Ask The NAPA Experts: How to Repair Parking Brakes
Whether you call it a parking brake, emergency brake, emergency parking brake or E-brake, the idea is still the same: a secondary means of preventing your car from moving (or rolling) forward or even backwards. A parking brake that doesn’t hold your vehicle in place is rather useless. Luckily, most parking brake systems are designed to get repaired and adjusted. Let’s take a look at some of the common parking brake problems and what our NAPA experts say you can do to fix them.
What Is a Parking Brake?
If you drive a car, truck or SUV with an automatic transmission, it is probably rare that you engage the parking brake because the “PARK” position on your gear shifter works pretty well on its own. But, if you drive something with a stick shift transmission, you are likely well versed on using the parking brake, or worse, you know all too well what happens when you don’t put on the E-brake (or it slips out of position). The parking brake is a secondary braking system designed for lighter duty braking, typically to hold the vehicle in place once it stops moving. Most parking brake designs are incorporated into the primary braking system.
How to Fix Parking Brake Problems
There isn’t one way to fix parking brake problems as there are possibly several different issues. There are also several different parking brake designs. Our NAPA experts breakdown the most common parking brake problem solutions.
Rock the Vehicle
No, this doesn’t involve turning up the radio volume. If your parking brake is stuck on, try rocking the vehicle forward and backward by switching between first gear and reverse. This is easier with an automatic transmission, but you can also do this on a stick shift with some coordination.
Sometimes the rocking action will break free a stuck parking brake shoe or pad. If the vehicle was parked for a long time (especially in humid environments), it is possible for the brake pad or shoe to rust to the rotor or drum. Rocking helps everything break free again. Once things are moving again, make sure to inspect the parking brake assembly for repairs so that it doesn’t happen later.
Adjust the Parking Brake Cable
As time passes, the parking brake cable can stretch and other components can wear down. It is important to have the correct parking brake cable tension so that the effort you put into pulling the parking brake lever or pedal makes it all the way to the parking brake mechanism. Depending on the vehicle design, you may find the parking brake cable adjuster at the lever or pedal, or it may even reside underneath the vehicle. Regardless of the design, you need to refer to a repair manual to find the exact adjustment procedure.
Typically, the parking brake cable adjuster is tightened until it allows for the parking brake to release enough to clear the friction surface. That way, when the cable is under tension, the parking brake is able to apply enough pressure. Adjusting the parking brake cable may also require adjusting the parking brake mechanism itself, so prepare to remove the rear wheels if necessary.
When used correctly, it takes years of use to wear out a set of parking brake shoes. But, if you’ve accidentally driven with the parking brake “on”, then you might have put years of wear on the parking brake shoes, depending on how far you drove. The parking brake shoes will have a minimum thickness specified in the repair manual. If the pads are too thin, the parking brake system won’t be able to hold the vehicle securely. Refer to a repair manual to guide you through the parking brake shoe replacement process for your exact vehicle.
If your vehicle has rear drum brakes, then it likely uses those same brake shoes as the parking brake. But, if you have rear disc brakes, you also have a hidden set of drum brakes that work as the parking brake. In these cases, the rear brake rotor does double duty as both the brake rotor disc (for primary braking) and the brake drum (for the parking brake). The parking brake is tucked behind the rotor, and it is usually smaller than a normal drum brake because it is only for holding the wheel from rolling.
Check the Rear Brake Calipers
Disc brake parking brakes have existed for decades. They are simple mechanisms that use the rear disc brake caliper to hold the brake rotor in place. When the parking brake is used, a cable pulls on a lever attached to the disc brake caliper piston, which is threaded like a screw. The piston rotates and is forced out of its bore, applying pressure to the brake rotor.
Whenever you replace the rear brake pads, you are also changing the rear parking brake pads. These types of parking brakes are also easy to adjust by simply working the parking brake handle or pedal several times. This spins the brake caliper piston closer to the brake rotor. The only downside to this system is that a special disc brake caliper tool is needed, which spins and compresses the brake caliper piston when it is time for new brake pads.
Check the Parking Brake Fuse
Many modern vehicles come equipped with an EPB (electronic parking brake) system. An EPB equipped vehicle has small electric motors attached to the rear brake caliper, which mechanically push the brake pads against the rotor to set the parking brake. Unlike your normal brakes, which use hydraulic pressure to squeeze them, an EPB uses electricity. Sometimes you can trace an electric parking brake problem to a blown fuse.
Open your owner’s manual and locate the fuse box. Hopefully, the fuse is labeled “EPB,” but that is not an industry standard. You may need to reference a vehicle specific repair manual to locate the corresponding fuse that powers the parking brake motors. Once you locate the fuse, test to verify if it needs replaced.
If parking brake repair isn’t something you feel like tackling yourself or if you just don’t have the time, you can always visit your local NAPA Auto Care center. Our team of ASE-certified technicians have the expertise and the training to diagnose your parking brake issues and put your sloped parking spot anxieties at ease. As a bonus, your repair is covered by our free 24-Month/24,000-Mile Peace of Mind Warranty (parts and labor on qualifying repairs and services), which spans across the entire nationwide NAPA Network, including 17,000+ NAPA Auto Care center locations.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
With an automotive writing career spanning over two decades, Brian has a passion for sharing the automotive lifestyle. An avid DIYer he can usually be found working on one of his many project cars. His current collection includes a 1969 Olds Delta 88 convertible, BMW E46 sedan, and a slant-6 powered 1975 Plymouth Duster.