outside pad that is pressed against the rotor. Once you’ve located the brake pad, try to get a gauge for how thick the pad is. If you can clearly tell that there is over 1/4 of an inch left on the pad, the brake pads are likely fine. If the pad is clearly under ¼ of an inch, it’s likely time for brake service and you should make an appointment with a mechanic soon.

Perhaps the clearest sign that it’s time for brake service is squeaky brakes. You’ve likely heard this sound before - when a vehicle comes to a stop there is a clear audible squeak that sounds like metal scratching metal. This sounds isn’t your actual rotors or other vital brake component, but a small metal shim that is designed to give you a warning indication when it is time for new brakes.

While the above mentioned squeaking sound is usually a clear sign that brake service is needed, there is an exception. If your car has been parked in wet or very humid conditions, rust tends to form on the brake rotors. This does not compromise the brakes, but it does cause a very similar squeak when you first begin to drive. After a few miles and number of times braking, this thin rust layer should wear off and the squeak should be gone. If the sound remains, it’s likely the indicator shim causing the squeaking and it would be wise to schedule brake service as soon as possible.

Other Signs

While the visual and auditory signals mentioned above are two of the best ways to tell if a vehicle needs new brakes, there are other physical indications that service may be needed. These signs may indicate your brakes are at, or extremely close to, the end of their life span. If you experience any of these signs, make a service appointment immediately.

Responsiveness Problems

If you notice your brakes are slow to respond or if the brake pedal feels loose, pushing to the floor too easily when depressed, there may be an issue with the vehicle’s brake line. The problem could be a brake fluid leak or there may be air in the brake line. Brake fluid looks similar to motor oil but is not as thick. You can check for a leak by moving your car after it has been parked for awhile and examining the ground where the car was parked.

Brake Grinding

One of the most unpleasant sounds a vehicle can make. Very different than the squeak from the indicator shim mentioned previously. If you hear a grinding sound from the brakes of a car it means the pads have worn all the way down and they are beyond replacement. This grinding sound is caused by the metal brake disc and metal caliper rubbing together. Your rotors will likely need to be turned, or even replaced if this occurs.

Uneven Wearing

If you notice that your vehicle drifts right or left when you brake, it may be a sign that some brakes are working better than others and they have worn unevenly. Drifting or pulling when braking can also be a sign of a brake fluid issue. Either way, it’s a good idea to have an experienced mechanic examine the car for further diagnosis.

Braking Vibration

Vibration while braking can be a signal that the vehicle’s rotors have become warped. This vibration is often described as a pulsating sensation and can feel similar to an abrupt stop where the anti-lock brake system becomes engaged. Warped rotors are caused by harsh braking conditions that put prolonged and excess friction on the braking system (such as long mountain declines or when towing heavy objects). Stopping every so often when driving in these conditions can give your brakes a chance to cool off and avoid warping.

The brake system is one of the vehicle’s most important components. Regular maintenance and being aware of the signals indicating service is needed will help prevent further problems. Overlooking an issue can lead to very costly repairs and sub-optimal braking performance. To avoid this, have your brakes serviced as soon as an issue is noticed.