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How To Diagnose and Fix Your Vehicle Brakes


Your brakes are easily the most important component of your vehicle’s safety features. Brakes that have worn out or aren’t installed correctly are dangerous not only for you and your passengers, but for other cars, bikers and pedestrians.

There can be many issues with your brakes, some are dangerous, others can just be a minor nuisance to you. Here are the most common signs that your brakes are having some sort of issue and what they mean. 

The Good:

  • No odors, noises or issues braking- Your brake system is in the clear. Continue normal operations and if you have concerns seek the help of a trusted mechanic. 
  • Minor noises- all brakes make some form of noise. If you aren’t wanting to cover your ears every time you press the brake pedal you are likely okay to drive for a while until the brake system needs to be serviced. 

The Bad:

  • Ear piercing noises such as screeching, squealing, grinding and rubbing- these uncomfortable noises generally mean that your brake pads or shoes require some form of maintenance. Take your vehicle to the mechanic immediately to prevent this minor issue from escalating into something more major. 
  • Vibration or pulsation when braking felt in the steering wheel- if this sounds familiar then your car is telling you that there is a lack of padding and that there is metal rubbing on metal. This issue should be looked at as soon as possible to prevent rotor warping which is a far more expensive repair.
  • Brake system warning light- this is an indication that the brake system either has a mechanical issue or is due to be serviced. Get the car in at your earliest convenience to a mechanic to have the warning light diagnosed by a professional. 

The Ugly:

  • You have to really press on the brake pedal to get your car to stop- If you are now having to apply more pressure to your brake pedal to get your car to come to a stop then it is likely that your brake pads have worn out and need to be replaced. This is an extremely serious safety concern that should be taken care of immediately. Refrain from driving the car until this is taken care of or you could find yourself in a situation where you can’t stop at all. 
  • Burning smell- if your car is emitting burning or other pungent odors from your tires, know that this is abnormal and could be a sign of a very serious issue. You need to get your car to a mechanic shop immediately. 

How To Fix These Issues

You can fix your brakes in one of two ways, you can take the wheels off yourself and replace the brakes in the car , or you can take the vehicle to a professional mechanic to do the job for you. 

How Much Does It Cost To Replace Your Brakes At The Mechanic?

Getting a complete brake replacement will cost you between $350 and $800 for parts and labor. This will include replacement of the pads, rotor and caliper. If you have a car brand that many mechanics don’t work on, you can spend over $1000 to have these repairs made. 

If you just need new brake pads, the average cost of replacement is $150 per axle with a range of $100 to $300 per axle depending on your mechanic and vehicle. Though the brake pads can be replaced on their own, it is recommended that you replace the rotors at the same time for cost efficiency. 

Having your rotors replaced will cost between $350 and $500 for parts and labor. 

How To Service Your Braking System Yourself 

Working on the brake system of your vehicle is a moderately difficult task and not one you want to do without some prior experience as the brakes are a key safety feature. You should also know that there may be other signs of repairs needed once you take apart the wheels and remove the brake pads. You want to have the expertise to be able to identify those signs should they present themselves. These signs will NOT be covered in this article. 

It is also important to note that this guide will instruct you to place your car onto jacks and lift it. If done improperly, a falling vehicle can cause serious and even fatal injuries. 

If you think you are up for the task here is what you need to know for most vehicles. 

How Does The Brake System Of A Car Work?

A moving car has a lot of kinetic energy, to slow down the car, that kinetic energy must be reduced. The brake system of your car does that by converting that energy into heat using friction. 

When you are driving and need to slow your car down, you apply pressure to the brake pedal. At this time your car will amplify the pressure you place on the brake pedal into the following process. 

Pressure to the brake pedal signals your car to insert a piston into the master cylinder. The master cylinder is filled with hydraulic fluid which is applied to a system of cylinders which are positioned next to your brakes. Essentially this hydraulic system amplifies the force of your foot on the brake pedal into enough force to stop the car. 

This video on standard car brakes is informative if you would like a more in depth synopsis. 

What Type Of Brakes Does Your Car Have?

The standard car will have both of the two types of braking systems: disk brakes and drum brakes. Most vehicles will have disk brakes on the front and drum brakes on the back axle. In less expensive cars all four wheels will have drum brakes whereas in luxury or exotic vehicles there will be disk brakes on all four wheels. 

Disk brakes are made up of a brake disk, a caliper and a brake pad. When pressure is applied to the brake pedal, hydraulic fluid forces the caliper into the brake pad which is applied directly to the brake disk slowing the car by using friction to convert the kinetic energy into heat. 

Drum brakes work similarly in that they use friction to slow the car. This type of braking mechanism has two components, a brake drum and a brake shoe. The brake drum is hollow and turns with the wheel, when pressure is applied to the brake pedal, the hydraulic fluid forces the brake shoe to press against the side of the drum causing friction and stopping the car.  

If you are unsure what types of brakes your vehicle has, check your owners manual or search the internet to find out what comes standard on your car. 

Replacing Your Brakes 

What You Will Need: 

  • ⅜” ratchet
  • ½” ratchet
  • ½ “ breaker bar
  • ⅜” assorted extension
  • ⅜” assorted sockets
  • ½” assorted sockets
  • Assorted torx sockets
  • Open ended wrench 
  • Assorted hex sockets
  • Assorted reverse torx sockets
  • C clamp
  • Jack stands
  • Hydraulic jack 
  • Pry bar
  • Wire brush
  • Gloves
  • WD 40
  • Brake pads (one for each wheel)
  • Rotors (one for each wheel)
  • Zip ties
  • Impact gun
  • Degreaser or brake cleaner
  • Rag

Which Brake Pads And Rotors Should You Buy?

Experts recommend using ceramic brake pads as they offer the smoothest stopping and the longest protection. When picking out rotors, the only real difference you will find is the quality control of certain companies. Unless you are professionally racing your vehicle you should be able to use just about any rotor. Look for a company that has good reviews or ask your local auto parts employee for a brand they recommend. 

Now that we have everything that we need to replace the brakes, let’s get started. 

Step 1: Loosen the lug nuts

Engage the emergency brake or put blocks behind the wheels. Use your ½” breaker bar paired with the appropriate socket size. Turn counter clockwise until the lug nut is loosened, but still on the wheel. The car should be on the ground and NOT on jacks at this point. The goal here is to loosen the lug nuts enough that you can take them off with a standard ratchet when the car is lifted. Loosen all lug nuts. 

Step 2: Lift the car

Locate your vehicle’s factory jacking points or frame rail. With most cars, this will look like a perforated piece of metal sticking out on the underside of the vehicle. Place the hydraulic jack appropriately on these locations. Position the jack stands underneath the vehicle and then transition the vehicle’s weight to the jack stands being sure that the weight of the vehicle cannot shift. 

Step 3: Remove the wheels

Carefully finish removing the lug nuts and then the wheels of the vehicle. If you desire, this is a great opportunity to thoroughly clean parts of the wheel of dust and oil that you normally are unable to access. 

Step 4: Loosen the caliper

Once the wheel has been removed you will have access to the caliper. The caliper is secured with bolts that are typically 12 or 14mm. Remove the bolts and slide the caliper out using the force of a pry bar if necessary. 

You will want to rest or secure the caliper to something as it will still be connected to the brake line which you never want to put pressure on. You can use a zip tie or bungee cord to secure the caliper’s weight. 

Next remove the caliper carrier on the rear of the hub by removing the bolts with an impact gun. 

Step 4: Rotor Removal

Now remove the rotor. It may be a bit snuggly stuck, so loosen it by hitting it with a mallet several times. In some cases there may be a screw securing the rotor which will need to be removed prior to the rotor. 

Step 5: Rust removal

Next take your wire brush and scrape the rust that has likely accumulated on the hub. Doing this is a great way to slow down future corrosion of the new rotor you are about to install. If you would like, apply WD 40 to the area you scraped

Step 6: Install New Rotor 

Use the degreaser to clean any residue off of the new rotor left behind from the packaging. Use a lug nut and an open-ended wrench to hold the rotor secure and get it to sit flat while you tighten down the components

Step 7: Assemble the carrier

Using the impact gun, replace the carrier bolts and tighten

Step 8: Compress the caliper

Compress the caliper piston using an old brake pad you have removed and the C clamp. You will want the piston to be flush with the caliper. To avoid blowing a brake line, be sure that the cap is off of the brake reservoir. 

Step 9: Reinstall the brake pads and caliper

Apply a small amount of anti-squeal grease to the outside of the brake pad then install pads to the carrier. Replace the caliper bolts and tighten to be sure the caliper moves freely without binding. Double check your work on this important step

Step 10: Put on the wheels

You’ll want to hand tighten the lug nuts while the car is in the air. 

Step 11: Repeat All Steps On The Remaining Wheels

Step 12: Lower the vehicle

Once all four brakes have been serviced and their wheels replaced with hand tightened lug nuts, bring the car back to the ground carefully and remove the jacks. Reemploy the emergency brakes or block the wheels. 

Step 13: Re-tighten lug nuts

Now using a torque wrench, tighten all lug nuts on all 4 tires. 

Step 14: Regain pressure

Pump the brakes a few times and you should feel the pressure catch around the 3rd pump of the brake pedal. 

Step 15: Safely break in braking system

It is completely normal for some squeaking and squealing when new brakes are installed. Breaking in the new components of a braking system is quite simple, get the car up to 50 mph and then slowly brake bringing the car down to 30 mph. After this you can drive normally, but keep your senses out for any unusual reactivity from your vehicle. If your car is driving strangely in any way, take it to a mechanic to have them double check your work. 

How Much Does Replacing Your Own Brakes Cost?

The parts needed to replace your brake pads on each wheel cost approximately $15. You can expect to spend somewhere in the range of $50- $80 on all four depending on your vehicle. If you want to replace the rotor at the same time, it will cost you around $50 per wheel.  It will take a mechanic somewhere between 1 and 2 hours to make this repair, so doing the project yourself will save you about $200 depending of course on what the billable hour rate is at your mechanic. 

We hope this article has answered all of your questions regarding issues with your braking system and that you feel more prepared to handle such an occurrence now and in the future. Consider protecting your vehicle with an extended warranty plan from Protect My Car. In addition to warranties, Protect My Car also offers insurance and maintenance plans and can negotiate the best prices on repairs with mechanics. 

Protect My Car provides consumers with extended auto warranty plans that have real coverage for vehicles that are no longer covered by their manufacturer’s warranty. Whether your vehicle was purchased new or used, if your manufacturer’s warranty is about to expire, or has already expired, an extended auto warranty plan can save you thousands of dollars in repair bills. Since the majority of vehicle repairs happen 3-5 years after the original purchase date, which many times is outside of the manufacturer’s warranty coverage period, leaving you responsible for paying the full repair bill. However, when you purchase a policy from Protect My Car, you could pay as little as $100.00 for your major repairs. That’s a lot of savings!

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