Eliot Silverman

Eliot Silverman

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How Do I Know If I Need a Brake Inspection or a Brake Job??

Brakes turn the energy of motion into heat.  In other words, when you want to stop the friction between the brake materials, and the brake rotors/drums (more on this later) creates heat.  The faster you go the more heat the brakes create for you to stop.
There are two types of brake systems, shoes and pads.  Shoes are the old system, and they are rapidly being replaced with pads.  Many years ago the government mandated that all cars have front brake pads.  Most of the cars I work on have  4 wheel brake pads. 

Brake shoes:
When you press the brake pedal you push brake fluid from the master cylinder through the brake lines into the wheel cylinders.  The pressure of the fluid in the wheel cylinders pushes two plungers outward which force the brake shoes to make contact with the inside of the brake drum.  The pressure/friction of the shoes on the drum causes your car to stop.   One of the biggest problems with this system is that the shoes don’t always make 100% contact with the brake drum.  When you stop braking springs retract the shoes and remove them from touching the brake drum. 
Brake Shoes and Drums

Brake Drums:
These rarely need replacing.  The brake shoes rub on the inside of the brake drum.  When the brakes are inspected, we measure the inside diameter of the drum.  If the diameter is too large (there is a federal limit which is different for every model) then we need to replace the drum.  If the drum is not round, you will feel the brake pedal pulsate, and we need to resurface the brake drum.  If the inside surface is flat, we do not need to resurface it when re replace the brake shoes.

Brake Pads:
When you brake you push brake fluid from the brake master cylinder through brake lines into the caliper.  In the caliper, the brake fluid pushes a piston outward forcing the ‘inside’ brake pad onto the rotor.  This is a litter difficult to explain, so please bear with me… “For every force there is an equal and opposite force.”  When the brake pad pushes against the rotor, the caliper is forced back, causing the ‘outside’ brake pad to make contact with the outside surface of the brake rotor.  This is called a sliding caliper.  Ideally, both pads exert the same force on the brake rotor.   A few manufacturers don’t use sliding calipers.  These manufacturers use a brake caliper with pistons on the inside and on the outside of the brake rotor.

Brake Caliper with One Piston

Brake caliper with two sets of pistons.  One set for the inside pad, and one set for the outside pad

 If a sliding caliper cannot slide, one pad is substantially more worn than the other pad, and you need a new caliper.  Another problem with brake calipers is that the piston does not retract when you stop braking.  This is also clear by noticing one brake pad being substantially more worn than the other brake pad.  When this happens, you need to replace the brake caliper.

Since it is important that the front left brakes and the front right brakes work exert the same forces, when one caliper is bad, it is generally recommended that both calipers be replaced. 

Brake pads are simpler than brake shoes, and they work significantly better.   Because brake pads are significantly better than brake shoes, the government mandates front brake pads. 

Most, if not all cars made in the last 10 years use front and rear brake pads.  The parking brake only engages the rear brakes, so manufacturers tried to incorporate a parking brake mechanism inside the rear calipers.  This system never worked well so they abandoned that system.  We now see a hybrid shoes/pads in the rear.  When you press the brakes, the rear brake calipers work exactly like the front brake calipers.  When you engage the parking brakes, you actuate a small set of shoes which are located inside the hub of the rear brake rotors. 

You can see the parking brake shoes since that
The brake rotor has been removed.

Brake Rotors:
The brake pads rub on the outside surfaces of the brake rotor.  Over time the brake rotor thins due to this friction.  There is a federal minimum thickness listed for all brake rotors.  This minimum thickness is different for each car model.  When brake pads are replaced the brake rotor needs to be flat.  This can be accomplished by resurfacing the brake rotor or by replacing the brake rotor.  When re resurface the brake rotor we use a brake lathe which thins the brake rotor and leaves a smooth finish.   Ten or more years ago, the brake rotors were thick enough such that we could resurface the rotors two or three times before they needed to be replaced.

I’d say, for the last 10 years, new brake rotors are rarely resurfaced since their thickness are slightly above the federal minimum.  The good news is that new brake rotors are significantly less expensive than they were 10 years ago.  In many cases the new brake rotors cost less than the cost of resurfacing the brake rotors.  Many times I have replaced the brake rotors, not because they were too thin, but because the new brake rotors were cheaper, or the same cost, as resurfacing them.

If the brake rotor ‘warps’ you will get a pulsation in the brake pedal. To eliminate the pulsation you either have the brake rotor resurfaced, or you have the rotors replaced.  This is felt in the brake pedal NOT in the steering wheel.  On a side note, if the steering wheel ‘pulsates’ it tends to indicate bad tires or an out-of-alignment problem.
This is a typical brake rotor

Brake Master Cylinder:
When You press the brake pedal you force brake fluid from the brake master cylinder to the four wheels. 

For safety purposes, the brake master cylinder is actually two master cylinders in one unit.  One part pushes brake fluid to the front brakes, and the other part pushes brake fluid to the rear brakes.  For example, if the brake line to the rear brakes leaks, you loose all rear braking, but you still have front brakes, and visa versa. 

Normally when you stop the brake pedal goes down to a point and stops moving.  Even with more pushing, the pedal does not go any close to the floor.  That is normal and good.  If you have a situation when you are at a stop and the brakes pedal slowly goes to the floor, you probably have a bad master cylinder or a brake fluid leak. 

Proportioning valves:
Without these valves, when you would begin to stop the front of the car would tend to “Dip.”  With these valves, the rear brakes engage a fraction of a second before the front brakes preventing the front end from dipping.  I have never had to replace one of these because they were bad.  I have replaced them because I could not remove the brake lines from them without doing damage.
     Pictorial -Notice the two chambers               A typical brake master cylinder

Brake Hoses and Brake Lines:
Brake lines are steel, and brake hoses are rubber.  The steel lines, after many years sometimes leak due to rust.  The rubber in the brake hoses rarely go bad, but when they do, the rubber cracks and break. If either the hose or line breaks it becomes obvious because the brake light comes on, your brake pedal goes to the floor, and if you wait long enough, the car will not stop as quickly normal.  This diminished braking is very obvious. 
         Brake hoses                                                 Brake line

If you have any questions about your brakes call me at 773 935 2400


  1. Great topic, Eliot! A lot of people will find your blog valuable. Anyway, I’d like to share a few things I know about some symptoms that tell if there is a brake problem in your car. Here are a few: 1) the brake pedal just keeps dropping lower, 2) it requires you to pump it, 3) there is a serious noise when you apply the brakes, 4) there is perceptible vibration as you apply the brake pedal, and 5) it takes longer to get a response from the brake.

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  2. Replacing brakes can be done by experts in a low and affordable cost. But sometimes doing it by ourselves is better! The thing is, we learned how to change the brake pads and we save some extra bucks!

  3. If you encounter problems in your brakes and you had already did your best in fixing it and still broken. Then brakes-4-less would be happy to help you! We perform 1000's of quality brake jobs per month for LESS money than any other brake store in town! People ask us, "How can you repair and service brakes for so little?"... well its simple. All we do are brakes! We buy our quality brake parts directly from the manufacturer and pass the savings on directly to our customers! brake repair mt pleasant sc

  4. Thanks a ton for sharing this! I've been looking for a company auto repair in Victoria, and this helped me know what to talk about when I get there. Thanks again.

  5. Great topic, Eliot! A lot of people will find your blog valuable.
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  9. I am so grateful for all of this information! I have been needing to take my car in for a repair and wanted to make sure I knew what to tell them had been happening, but also wanted to make sure I knew all the parts as well myself. Your site had tons of information on the whole automobile instead of just one specific part, so thanks for sharing all of that!

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  10. I was trying to replace my brakes a while but didn't have much luck. I got them on straight, or so I thought. After about an hour working on it I had my buddy do it. It took him less than ten minutes.
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  11. I'm having problems with my brakes and I'm not sure what's causing it. I had my brother look at my breaks, and he said that sliding caliper isn't sliding, so I think that's what's causing issues with my breaks. He doesn't know how to fix it, so I think I ought to take it to a mechanic to get a new caliper.
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  12. The last time I went to a repair shop, I got to watch the process in which they do brake jobs like this one. It is really amazing and not what I expected at all. I know that I cannot do it myself, nor would I want to. I am just really glad that they could help me out with this.
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  13. Thanks for the information! I've been having trouble with my brakes, so it's good to have information that will help clarify if I need a brake inspection or a brake job. It helps to know about the different components of a brake. Thanks for posting!

  14. It's nice to know that you can troubleshoot these kinds of things on your own before going to the repair shop or something. I haven't had much experience with fixing my car on my own, but I can at least understand what's going on. Thanks for breaking it down--and helpful pictures, too!

    Louise | www.norristire.netIt's nice to know that you can troubleshoot these kinds of things on your own before going to the repair shop or something. I haven't had much experience with fixing my car on my own, but I can at least understand what's going on. Thanks for breaking it down--and helpful pictures, too!

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  16. Any time that I hear a noise on my vehicle I take it to the mechanic right away. Even though they are minor repairs hopefully in doing so frequently I will avoid the big repair in the long run. Thanks for all the tips in what to look for in the future! http://www.import-auto.com

  17. I've been meaning to take my car in for a brake inspection. I've noticed that my brakes have been squeaking. I'm afraid that my breaks would give out on me any day, so I have a feeling that I should have them looked at soon.

  18. My brakes have been super squeaky and I have been wanting to get it looked at to see if it needs to get repaired. I have been trying to find the right shop to do the job. There seem to be so many shops out there and I want to find a shop that is honest and will do the job right. Thanks for the article I know a lot more about brakes now. http://www.dinardoforeignmotors.com/State_Inspections_Horsham_PA.html

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  20. Great tips on car service and maintenance. It's always important to get to know your car before hiring a mechanic. Why? When you are in need of car service you want to make sure you know the symptoms your car is showing. In that way, your mechanic will provide you with the right diagnostic.

  21. It really cool to see how brakes work. I like how you dissected each piece and explained exactly how it works. I'm probably due for a check up for my brakes and I should go to the shop later this week. I hope there aren't any issues, but they brakes seems to be running fine.


  22. I've actually noticed that my brakes are a lot less responsive than they used to be a few months ago. It might be time for me to get them checked out at a shop. The roads have been pretty slick lately, so it'd be nice to know that my brakes are working properly.

  23. Personally, I replace my car's brakes every two years. I learned that tip from a friend who's a mechanic. I remember once that I forgot to replace it. Because of that, I had to replace the entire brake's system of my car, which cost me a lot more money. I would suggest that it's safe to replace your car's brakes every two years.

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  33. The illustration of a brake in the article does help me out. I say that because my cousin gave me some tools to use for fixing the brakes of my car. This type of work is something that I'm new to and have called him up to assist me.

  34. I suspect that my brakes need to be repaired, so I should probably know a few of these tips for finding out if I should have my car serviced. I've been feeling my brake pedal pulsate, so now I think it might be my brake drum after reading how having a drum that isn't round will do that in this post. Since this might be the case, I'll have to take my car to a mechanic to have it serviced so that I can have brakes that work properly. Thanks for posting this!

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  42. There are two ways to check for brake wear on disc brakes: by looking and by listening. First, check for wear by looking at your brake pads through the spaces between the wheel's spokes. The outside pad will be pressed against a metal rotor. Generally, there should be at least 1/4 inch of pad. If you see less than 1/4 inch of pad, you may want to have your brake pads inspected or replaced.

    Followings are some other signs of brake problems:
    1. Reduced responsiveness or fading.
    2. Pulling.
    3. Grinding or growling.
    4. Vibration.

    Keeping your brakes properly calibrated and in good working order can prevent costly repairs down the line, and, more importantly, help you avoid a collision.


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  44. Most vehicles should have their tires rotated at least every six months, and that is a good time to have the brakes inspected, as well. A mechanic can check the thickness of the pads and the condition of the brake hardware to spot wear. If there are any rough spots or pronounced grooves in the disc, you should replace your brake discs. If the brakes are cool, you can use your finger to feel the surface of the disc for rough spots or deep grooves. Brake discs should always be replaced in pairs so that your car's driveability and safety are not compromised.

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