Thursday, January 31, 2008

Repair Guide: Brake System Basics

Braking action begins when the driver pushes on the brake pedal. The brake pedal is a lever, pivoted at one end, with the master cylinder push rod attached to the pedal near the pivot point. With this lever arrangement, the force applied to the master cylinder piston through the push rod is multiplied several times over the force applied at the brake pedal.

The bracket is mounted to the inside of the engine compartment cowl or firewall. The master cylinder push rod that connects the pedal linkage to the master cylinder goes through a hole in the firewall.

The master cylinder is mounted on the opposite side of the firewall in the engine compartment. If the car has manual brakes, the cylinder will be mounted directly to the firewall. If a power booster is used, it will be mounted to the firewall and the cylinder is mounted to the booster.


How do I know when my car really needs a brake job?

You need a "brake job" when your brake linings are worn down to the minimum acceptable thickness specified by the vehicle manufacturer or the applicable state agency in areas that set their own requirements. The only way to determine if new linings are required, therefore, is to inspect the brakes.
You may also need a brake job if you're having brake problems such as grabbing, pulling, low or soft pedal, pedal vibration, noise, etc., or if some component in your brake system has failed. But if the problem is isolated to only one component, there's no need to replace other parts that are still in perfectly good working order.

There is no specific mileage interval at which the brakes need to be relined because brake wear varies depending on how the vehicle is driven, the braking habits of the driver, the weight of the vehicle, the design of the brake system and a dozen other variables. A set of brake linings that last 70,000 miles or more on a car driven mostly on the highway may last only 30,000 or 40,000 miles on the same vehicle that is driven mostly in stop-and-go city traffic.

As a rule, the front brakes wear out before the ones on the rear because the front brakes handle a higher percentage of the braking load -- especially in front-wheel drive cars and minivans. So many service facilities advertise $59.95 brake job "specials" that replace the linings on the front brakes only. Doing the front brakes only is okay and can save you money as long as the rear brakes are in good condition. But if the rear brakes need attention, they should be relined too.

One of the problems with the brake specials you see advertised in the newspaper is that the price is very misleading. A person typically goes in expecting to spend $59.95 for a brake job, but usually ends up spending considerably more because the brakes need more than the minimum amount of work to restore them to like-new condition. The price of a brake job depends entirely on the work that needs to be performed. So any advertised special is not a firm price, but only an estimate of the least amount of money it might cost you to get your brakes fixed. A price should not be quoted until after the brakes have been inspected. Then and only then can an accurate determination be made of the parts that actually need to be replaced.


What parts are generally replaced during a brake job, and why?

A traditional brake job (if there is such a thing) usually means replacing the front disc brake pads, resurfacing the rotors, replacing the rear drum brake shoes, resurfacing the drums, bleeding the brake lines (replacing the old brake fluid with new and getting all the air out of the lines), inspecting the system for leaks or other problems that might require additional repairs, and checking and adjusting the parking brake.
Some brake jobs may also include new hardware for the drums (recommended), and rebuilding or replacing the wheel cylinders and calipers (also recommended). But because of the added expense, these items may not be included in the package price or may only be done if the brake system really needs them (as opposed to doing them for preventative maintenance).

Hardware includes things like return springs, hold down springs and other clips and retainers found in drum brakes. It may also include bushings, pins and clips on disc brake calipers. Springs lose tension with age and exposure to heat. Most experts recommend replacing the hardware when relining drum brakes to restore proper brake action. If weak springs are reused, the shoes may drag against the drums causing accelerated shoe wear, a pull to one side, brake overheating and possible drum damage. Other hardware that is badly corroded or faulty (such as the self-adjusters) may prevent the shoes from maintaining the correct drum clearance (which increases the distance the brake pedal must travel as the shoes wear), or the parking brake from functioning properly.

It's important to note that not all replacement linings are the same. There are usually several grades of quality in pads and shoes (good, better and best). The difference is in the ingredients that are used to manufacture the pads and shoes. The less expensive ones may cost less initially and save you a few dollars on your total bill, but you may not be happy with the way they wear and perform. All brake linings must meet minimum government safety standards. Even so, the cheaper grade of pads and shoes do not last as many miles as the premium grade of replacement linings, nor do they brake as effectively. They usually have a greater tendency to fade at high temperature and may increase the vehicle's stopping distance somewhat. Noise may also be a problem with cheap linings. The best performance and value for your money, therefore, is with the best or premium grade. Choose these when the brakes are relined.

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