Your car's brakes are its most important safety feature. Making sure they are always in perfect working order is quite literally a matter of life and death.
So if you suspect anything is wrong with your brakes - anything at all - you should have them inspected by someone who is qualified to do so.
Brakes repair: Routine maintenance is key
Your vehicle's brakes require routine maintenance - usually the replacement of the pads and cleaning or smoothing of the rotors and drums. To understand the importance of this maintenance as well as what it can cost if you ignore it, it's important to know how your brakes work.
Braking begins at the brake pedal. When you push on it, it levers and tells the brake master cylinder to compress brake fluid into the brake lines. The master cylinder is located directly in front of you on the other side of the firewall in the engine compartment. It looks like a round cake pan with a cylinder coming out its center. On top of that cylinder is a small reservoir for fluid and four brake lines coming from the length of the cylinder - one line for each wheel.
The fluid travels along those lines to the calipers and drums (calipers are usually on the front wheels, drums on the rear). The fluid causes the calipers to clamp down on the rotors, pressing the brake pads against the rotor to slow the vehicle by friction. In the rear, the fluid causes small cylinders inside the drums to push brake pads outwards into the edges of the drum, again slowing the vehicle by friction.
Brakes repair: Front brakes usually wear more quickly
In most cars, about 60-70% of the braking power is in the front of the vehicle (since this is where the weight of the engine is) and the rest is in the rear. For this reason, you'll likely find that your front brakes require service slightly more often than the rear.
The pads, which are composed of several materials compressed into a cake-like substance, rub against the hard forged iron of the rotors or drums. Where the pads connect to the rotors/drums when stopping is a smooth surface that needs to be polished, clean and smooth. As the pads rub against these, they wear down and eventually must be replaced.
Brakes repair: What is that squealing sound?
When you hear squealing, that is most likely the pads getting to the end of their life span. They have indicator prongs that stick up through the pad itself so that when it reaches a low point, the prongs scrape against the rotor or drum, giving off that squeal. When the squeal turns to grinding, you have passed the point of indication and hit bottom. At this point, your brakes will begin to fail entirely anytime and your car is a serious safety hazard on the road and car repair is needed.
Brakes repair: Fix it now or pay more later
If you are prudent and have your pads replaced as soon as the squealing starts, then you will have a much cheaper, easier time at the shop than if you wait and do it when the grinding starts. That grinding is the edges of the pad's backing rubbing on your rotors or drums and indicates that it's digging deeply into that hardened iron. It's very likely at this point that you'll have to replace those rotors and/or drums. A simple $100 brake job just jumped in price to $500 or more because each of those rotors and drums are going to cost $100 or more to replace.
Take your safety seriously and keep your brakes in shape!
Photo by John Nyboer