How your car's brake system works.
Pads, calipers and rotors. Shoes and drums. Hydraulic lines and brake fluid. Car brake systems can have many parts. Understanding how they work together can make troubleshooting problems easier.
It’s all about friction1
There are two types of car brake systems: disc and drum, with disc being the most efficient. Both automotive brake systems utilize the principle of friction to slow the wheel down. When you push the brake pedal, the force you exert is converted into hydraulic pressure. This pressure flows through the hydraulic fluid lines to the wheels, where it forces the brake shoes against the drums (drum brakes) or the disc pads against the rotors (disc brakes). The resulting friction slows the rotation of the wheels down relative to the amount of force you applied to the brake pedal. In physical terms, your car brakes use friction to turn kinetic energy (wheel movement) into thermal energy (heat).
Most newer car models offer an anti-lock braking system (ABS). It’s an automated system that prevents your wheels from locking up (ceasing rotation) and skidding in a sudden, emergency braking situation. Used correctly, ABS improves your control and decreases stopping distances on dry and slippery surfaces. The big thing to remember is never pump the brakes, hit the car brakes hard and leave your foot on the brake pedal. The ABS system will do the rest.
Tip: If your car moves sluggishly from a parked position or you hear a grinding noise, stop and check your emergency/parking brake. You may have left it set.
Brake wear and tear4
Automotive brakes are the most critical safety system on your vehicle. However, they do wear down and will eventually need replacing. That said, don’t let your brakes wear down so far that you’re left with bare metal pressing against bare metal. At that point, you might be looking at an expensive rotor or drum replacement. It’s a good idea to have a brake inspection at the first sign of wear.
Here’s what to look for:
- Your car pulls to one side when braking
- Brake pedal pulsates and/or the steering wheel shakes
- Brake pedal feels “mushy”
- A squeaking or squealing noise when you apply the brakes
- Repeatedly having to add brake fluid to the master cylinder
- Visible brake fluid sprayed onto the outside of the wheel
- Any unusual odor
What to do if the brake light comes on5
- If your dashboard brake light comes on, don’t ignore it. It can mean there’s a serious issue with the hydraulics of your braking system. Take your car in for a brake inspection as soon as possible. Remember, it’s never safe to drive if the brake warning light stays lit.
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