In most respects the brakes are the most important feature on a car, without properly functioning brakes the vehicle is unsafe to drive. As important as the system is, brakes are not overly complicated from a mechanical standpoint and most brake issues are fairly easy to diagnose. Without the proper skills it can often be confusing, as different brake issues may show similar symptoms, so it may be best to take a vehicle with brake issue to a repair shop.
Troubleshooting Brake Problems
For vehicles with power brakes, start the engine and press down on the brake pedal to see how the pedal feels. For older vehicles that don’t have power brakes this test can be done without the engine running.
If the pedal feels “spongy” it’s a sign of air in the brake lines. If the pedal goes all the way down to the floor with little to no resistance there’s probably a defect in the master cylinder. The cylinder may just be out of fluid, but then the question is: where did the fluid go? In this case you’ll need to check for a leak somewhere in the brake line. Add enough of the correct type of brake fluid, as stated in the vehicle’s owner manual, up to the “Full” line in the master cylinder and check the level again in a few days. If the fluid is low again it’s certain there’s a leak in the brake line.
If the pedal feels okay, take the car for a drive, pay attention to how efficiently the brakes stop the vehicle. If you have power brakes the brake pedal should stop approximately one inch off the floor. For vehicles without power brakes the brake pedal should stop about three inches off the floor. With power brakes, if it seems like it takes excessive effort to stop, the power booster may need to be replaced.
If the vehicle does not stop quickly at speeds less than 35 MPH, the brakes either need replacing or possibly just and adjustment. Both disc and drum brakes are “self-adjusting,” but the shoes on drum brakes wear down the self-adjusting feature. This tends to not work as well and can result in the pedal traveling further down to the floor than normal. If this happens the shoes may need to be adjusted manually.
If your car pulls to one side when applying the brakes it usually means that something is amiss with one of the front brakes. Typically on the opposite side from that which the vehicle is pulling to. For example, if the car pulls to the left the problem is generally with the right front brake. This is usually the result of a sticking caliper or a leak in the brake line that supplies that caliper.
If the brakes grind when pressing the pedal it means the pads or shoes have worn all the way down to the metal attachment rivets. The grinding noise is the heads of the rivets rubbing against the metal drums or rotors. Once the brakes have worn down to this point it will cause more damage to the rotors and drums every time you apply the brakes.
There are many advantages to taking the vehicle in for both diagnosing and servicing. Trying to troubleshoot brake problems can be somewhat tricky for a novice and can be time consuming. Even for those who have repair experience, it can sometimes be a lot of trial and error until they find the problem. This can take time and sometimes can be quite expensive.
Almost everyone has taken their car in for an oil change and had the service personnel come out with a laundry list of things the vehicle “just has to have done right now!” This is why it’s critical to take your car to a repair shop that is trustworthy when having a break problems diagnosed.