The term “car maintenance” can be dissected a thousand different ways. Underneath this umbrella identifier, all sorts of different maintenance protocols exist. You’ve heard of engine maintenance – change your oil, check those fluids, keep an eye on that dashboard for weird-looking warning lights. Then there’s tire maintenance – regular rotations, proper inflation and more. Even just cleaning out the car can be considered a form of interior maintenance.
But what about brake maintenance? Is there a way to ensure your car’s brakes not only perform well, but also last as long as possible? Glad you asked – let’s take a look at brake maintenance. Before we delve into the details, let’s quickly review the main components of your car’s brake system.
The Brake System 101
In order to maintain your brakes, it helps to know exactly which parts & components to check. No matter what car you drive, you have to pay attention to these primary players:
Master brake cylinder – this device is responsible for taking the signal from your brake pedal and transferring pressure to each wheel. There, calipers or drum assemblies move to help slow & stop your vehicle.
Brake fluid reservoir – this is where you’ll need to add brake fluid following brake changes, or if you need to cap off the fluid level.
Brake lines – basically, this is the conduit for the brake fluid. Brake lines travel to each wheel and originate near the master cylinder.
Brake rotor – a spinning disc behind your wheel, this is compressed by brake pads for the necessary stopping power.
Brake pads – there are 2 pads per rotor, and each presses against the rotor when the brake pedal is pressed.
Calipers – located around the rotor, they’re responsible for moving the brake pads, thanks to an interior piston.
Drum brake assembly – usually located on the rear wheels, the drum assembly uses brake shoes that move outward toward the inner surface of the drum. This friction enables the wheels to slow & stop.
Brake Maintenance Basics
Now that we’ve identified which parts to look out for, it’s time to talk brake maintenance 101. There are some things you can do to make your brakes work better.
Keep the brake fluid cylinder full. Whenever the level is low, you’re putting excess strain on the master brake cylinder and other components. And this ripple effect goes all the way down to your pads, rotors and drums.
Perform regular inspections. Many cars nowadays have steel or alloy wheels, which enables you to look at the calipers, pads and rotors without much hassle (it’s harder with plastic wheel covers, but you can simply pop those off to check). Check for uneven pad wear, pits or scratches on the rotor, caliper rust and other defects. A regular look will keep you ahead of the brake maintenance curve.
Pay attention to dashboard lights. Newer cars have a built-in “system status” check for brakes. If your brakes aren’t functioning properly, you may see a “BRAKE” light on your dashboard (for other cars, this may indicated your emergency brake is on). The light’s on for a reason (or many reasons), so perform a brake check soon afterwards.
Check the underbelly. Your car’s underside takes the brunt of everything – ice, tar, pebbles, salt and other materials. And your brakes lines take a beating in the process. Although most cars are engineered to protect those brake lines, keep tabs on rust, holes and other signs of wear – especially if your brake fluid reservoir is low.
Get on a schedule. The good news: your auto owner’s manual already has the blueprint in place for proper brake maintenance. The vast majority of car owners don’t follow their particular car’s maintenance suggestions – heck, most don’t even bother to read the owner’s manual in the first place. If you can’t be bothered to read yours, or you want to start one on your own, check your brakes every 3rd oil change, or every 10,000 miles. All effective maintenance starts and ends with a clockwork-like, never-cut-corners mentality.
Bad Driving Habits – The Silent Killer (or Lifespan-Reducer, Anyway) of Brakes
Fluid checks, fairly regular pad inspections, and other mechanical examinations – they’re all great, and they’re all useful in some way, but they’re also helpless against the continuous onslaught of bad driving habits. You see, when it comes to getting the most out of your brakes, it pays to drive like a little old lady.
“Wait,” you’re probably saying to yourself. “I have to drive like my 87-year old Aunt Edna?” Well, sort of. Some explanation is in order.
Whenever you stop suddenly or too frequently, your brake pads, rotors and drum brakes (if you have them), lose just a little bit more material than a “normal” stop. This material – particularly the brake pads – consists of ceramic fibers, resin, metal shavings and other elements. Simply put, you’re using more brake pad per stop when you’re driving too fast and stop too abruptly.
Bonus tip: if you drive a lot in town, try to minimize the number of stops. Every time you stop, you’re impacting the brake system. If you can plan a route that’s the same distance as your normal trip with (for example) 5 less stops, it may seem insignificant. But if it’s a common route (say, driving the kids to school 200+ times per year), you might save hundreds or thousands of stops annually. Fewer stops equates to longer – and better – brake performance.
Drive smart for superior brake maintenance – it works!
Know Your Environment
Consider this a corollary of the “bad driving habits” factor. Remember, driving is all about what you can control, and a few things you can’t. Not jamming the brake before that looming stop sign up ahead? Totally in your control. Regularly checking the brake fluid? Again, chalk one up for “I got this.” But there are some external factors that you really can’t avoid, but should still consider in the quest for optimal brake maintenance, and hence flawless brake performance.
In this case, we mean road conditions, debris, weather and other elements you can’t control, but maybe wish you could. If you drive in harsh conditions (gravel roads, pothole-plagued highways, brutal winter climates, etc.), make sure your brakes are regularly inspected. Small pebbles, ice & salt accumulation and other things can shorten your brake system’s life considerably. Thus, you should do brake maintenance on double-time.
As this article illustrates, it’s not that difficult to practice good brake maintenance. Regular checkups, better driving habits (Aunt Edna knows more than you think) and a better awareness of your driving conditions (the stuff you can’t control) will put you on the road to superior brake performance – get started today!