Car Owners’ Manual – Braking System Maintenance 101

Brakes are the one maintenance item that can greatly affect your safety and the overall performance of your vehicle. If your engine dies, you’ll come to a stop. If your brakes fail, you won’t have that privilege until the car loses all of its momenta. In this installment of the Car Owners’ Manual, we’re talking about the basics of braking system maintenance. We’ll discuss when and how are brakes services, and what happens if you don’t service them on time.
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What Makes a Brake System on a Car?

Most modern passenger vehicles use a hydraulic braking system. When broken down into its individual pieces, this system usually consists of brake rotors, brake pads, and brake calipers on each wheel. Some vehicles utilize rotors in the front and drum brakes in the rear.

Disc, or rotor brakes, use a caliper that presses two pads against the spinning rotor, thus causing friction that slows down the vehicle. With drum brakes, you have two shoe pads inside the drum, that are pressed against the outer wall of the drum brake from the inside, achieving the same result — friction.

Rotor/pad/caliper and drum/shoe pad setups are only a part of the overall braking system, and the braking system maintenance you’ll be doing. You also have an intricate network of brake lines and valves that distribute brake fluid to each wheel, thus allowing for the activation of calipers or wheel cylinders, depending on the type of braking system.

The hydraulic component that activates the entire system is the master cylinder, which is located right behind the brake pedal. We can also include the ABS and other systems into our layout, as most modern vehicles rely on such advanced solutions to improve braking in adverse conditions.

Brake System Maintenance — The Basics

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Brake system maintenance can be broken down into two segments — the maintenance of wear components, and maintenance of core components. The former is something you do periodically, depending on how you use your car, your driving habits, etc. The latter should be done proactively, as necessary.

Wear Components Maintenance — Rotors, Pads, Drums, and Drum Shoes

Pads and rotors wear out over time, and so do brake drums and drum shoes. There’s no way around it. These components are literally made to wear out, as all of them depend on friction to do their individual jobs.

Brake Rotors

Brake rotors are built to last anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 miles. That massive gap in the estimated lifespan of a rotor is there to account for different climates, driving styles, and a number of other factors. Overall, most rotors last between 30,000 miles and 50,000 miles.

It’s worth mentioning that there are many businesses that offer an alternative to replacing your rotors. We’re talking about brake rotor resurfacing, which has divided the community into those who are for this practice and many of those who are against it.

Our opinion is that you should always replace your rotors. And no, we’re not saying that because we’re a car part retailer. We’re saying that because a new brake rotor is a regulated item. You’re getting a product that someone guarantees will work as specified. Resurfaced rotors are often hit or miss at best.

Which rotor to get? As you know, there are several types of rotors out there. We’re talking slotted, drilled, hybrids, and plain rotors. We’ve written a comprehensive guide on brake rotor selection, which contains all of the pros and cons of each type.

Types of Brake Rotor Failure

In a perfect world, your rotor will wear down over time, until it hits that 50,000 miles or 70,000-mile mark and you’ll replace it like you replace anything else on your car. However, often things go sideways with worn brake rotors. Here are just some of the issues you can experience.

Warped Rotors

That’s right, brake rotors can warp due to uneven wear, bad installation, or a number of other reasons. A warped rotor causes the brake pedal to vibrate when pressed, while it also reduces your car’s ability to brake effectively.


Rust is another common brake disc killer. Given enough time, rust can completely deteriorate a brake rotor to a point where it’s no longer capable of producing the kind of stopping power your car needs. There are no ways to fight rust, other than to drive your car.

Every time you go somewhere, the first few applications of the brake pedal will scrape off any rust that has formed on the surface of the rotor, thus leaving you with a clean, effective layer for the pads to bite into.

Brake Pads

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Brake pads are another wear item that has to be checked regularly and changed periodically. Made from special friction compounds, brake pads work by biting into the rotor and using the resulting friction to slow down the vehicle.

With brake pads, you’re looking at anywhere from 20,000 miles to 50,000 miles of use. Again, your driving habits will be the main factor that determines which side of this range you’ll fall into. Those who ride their brakes will get less use out of their pads.

The good thing about brake pads is that you can visually inspect them at almost any time. On most vehicles, you can see the outer pad and check just how much “meat” is left.

Modern cars have brake pad wear indicators as well, which will illuminate your dashboard when your pads reach a critical level.

Choosing the Right Pads

Just like with rotors, there are many different flavors of brake pads out there. Some offer longer life over performance, others are made for track use, while there’s a family of pads designed to produce as little brake dust as possible.

Which type of pad you’ll choose is completely up to you. We’ll dig into various pad compounds, designs, and other attributes in a separate piece. For now, you should focus on getting quality pads, no matter which of these profiles they belong to. We’ve written a complete guide on brake pads that should help you make the right choice.

Brake Drums and Brake Shoes

A lot of what we said about rotors and pads also applies to brake drums and brake drum shoes. Most brake drum shoes last for around 30,000 to 40,000 miles, while the brake drums themselves should be good for over 100,000 miles under normal conditions.

Either way, if your vehicle is equipped with brake drums in the rear, you should follow your owner’s manual and inspect the brake shoes at specific intervals.

Brake Fluid Maintenance

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Brake fluid is the bloodline of your entire brake system. It’s the hidden component that way too many car owners overlook. The issue with brake fluid is that it’s hygroscopic. In other words, it attracts moisture. This is why it’s imperative that you keep the brake fluid sealed in its original container, and never use an old bottle of brake fluid when performing braking system maintenance.

What many people don’t know is that brake fluid has to be replaced every 2 years. That amount of time is what most experts estimate is enough for the fluid to reach 2% to 3% water contamination. At that point, your brake fluid is no longer safe for use.

Boiling Temperatures

As it turns out, the fluid that runs your brakes has a boiling temperature. Once your brake fluid begins to boil, it starts creating pockets of air within the system. The problem with air is that it’s compressible. One of the main symptoms of boiling brake fluid is a mushy brake pedal that can sometimes go all the way to the floor without your car actually braking.

But wait, it gets better. Contaminated brake fluid contains a certain percentage of water. That water can dramatically lower the boiling temperature of your car’s brake fluid. If you run your brakes hard, as you would if you were going down a massive hill in a fully-loaded car, you’re risking boiling the brakes and losing a majority of your stopping power.

Replacing the fluid every two years prevents any of this from happening. Always use a brand-new bottle, and only use the type of brake fluid that is specified in your owner’s manual.

Core Braking System Components Maintenance

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With wear items out of the way, let’s talk about maintaining the rest of the system. The master cylinder and all the valves that sit between it and individual calipers are maintained by using adequate fluid and replacing it as described above.

However, flexible brake lines need to be inspected from time to time. It’s best to give them a good look when you’re rotating tires or doing any kind of work on your wheels. These lines, although generally durable on most cars, can deteriorate over time.

The absolute best way to maintain your core braking system components is to ensure that there is always enough fluid in the system. A quick side note. There’s a difference between not having enough fluid in the system, and seeing that your fluid levels are going down ever so slightly.

The former usually indicates an issue with the system itself, a leak. The latter is a normal result of brake pad wear. As your pads wear down, the pistons inside your caliper have to extrude farther out to activate the pads. By doing so, they are taking in more fluid. If your pads are worn out, and you top off your fluid, you might find yourself with excess in your reservoir once you change your pads. Keep that in mind when working on your braking system.

Heat Is The Enemy

One last piece of advice on how to get the most out of your brakes is to avoid frequent temperature spikes. In other words, don’t push your brakes to their limits too often and definitely try to minimize your use of brake as a whole.

If you’re finding that your brakes aren’t able to keep up with your driving style, it’s probably time for an upgrade.

Only Use Quality Components for Braking System Maintenance

Whenever you’re doing any braking system maintenance, it’s imperative that you use quality parts. Pads, rotors, and brake drum shoes are something you don’t want to cut corners with. We offer a complete range of Brembo and Akebono products, as well as many other quality brands. Invest in quality rotors and pads is an investment in your safety.

Posted in Car Owners' Manual

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