Tips for Checking Your Brakes
Ah, the freedom of the open road. The sun shining through a clean windshield, friendly people waving from their cars, your favorite CD in the stereo. A day on the interstate can be a great day . . . until you press on the brakes and find that they’ve completely failed.
If this has ever happened to you, you know the feeling of panic, the defensive driving maneuvers you had to use to slow the car to a stop, and the eventual hefty repair bill you faced, not to mention the potential of dying in a fiery wreck. Yes, it is safe to say that brakes are the most important safety device on your car.
Check Your Breaks Yearly
It is a good idea to inspect your brakes twice a year. Personally, since I drive an old piece of crap, I check my brakes every other oil change — this way I never forget to inspect them. Looking out for wear and damage to your brakes can protect you and your passengers, not to mention other drivers, while saving you money at the same time. By catching any damage to the brakes, a good brake inspection can catch problems with the brake system before these problems become too costly. It doesn’t take too long, and on most cars it isn’t even that much of a hassle.
On many cars you can inspect the brakes without having to remove the wheel. If your car has alloy wheels with cutouts in the wheel, you can get a good look at the brakes by looking through the hole in the wheel right at the brakes themselves. Its important to be sure you have a clear view of the brakes no matter if you look through the wheel or have to take the wheel off. Be sure you can see all the parts of the brake, including the pads and the big shiny thing – called the disc.
Examine the Break Disc
Take a look at your disc first. Appearance wise, it ought to be shiny from the inside to the outer edge, and the markings on it should be pretty much uniform all the way around. If you see any slight lines around the disc, this is okay, and is considered normal wear and tear. What you’re looking for are any rough patches on the face of the disc or visible “grooves” on the disc itself. If you see anything like this, it is time to replace your brake discs. Rule of thumb when changing brake discs – always replace them in pairs so that your car drives evenly . . . and besides, it’s the safe thing to do.
When selecting a brake disc (also known as a rotor) the old saying is true: “You get what you pay for”. There are some cheap models available, made “offshore” with cheap materials and they will do if you’re in a bind. Generally speaking, to get a solid brake rotor you’re going to pay around $40 a piece, and you can spend more and more as you get into the high performance brake rotors. If the rotor you’re planning to buy costs less than $40, you should reconsider your purchase, as you will find yourself replacing them soon.
Maintain the Brake Pads
Now take a look at the brake pads. Even if your car has alloy wheels and you’re using the “peek between the holes” method, these are a little more difficult to see. Follow the surface of the disc to the top and you’ll see the outside pad just touching the disc. In general, if the pad is smaller than an eight of an inch it’s time for new pads. If you want a visual metaphor for an eight of an inch, my grandfather always said a brake pad should be taller than two stacked pennies. The good news is that brake pads are cheap, even top of the line brake pads are inexpensive, and replacing them is a job that even the least mechanically inclined person should be able to do.
As with brake rotors, you should buy at least a midrange brake pad – they range in price from about $11 on up to $70 and up for so called “high performance” brake pads. I recently bought a nice set of brake pads that set me back $29.99, and they are a major brand name.
Inspect the Brake Lines
The last part of your brake inspection involves the brake lines. You’ll see these rubber coated lines running from the brake toward the body of the car. Brake lines should be soft and bendable, not dirty, cracked, or rigid. If you see any cracks or breaks in your flexible brake lines, they will need to be replaced. This is a job best left to a repair shop, unless you are an expert mechanic. Remember that any part under your car can easily get corroded, especially if you live in a snowy or particularly cold part of the country where chemical agents are often used on the roads.
Save yourself some time, money, and a painful experience by checking your brakes twice a year – or more. Keeping you and your family safe is worth a few minutes of your time and a little elbow grease.