It’s common knowledge that tires are the single most important maintenance item in a car. Every car owner should prioritize getting their tires in good shape and catch tire-related issues early on before it develops into something serious.
However, if tires are the most important things to look after, what’s the second most significant maintenance item of a vehicle? If safety is of utmost importance in a vehicle, then the braking system undoubtedly follows tires as critical maintenance items.
With that said, much like tires, it’s common for most car owners to neglect brake maintenance work. In fact, some can leave the brake pads to wear until only the backing plate remains, severely compromising braking performance.
For most car owners, it’s not until you need good brakes that you notice a problem with your braking system. And when it comes to that point, it’s already too late. Fortunately, automotive braking systems are amongst the most well-developed nowadays, and the safety tolerances are great.
As an example, modern ABS systems have made it possible for anyone to pin the brake pedal to the floor and not lock up the tires. Cutting-edge electronic stability programs have brake vectoring that can manipulate braking torque on individual wheels to prevent skidding and ensure that the driver isn’t overspeeding into a corner.
Regardless, it is important to note when you need to replace the brake pads and perform routine brake service to keep your brakes operating optimally. Electronic systems can only intervene so far with thoroughly worn brake pads and warped rotors.
Maintenance Components in a Brake System
Before you hurry along to a workshop to get your brake system checked out, understanding the individual wear and tear components that piece together neatly to provide adequate stopping power. This way you’ll know which component isn’t working properly when there’s a problem with your brakes.
Brake Pads (Brake Shoe)
This is the wear and tear item that every car owner should acknowledge. The brake pads are what’s mounted at each individual tire, and they are primarily what determines the amount of stopping power a vehicle offers.
Basically, brake pads consist of just 3 separate pieces. At the caliper pistons, the backing plate, then a bonding adhesive, and finally the friction material.
When you step on the brake pedal, these brake pads get pushed physically to make contact with the brake rotors. The friction material then ‘bites’ into the brake rotors to slow the vehicle down.
This of course wears out the available friction material. The amount of braking power that a vehicle offers is highly dependent on the friction material used and the size of the brake pads. Of course, the more exotic and larger the pads, the more expensive it is when you need to replace them.
You’ll also find pad shims that cover the backing plate. The shims are made of pliable material, typically a mix of rubber and metal. It’s there to prevent the caliper piston from slamming against the pads and to make up the minute imperfections on the backing plate to reduce brake noise.
Typically, brake pads also come with a wear indicator. It can be a mechanical wear indicator, which is a metal tab that scrapes against the brake rotor when the pad is worn. It might also be an electrical wear indicator, which detects when the pads are worn and displays a warning light in the instrument cluster.
Brake rotors otherwise referred to as brake discs, are circular discs that are physically connected to each individual wheel on your vehicle. This means that when your wheels turn, they turn the rotors too.
Basically, the rotors provide a surface for the brake pad to push and ‘bite’ into to slow the car down. Normally, rotors have a big flat surface made out of cast iron. Some high-performance car uses steel, with carbon-ceramic discs being the go-to choice for track application.
Of course, with so much friction, brake pads will eventually wear down the rotors and necessitating a replacement. The minimum thickness is usually provided on the discs, or you can refer to the owner’s manual.
Furthermore, due to the rigorous heating and cooling cycle that brake rotors go through in their lifetime, it’s common for damage to form. This can be seen in the form of rotor warp or even cracks. Damaged rotors must be replaced since braking performance is compromised.
It’s not commonly thought of as a maintenance item, but brake fluid is equally crucial. It’s good practice to ask for a fluid flush whenever you get your brake pads replaced.
As you can imagine, brake fluid is a type of hydraulic fluid that is specifically formulated to transfer driver applied braking force into hydraulic pressure to actuate the brake pads.
There are many classifications of brake fluid, but the most commonly used nowadays are DOT 3 and DOT 4 brake fluids. They are all glycol-based brake fluid, but mineral oil or silicone (DOT 5) brake fluids can be seen in specialized applications. The different classifications represent the performance of the brake fluid.
Brake fluids have to meet a few important criteria. First, brake fluids must have low compressibility. They need to transfer the force applied by the driver to the brake caliper pistons efficiently.
Following that, they must be able to endure high-temperature operations without boiling over. Even DOT 3 brake fluids can withstand over 200 Celsius before boiling. However, over time, glycol-based fluids will absorb moisture naturally and reduce the boiling point. This is referred to as dry and wet boiling point.
Brake fluids that boil is an issue since it causes vaporization within the lines. Vapor is compressible and severely reduces braking capability. Finally, the brake fluid must inhibit corrosion within the system, and lubricate the moving parts within the brake system.
Time has an impact upon a brake fluid’s properties. Whether if it’s due to the fluid absorbing moisture or contamination. This is why it’s necessary to replace the brake fluid periodically. However, the brake system is fully contained, so you should never be required to top off brake fluid regularly if there are no leaks.
Maintenance – Brake Pad And Rotor Replacement Cost
Brake Pad Replacement Cost
You’ll most frequently find yourself needing to get the brake pads replaced on your vehicle. With that said, it’s difficult to specifically determine the price of a brake pad change, since it varies wildly from vehicle to vehicle.
If you have a normal compact car with a basic front single-piston brake setup, it should be relatively straightforward. You can expect to pay around $150 with labor included. Most shops would be able to carry out the job quickly enough, and brake pads should only cost around $50 to $100.
This is the cost per axle of course. You should always replace brake pads in pairs, meaning if you replace the front left brake pad, the front right brake pad should be replaced alongside. Brake pads are always sold in pairs either way. This is to ensure the braking force is even across the axle.
The rear pads might be cheaper because it’s typically smaller. Some cars still use a rear drum brake setup though, which might cost more in labor since it’s more involved to replace brake shoes.
Of course, this is all dependent on your vehicle type. If you drive a sports car or large SUV, you should expect to pay much more. Costs can range from $500 to even $1000 per axle. This is because the costs of brake pads increase exponentially if it’s larger.
If you’ve ever done a big brake upgrade on your vehicle, you would know how much those performance pads can cost. It also depends on the material used on the brake pad. Daily drivers can make do with organic pads which cost less; while high-performance sportscars need metallic or ceramic pads that can endure higher temperatures.
Brake Pad Replacement Frequency
The good thing about brake pad is that while it’s a common maintenance item, it doesn’t require that much attention. However, the replacement interval is highly dependent on how you drive your car, and the type of car you’re driving.
For example, someone who drives a light city car will need less frequent pad changes when compared to a luxury SUV. It’s also highly dependent on the compound used on the brake pad. Soft organic brake pads on normal cars provide better drivability, but also wear out quicker.
In general, brake pads can last upwards of 40,000 to 50,000 miles before needing a replacement. It can be half that with frequent stop-and-go traffic in a heavy car. If you commute frequently on quiet highways though, brake pads can even endure 70,000 miles before needing to be changed.
The only way to know for sure is to measure the lining thickness. You can buy brake pad measuring tools that allow you to measure the lining thickness without removing your wheels. It’s generally recommended that you replace brake pads that have less than 4mm of lining material remaining.
Of course, you can always just wait for the pad sensor to warn you, or even until the metal tab starts to scrape on the brake rotor. Those are manufacturer calibrated and provides you with immediate feedback on when to get your brake pad changed.
Brake Rotor Replacement Cost
Sometimes, you’ll also find the need to replace the brake rotors. This is typically done as a maintenance procedure alongside a brake pad change. Again, as you might imagine, replacing the brake rotor can vary wildly in price depending on the car you drive.
For a normal compact car with a modestly sized brake rotor, you can expect to pay around $400 to $500 per axle with labor included. The rear axle brake rotor will tend to be cheaper due to the smaller size. Rear rotors are also normally solid rotors which are cheaper to manufacture.
However, on the other hand, if you drive a premium European car then the cost can rise exponentially. You can expect to pay around $1000 per axle for a luxury sedan, and upwards of $2500 per axle for a large full-size SUV.
If you drive a car with rear brake drums, this can last you a lifetime. Typically brake drums don’t need to be replaced unless in extreme cases. You can expect to pay approximately $400 per axle with labor if the brake drums need to be replaced.
As with brake pads, you should always replace the rotors in pairs. This is again to ensure that braking performance is kept equal across the axle.
Undoubtedly, if your brake rotors are massive drilled or slotted, then you can expect to pay a lot more for the disc. Of course, you can even upgrade your stock rotors to a performance rotor, but keep in mind it always comes with higher maintenance costs.
In some cases, your brake rotors might not actually be worn down at all. It might just be warped, which means that it’s possible to ‘skim’ or resurface the disc surface to reuse the rotor. Typically a resurface service costs around $15 per rotor without the labor of removing and installing the rotors. That’s much more economical if your car has expensive rotors.
While scarce, it’s worthwhile to note that in some high-end sports cars, 2-piece rotors are used in lieu of conventional rotors. These rotors have a detachable rotor surface that can be replaced separately. However, the costs can be exorbitant due to the exotic construction and specialized applications.
Brake Rotor Replacement Frequency
Again, much like brake pads, how often you should replace your brake rotors is dependent on your driving behavior. However, some would say that you should replace the brake rotors every time you carry out a brake job.
Needless to say, that’s not a definite rule, and it can rack up the costs rapidly if you toss out perfectly good rotors every time. A good rule of thumb is that special attention should be paid to the rotors for every other brake pad replacement job carried out. If there are signs of severe warping or wear, then you can proceed with a rotor replacement.
That puts it at around 70,000 to 80,000 miles. You don’t want to wear the rotor out until there’s no surface remaining for the pads to bite into.
The only way to determine for sure is to measure the rotor thickness. The specifications vary from vehicle to vehicle, and you should consult the owner’s manual for this information. Some rotors have it written right on the hub. Some have an indicator on the rotor surface.
There are also indicators and symptoms that the driver should recognize that necessitates a rotor change. For example, if you start braking and feel the brake pedal vibrating, this indicates that the rotor is rattling when the pads are pressing upon it. This can happen due to a warped rotor
When this happens, you should get your brake system checked and serviced. This means that the brake components must be cleaned thoroughly and replaced if needed.
Brake Fluid Replacement Cost
An often overlooked part of brake system maintenance is the fluid that actually makes the brakes work. In fact, when was the last time you checked the brake fluid of your vehicle, despite there being an access cap for it?
It’s not quite straightforward as just replacing the fluid though. To properly replace the brake fluid with new fluid you have to perform a thorough fluid flush. This will typically cost around $80 to $120 depending on what brake fluid and how much you use.
Typically, changing out the brake fluid is affordable, since brake fluid is readily available, generally universal, and affordable. Most of the cost is due to the labor. But no matter your vehicle, it should cost about the same.
There are a few types of brake fluid. Most cars nowadays use a range of brake fluid ranging from DOT 3 and DOT 4. Some premium European car calls for a variety of enhanced DOT 4 fluid though.
The difference between the various brake fluid lies within its rated wet and dry boiling point. Of course, the higher the rated boiling point of the fluid the more expensive the fluid is to replace.
In rare cases, DOT 5 brake fluid is used instead. DOT 5 is completely different from DOT 3 and DOT 4 fluid in that it’s based on a completely different base. Instead of glycol-ester, it’s silicone.
DOT 5 fluids are used in vehicles that are expected to sit for a while. Harley Davidson is one of the few manufacturers that use this fluid from the factory. This fluid is different in that it doesn’t absorb moisture, so it can be left for a long time without contamination.
In higher-performance cars that see extensive track use, then DOT 5.1 might even be recommended. DOT 5.1 has an even higher boiling point so it can endure extensive high-speed braking maneuvres without vaporizing.
Brake Fluid Replacement Frequency
The recommended replacement frequency of brake fluid changes wildly depending on the manufacturer. As always, you can refer to the owner’s manual for this information.
A good rule of thumb is to check your brake fluid at every general service to make sure it’s in good condition. Otherwise, replacing it every 20,000 miles or 2 years is a safe guideline. Some carmakers even recommend 40,000 miles interval.
Otherwise, you should get the brake system flushed when the brake fluid inside is contaminated. This can happen due to the hygroscopic property of glycol-based brake fluids. It means that brake fluid will absorb moisture out of the air and loses its efficiency.
You can tell that the brake fluid is dirty from the color and appearance of the fluid. When the brake fluid is new it’s generally a light-gold color, and when it’s contaminated it’ll darken to green. You might also see sediments at the fluid reservoir.
These sediments are built up from rust within the system. Moisture within brake fluid will cause rust to form, which is obviously not ideal in an enclosed system.
DIY Brake Maintenance
If you’re somewhat mechanically inclined, you should be able to carry out brake maintenance in your garage. It isn’t as involved a process as you might think. Moreover, the process involved for most cars is the same.
You’re going to need a floor jack and jack stands of course. A standard wrench set should be adequate to remove all the parts involved. Also, be prepared for a dirty garage floor since brake dust will get everywhere. A brake spreader also helps, but a handy screwdriver can do the job as well.
Replacing the Brake Pads
First of all, you have to jack your car up safely and be sure to use jack stands. Remove the wheels on your vehicle. From here, the procedures depend on what type of brakes your car uses.
Most cars have a floating caliper with two assemblies. This means that only one side of the caliper has pistons, and the caliper glides on two pins along with the caliper bracket. You only have to remove one screw holding the caliper in and pivot it up and away to access the brake pads. Then you can reset the caliper and replace the pads.
Some cars though, notably premium cars, use a fixed caliper that only has one assembly. These calipers have pistons on both sides, and only the piston moves when the brake is applied. The pads will be held in by retaining pins and tensioning clip, and some have a security pin on the back of the caliper.
You have to use a hammer and pin punch to remove the pins and replace the pads. On some cars, it might be necessary to remove the caliper to replace the pads.
Replacing the Brake Rotors
If the rotors need to be replaced, you can do it while you’re changing the pads. All you have to do is to remove the caliper bracket which retains the brake rotors. On some cars, there will be a security screw holding the rotor to the wheel hub though, which you have to remove as well.
Sometimes, the rotors won’t come loose easily. This is due to rust buildup on the wheel hub which holds the rotor in place. In this case, some WD40 and a bit of coercion with a hammer will loosen it right up.
Replacing the Brake Fluid
If you suspect that air has gotten into the brake lines, or if the brake fluid is dirty, then you can always replace it on your own with a brake bleeding tool. These tools ensure that air does not enter the fluid lines while you’re bleeding it. However, if you have a helper, you can do it without any special tools.
All you need is to ask your helper to repeatedly pump the brake pedal. Then, with pressure built up in the brake lines, depress and hold the brake pedal. Loosen the bleed valves on the caliper to allow fluid to escape.
Either way, be sure to bleed the fluid starting from the furthest caliper to the master cylinder. This is to ensure that air bubbles do not enter the brake lines of the caliper that has already been bled.
By going through the process yourself, you can save on labor cost, which constitutes most of the cost of brake system maintenance. You can also better understand the condition of your brake system this way, and even choose which parts you want to use on your own car for optimal performance.