If you can't "stop," you shouldn't "go." Here's how to check your brakes.

Know Your Car: How to Check Your Brakes

As complicated as modern vehicles may be, there are still a number of basic things that you can do to make sure that your ride is running properly, including checking and adjusting fluids. In addition to knowing how to check your brakes in the garage, you should also be able to ensure that your car stops properly.

Performing a Systems Check

  • Brake Fluid ReservoirBrake fluid level: With your car on a level surface, the brake fluid level should fall between the lines marked “min” and “max.” If you need to add brake fluid, only use the recommended fluid from a sealed container and follow the correct procedure, all of which can be found in your owner’s manual.
  • Brake fluid condition: Brake fluid breaks down over time as it absorbs water and is subjected to heat. This can lead to fluid oxidation, which can wear out the hydraulic system. New brake fluid is a golden color, which you can see through a plastic reservoir or if you pull the cap off a metal reservoir. If it’s black, it’s time for replacement.
  • Brake warning light: The brake warning light may come on for a variety of reasons, including activation of the parking brake, low brake fluid level, unbalanced hydraulic fluid flow, low brake pad friction material thickness or some other fault in the system. Under no circumstances should you ignore the brake warning light.

Performing an Operational Check

Pay attention to what happens when you step on the brake pedal when you’re driving, as this can indicate the overall health of your brake. The key to keeping on top of brake maintenance is being observant as to how your brakes feel when you’re using them. Here are a few things to watch out for when you are using your brakes:

  • A completely destroyed brake rotor.Abnormal noises: You should hear almost nothing when slowing down and coming to a stop. When you depress the brake pedal, any squealing, scraping or rubbing noises that result are a sure sign that there is something wrong with your brakes. Clicking or clunking sounds could be indicative of abnormally loose brake or suspension parts. Abnormal noises could be caused by something as simple as a stone tossed up into the brakes or as serious as a loose bolt or broken pad.
  • Pulling left or right: If the vehicle pulls to one side when you depress the brake pedal, you may have a hydraulic or mechanical problem on your hands. For instance, if the vehicle pulls to the right on braking, one of the driver-side brakes could be at fault, perhaps due to air in the system or a seized brake caliper slider or piston. Uneven brake pad wear, which can be diagnosed by comparing inboard and outboard or left and right pads, may also indicate faulty breaks.
  • Pedal feel: When you step on the brake pedal, it should feel progressively firmer the harder you step on it. If you step on the pedal and it feels light through part of its travel with instances of sudden heaviness, there may be air in the system or a mechanical fault, such as a seized caliper slider. For cars with rear drum brakes, it may be time for a rear brake adjustment.

Since brakes are one of the most important safety systems, knowing how to check your brakes can go a long way toward keeping you safe as well as improving the longevity of your car.

For more information on brakes fluid, brake pads, calipers and rotors, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store or NAPA AutoCare Center.

Image courtesy of Flickr

about author

Benjamin Jerew

Ben has been taking things apart since he was 5, and putting them back together again since he was 8. After dabbling in DIY repairs at home and on the farm, he found his calling in the CGCC Automobile Repair program. After he held his ASE CMAT for 10 years, Ben decided he needed a change. Now, he writes on automotive topics across the web and around the world, including new automotive technology, transportation legislation, emissions, fuel economy and auto repair.

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