Know your brake basics to avoid big repair bills

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Disc brakes with wheel attached.

Disc brakes have multiple parts that can wear down due to excess friction. Service them regularly. (Photo: Picasa)

When it comes to saving money on your vehicle, one thing it pays to know are your brake basics. You might not think much of a little squeal here or there as you bring your vehicle to a stop, but those little sounds and related vibrations can add up to a great deal of money in repairs later if left unchecked. Knowing how disc brakes and drum brakes work is important for every car owner, if for no other reason than to understand why they can quickly wear down if proper maintenance and driving techniques are not applied.

Brake basics: How brakes work

Brake basics begin with an understanding of the mechanism. When your foot depresses the brake pedal, a plunger in the master cylinder forces brake fluid through tubes and into the braking unit attached to each of your car’s wheels. With common disc brakes, that fluid enters a caliper at the wheel and applies pressure to a piston. That piston squeezes the brake pads against the disc (rotor) that is attached to the wheel. In drum brakes, the fluid enters the wheel cylinder and pushes brake shoes outward against the drum that is attached to the wheel. In both cases, the result is that the car slows and eventually stops. Repeated brake applications cause a buildup of heat from friction, and these forces cause brake pads and other elements to wear down over time.

How worn out are your brakes?

There are a number of signs that indicate that car brakes are wearing out. As there is typically no set number of miles over which a set of brakes is designed to function, a driver must remain observant and make a brake check part of their regular auto maintenance routine. Consult your owner’s manual for some information on suggested maintenance schedules, but in general, watch for cues and keep your service records. Some brakes may last for only a year if they’re cheap or you habitually stomp on your brakes rather than easing into stops. However, higher quality brakes mixed with gentle driving techniques can extend the life of a set of brakes by as much as a few years.

Why shouldn’t you wait to get your brakes fixed?

Living with speaks, squeals and grinding will ultimately lead to damaged rotors, drums and calipers. Replacing all of these parts can run a repair bill as high as $1,000 or more. However, catching a brake problem early might only require new brake shoes or a simple resurfacing of the shoes you already have. That might come out to only a tenth of the cost for replacing everything.

Ultimately, brakes will fail, which can result in accident, injury and even death. As Click and Clack of “Car Talk” so eloquently put it, don’t make your mechanic’s next boat payment. Utilize some preventative maintenance early in the game.

Brake basics of dysfunction: Signs to recognize

Do you notice a flashing brake warning light when you stop? How about squealing or grinding sounds? These are definite warning signs. If the brake pedal or steering wheel shake when you brake, be warned. If your car pulls one way or the other and requires more time to stop, you have more reason than ever to take your car in to a mechanic. Save money… and perhaps your life.

Spend less on brake maintenance… and less on auto loans



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