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Troubleshooting Brakes: When to Call the Mechanic

Brade pads for car

You may regularly work on your car, handling a variety of tasks yourself. The more you’re able to do on your own, the stronger your skills gets. When it comes to troubleshooting brakes, there may be a line you’re just not willing to cross. We’ll look at the simple jobs you can handle on your own as well as those where calling upon a mechanic may be your best option.

Troubleshooting Brakes: Do-it-Yourself

1. Replace the brake pads or shoes. What do you need to change the brake pads or brake shoes yourself? Typically, you’ll pay from $50 to $100 per set of four brake pads or shoes, depending on your make and model. Most commonly this job requires the following tools: gloves, safety goggles, jack stands, lug wrench, wrenches, sockets, and a C-clamp (or brake caliper tool). By following the instructions in your model-specific service manual, this job can be completed in about an hour. Purchase a can of brake fluid while you’re at it just in case you need to top off the reservoir after you are done.

Rear drum brake on my Mazda 808. All finished replacing the brake cylinder just need to bleed brakes now.2. Change the brake calipers. Since you’re already changing the brake pads, there’s a good chance the calipers may need replacement, too. Signs of binding, rust and uneven brake pad wear provide the best evidence for a swap out. You’ll need to add a socket set, wrenches, brake line wrench, a drop light, needle nose pliers, screwdrivers and a torque wrench for a typical job. You will also need to bleed the brakes after you are done. Whether you need to replace the front or rear calipers, you should always replace them in pairs. In any case, brake calipers can cost from $75 to $150 or more each, with labor costs topping $300.

3. Change the wheel cylinders. Similar to the idea of “while you are here” if you  are changing drum brake shoes you may as well check on the wheel cylinders. If you see any fluid leaks or dampness near either end of the wheel cylinder it is time for replacement. Just like brake calipers you should always replace wheel cylinders in pairs. You will need a socket set, wrenches, brake line wrench, work light, drum brake spring tool, needle nose pliers, screwdrivers and a torque wrench. It is a good idea to use your smart phone  to take a picture of the drum brake system before you take anything apart. That way you can be sure to put back the springs and adjuster exactly as they were before.

4. Bleed the brakes. Following any work on these parts, your car should brake firm to the touch. Trouble becomes apparent when the brakes feel soft to the touch and require extra pressure to make the car stop. Once you have ruled out the master cylinder isn’t the culprit, then bleeding the brake lines is necessary. Brake fluid is hydraulically pushed through tubes and drives each piston in a brake caliper. For the most common way to bleed the brakes you’ll need two people to get the work done — one person to press the brake pedal and another individual to open each bleeder valve to release air. Use a box wrench suitably sized for the bleeder bolt, loosening it a bit. Remove the old brake fluid with a turkey baster or a syringe. While bleeding the system, have your helper add fresh fluid. You can also try swapping out your standard brake bleeder screws with special bleeder screws that have a special check-valve inside. The check valve allows for fluid to go out during brake bleeding, but not allow air to go back in. The process is similar to the two person job, but you don’t need someone to open and close the bleeder screw each time. Finally there are various power brake bleeder tools that use air pressure or vacuum to push or pull brake fluid through the system to remove air bubbles.

5. Change brake hoses. There are several reinforced rubber hoses that connect the main brake hard lines to the individual wheels. These rubber hoses are necessary to allow for the movement of the suspension. Over time these hoses can become damaged by road debris, swollen, or just plain leak at the connections. Replacement typically requires a brake line wrench, standard wrenches, and plenty of brake fluid. Since you will be opening the brake hydraulic system for this job, it will require bleeding the brakes afterwards.

When to Call the Mechanic

Your personal comfort level for working on cars will determine when a mechanic should be called upon to handle brake problems. Replacing brake pads, changing calipers and bleeding brakes are tasks you can do yourself or with a helper on hand.

One brake-related job beyond the ability of some DIYers is replacing the master cylinder, which regulates brake pressure throughout the entire system. Fortunately, master cylinders rarely fail, but when they do, you may find the job is best left in the capable hands of your local NAPA AutoCare Center. Another job that might be best left to the experts is the anti-lock brake system (ABS) pump. If the ABS pump fails you will no longer have anti-lock brake function. On many cars this unit is plumbed into the brake system and require specials steps to successfully purge it of air after replacement. Some vehicles even have a special ABS bleed diagnostic sequence that requires special diagnostic equipment to operate. This is one best left to the shops.

The bottom line is that it is perfectly okay to take your vehicle to the mechanic for brake work. Some jobs are just more involved  or more difficult than others. A well equipped shop has all the specialty tools to make the process streamlined and thorough. For example very few DIYers have the ability to check brake rotor runout, but it is a common step in the brake rotor replacement process. It is up to you to decide where your technical and comfort level sits.

Check out all the brake system products available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on troubleshooting brakes, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Matthew C. Keegan View All

Matt Keegan has maintained his love for cars ever since his father taught him kicking tires can be one way to uncover a problem with a vehicle’s suspension system. He since moved on to learn a few things about coefficient of drag, G-forces, toe-heel shifting, and how to work the crazy infotainment system in some random weekly driver. Matt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a contributor to various print and online media sources.

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