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How to know when to replace your brakes, and what is involved.

The following information can help you make informed decisions that can protect your pocketbook and save lives.

This article applies to front and rear disc hydraulic brakes and , though some items may also apply to rear drum brakes.

When it comes to safety brakes rank higher then anything. If your brakes fail you WILL have an accident and its severity will directly correlate to how fast you are driving when they fail and of course how fast everyone else is driving around you. Having your brakes fail is like having the steering wheel fall off. A very bad feeling.

Things to watch for:

1. Shuddering or shaking when you apply the brakes. Sometimes a shaking that gets real bad shortly after starting to drive can also be linked to brakes(hint: brakes that are binding will usually be hot)

2. Pulling to one side when the brakes are applied. Also may pull to the other side when you take your foot off the brake.

3. Squealing or grinding sound when brakes are applied.

4. Having to push hard on the brakes to stop, or needing to pump the brakes to stop. Usually goes along with soft mushy pedal.

Things you will need(assuming pad replacement):

Tools: (possibly specific to your vehicle For instance my chevy Van needs a huge allen wrench.)
Bleeder kit, and large C-clamp, Seal driver(or a block of wood if you are real talented), Manual for your vehicle.
New seals, Brake fluid, wheel bearing grease, New brake pads.


General brake repair process:

The interesting thing about front disc brakes is that the repair process is so simple that many people with basic tools and general fixit inclination can do it.

1. Start with an inspection. Jack the vehicle up safely and remove the front wheels. You should now be able to see the condition of the rotor(disc) and the thickness of the remaining pads. If everything looks good but you still have pulling to one side or the other the most common problem is the caliper seizing up. If you even begin to suspect this, replace both calipers. Suggest you do research on quality calipers. If you have some extra cash and want this to be a premium quality job I suggest "stainless steel brakes".

2. Remove the calipers to be able to assess the true condition of the pads and the rear side of the rotors. Replace calipers if necessary.

3. Remove the rotors. Take the rotors to a machine shop and have them turned. THIS IS IMPORTANT! If you don't have the rotors turned then the new pads will only contact a small portion of the rotor this will cause a hot spot on the rotor that could very well ruin it and will affect your braking. That hot spot can also lead to glazing which is basically a tempered hard spot on the rotor that won't wear and doesn't grip the same as the rest of the rotor. In a true repair emergency if you can't get the rotors turned at least try to sand the shine off the surface with 200 grit or so sandpaper. Do it right if at all possible and the brake job will perform well and last a long time. It only cost 10 to 20 bucks per rotor. If you have to replace the rotors due to excess wear, it is best to replace both at the same time though this will be spendy. Rotors for my Van cost $70.00 apiece

4. Clean the newly turned rotors very well to remove all traces of metal shavings and grease. Now is a good time to inspect wheel bearings for pits and wear. replace if necessary. Replacing wheel bearing races can be a pain for the novice. Best to let the machine shop replace them for you if they need it.

5. Grease and insert the rear bearing. Make sure grease is squished in and around all bearings. If your fingers don't get greasy you aren't doing it right. Tap the seal in with the seal driver or block of wood. Make sure it goes in evenly and is flush with the edge of the rotor. These seals fit tight and don't like to go in usually. A seal driver with a long handle and a heavy hammer works best. Grease the contact area of the seal lightly.

6. Make sure the spindle is clean and install the rotor. Check with the book on your vehicle for how tight the spindle nut should be. Usually you tighten it up a bit then loosen it just enough to get the lock pin back in. It should turn freely when you are done. Again each vehicle manufacture has this step slightly different so double check with them.

7. Compress the caliper piston with the c-clamp. You may have to remove some brake fluid from the reservoir to do this properly. Be very careful as brake fluid is nasty stuff and can ruin your paint job. I like to use an old bulb style battery electrolyte tester.

8. Insert new pads in your calipers. Some pads are made to go on the piston side of the caliper ONLY. Make sure to get the clips and such installed same as the old ones. If you suspect the old ones were done wrong then double-check your manual for your car.

8.5 If you put in new calipers, now is the time to bleed the brakes. There will be air in the lines and that's bad, it must be removed. Having a helper is really nice for this. My daughter is 10 and she does a great job. The short version of brake bleeding goes like this. Loosen the bleeder valve near the top of the caliper. Have your helper push the brake pedal to the floor and hold it there. Then you tighten the bleeder valve and have your helper let up on the pedal.(this keeps air from being sucked back in the line.) Keep doing this till you get two or three good pushes with no air bubbles. Make sure the bleeder valve is tight and then do the next one. I like to put a rubber hose over the top of the bleeder and run the other end into a container. This keeps brake fluid from flying all over the place.

9. Install the calipers reverse of removal.

10. Re install the wheels. Torque the bolts to the manufacture specs. 90 foot pounds for my half ton chevy van.

11. Check your fluid levels, brake and while you are at it check your other fluid levels like antifreeze and engine oil.

Take it for a test drive. Slowly at first pumping the brakes to make sure they are holding then faster to check for pulling to one side. If you replaced the calipers and it feels mushy or you need to pump the brakes to get  a solid feel then you still have air in the line. go through the bleeding process again.


Please send comments suggestions and feedback on the contact us page.

This article was written by, B. Fullerton



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