Care, Maintenance & Troubleshooting

Steves Auto Clinic is a leader in the field of automotive repair and vehicle servicing. We employ qualified mechanics (technicians) who stand willing and ready at our Service Centres countrywide to assist you with any brakes related issues.

At Steves Auto Clinic, we care about you and your vehicle, and we feel that it is just fair to keep our readers informed about the various components in their vehicles, components that are essential for the smooth and safe functioning of their vehicles and components that need a fair share of maintenance for this same reason. We acknowledge the fact that not everybody is as informed as the next person is, and experience taught us that very few people know how to care for most of these components or even how to troubleshoot potential problems with them in advance. As a service centre that cares about our customers, we want to rectify this. Fear of the unknown may cause anxiety during daily road trips that is why we will highlight some aspects related specifically to one of these components today, namely the brakes but also the entire braking system.

We want to make it clear that this article does not serve the purpose of instilling unnecessary and unfounded doubt under our readers regarding the topic at hand; this article serves the primary purpose of informing our readers about care, maintenance and troubleshooting of the braking system. As was said, we want to remove any anxiety caused by the unknown. In doing so, SAC touches on the following during this discussion:

What are brakes and how do they function?
Why and how should you take care of your vehicle’s brakes?
Know the signs of faulty brakes.

Without any further ado, let us jump right into this discussion.

What are brakes and how do they function?

The primary purpose of your vehicle’s engine is to create power to turn the wheels; the wheels need to be steered into different directions, which is why you have a steering system. With motion and the ability to steer your vehicle, you also need the ability to stop at some point in time and that is why the braking system is so important. The ONLY function of the brakes are to enable you to stop your vehicle; without this function or the proper working of this function you can be sure to find yourself in deep trouble.

The braking system in your vehicle may either make use of the drum system or the disc (rotor) system. In the drum system, brake shoes are used and in the disc system, brake pads are used. Each of these (shoes/pads) offer its own benefits and drawbacks. Let us have a quick look at these.

Brake shoes

Made from steel that have a curved shape and has a coat of friction material on the one side, called the brake lining. Asbestos was the most commonly used material, but nowadays the lining is made of synthetic aramid. Brake shoes are cheap but it generates a lot more heat during the friction process than in the case of the new brake pad system.

Brake Shoes

Brake pads

The most commonly used nowadays; it does not generate lots of heat, is more expensive than brake shoes but it last longer, and is more efficient. The disc brake system provides better braking performance than drum brakes because they stay much cooler (dissipate heat much better) under extreme use.

When it comes to buying brake pads for your disc brake system, you have more choices than you may initially have thought to have. Brake pads consist of a flat piece of steel covered with a thick piece of friction material applied to a single side. The friction material can consist of one of the following:

Brake Pads

Metal shavings being held together by resin; these are the cheapest and most commonly used brake pads but they also cause the most wear and tear on the rotors of the vehicle.

Organic materials

Environmentally friendly brake pads, surely the quietest among the lot but also the quickest to wear out.


These are the most expensive brake pads, very lightweight yet very durable.

As a valued SAC Customer you should now have a better understanding of what the brakes are. We still have to look at how they function by asking what happens “behind the scenes” when I push down on the brake pedal? To describe the working of the brake system, it may be useful to supplement the discussion with the following image:

How Brakes Work

The underlying principle in either the drum or the disc system is the same. As soon as you exert downward pressure on the brake pedal, the master cylinder (hydraulic system – consisting of a liquid called brake fluid) will multiply this pressure. This in turn will cause the callipers (in the case of the disk system) to push the brake pads against the rotor, or in the case of the drum system, to push the brake shoes against the drum attached to the hub of the wheel. In both of these cases, this frictional resistance then slows the vehicle down or stops it.

We hope that this would give you a better understanding of the entire brake system, let us therefore move on to the next part of our discussion.

Image Source:

Why and how should you take care of your vehicle’s brakes?

The single most important reason when answering the “why” question will be because of human safety. Once your vehicle is in motion, there is nothing more important than having the ability to stop that vehicle in a quick and efficient manner when required. Having an insufficiently working braking system will hamper this process, so you have to take care of your braking system as a whole. Remember, a well-maintained vehicle is safer, reliable and last longer than a vehicle that is not.

An overview of the working of the braking system, should give you an idea of all the wear and tear that takes place during each application of the brakes. It is therefore not surprising that you should replace both the pads, the shoes as well as the rotors every few years. It is true that rotors and callipers can last for a long time, considering that you maintain them regularly. Callipers nonetheless have two archenemies: corrosion and heat. If you fail to look after your vehicle’s callipers, corrosion may set in and leaking may accompany this. This is not good for your braking system so please take note of this, and phone a trusted SAC dealership closest to you.

Brake pads/shoes do not last as long as rotors and callipers because they wear down much faster. One should always ensure that they do not wear down completely because this will only damage your rotors much faster. One damaged part in any system may seriously damage another healthy part, especially when metal starts to grind on another piece of metal, and we reiterated the importance of a well-functioning brake system in the beginning, because as the driver of the vehicle your life depends on this.

Looking after these components, maintaining and replacing them is therefore essential. One aspect should however be kept in mind, namely that the replacing of brakes will differ from owner to owner, depending on you driving style and the conditions under which you drive. The daily amount of abuse your vehicle’s brakes take may vary greatly under these conditions. The brake shoes/pads in a vehicle of someone who drives in a stop-go manner, will take more beating than someone who drives in a manner that do not involve this kind of driving.

To answer the “how” part of the question, you may consider the following guidelines when it comes to brake-system care.

• Have your brake pads/shoes checked at least once per year. It is also a good time to inspect the brake material thickness (lining) when you have your tires rotated. Worn out brake pads/shoes will cause the braking distance to increase and may cause a metal to metal grinding on the rotor surfaces.
• Have your brake fluid and brake line checked regularly and if the colour of the fluid is dark, have it replaced.
• When driving, keep your following distance to allow you to slow down (rather than braking) whenever a vehicle in front of you apply its brakes.
• Your sense are one of the greatest tools you have to care for your brakes. Listen for any unusual noises; be tuned into strange and abnormal feelings when braking. When any of these rear its head, have your brakes inspected.
• Human life is worth more than a set of brake pads that will not last long. Rather invest in more expensive but more reliable, durable and safe brake pads.
• Braking from high speeds shortens the lifespan of a pair of brake shoes/pads considerably, best to avoid this practice as to ensure that long term use of the cars brake system is certain.

If you consider taking some of these steps to heart, then you will most certainly prolong the lifespan of your braking system.

Know the signs of faulty brakes.

Some might feel that brakes are overrated, that is until you need them! In a brake system it is usually the brake pads, rotors, brake shoes, and brake fluid that require the most frequent replacement. Problems with the master cylinder, wheel cylinders, brake line, proportioning valve and brake booster are less common. Let us look at the most commonly known symptoms of brake system faults.

Grinding and/or shrieking sound

A high-pitched and shrieking sound from the braking system area is a good indication that something is wrong. The cause of this sound may be due to brake pads that are wearing out. A small sheet of metal (called an indicator) is included in many (but not all) brake pads. The purpose of this indicator is to let you know that it is time to replace the pads. The sound may also be because of the contact between the rotor disc and the calliper; there may even be a solid object caught between the rotor and calliper. It can also be caused by low quality or damaged brake pads, or even if you fail to drive your vehicle often enough.
Do not wait for either of these sounds to rear its head, but when it does do not ignore them.

Soft brakes

Whenever you realise that it takes you longer than usual to come to a stop, when your brake pedal feels squishy and you have to pump your brakes in order to stop, or when the brake pedal simply sinks to the floor with little or no resistance, then that should be reason for concern. A leak in the braking system may most likely be the culprit and the fault usually lies with the master cylinder leaking internally or externally. Have this verified and rectified by contacting your nearest SAC Service Centre today.

Pushing down harder on the brake pedal

It is highly likely that there is a bad booster, booster hose or defective check valve whenever you find that you have to apply more force to press down the brake pedal. Have a qualified SAC mechanic inspect your vehicle’s brakes if you find that this is the case.

Steering wheel shakes/wiggles when braking

A warped rotor, irregularities on your rotors caused by excessive heat, or pad impressions, can be the reason for a steering wheel that shakes/wiggles when you apply your vehicle’s brakes, especially when at high speeds. Brake rotors are big discs that sit inside of the wheels. When you step on the brake pedal, the brake pads hug the rotors, slowing them and your vehicle down. It is normal for the rotor surface to get slight variations, especially when you do not drive it frequently enough. What happens is moisture from rain or high humidity can cause the rotors of infrequently driven vehicles to rust. The only part that do not rust is the patch where the rotor surface and the pad connect with each other. This is referred to as an uneven patch of rotor surface, a pad impression. Such an impression will cause the brakes to pulsate. During brake servicing, the face of the rotor is often smoothed and evened out (provided there is enough surface present for this purpose) to correct these flaws. Most of the time it is better to replaced it.

Vehicle pulls to one side

According to Eddie Carrara, an Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certified master technician , this braking problem can be caused (in a brake-system related sense) by a frozen calliper that is stuck in its bore. What happens is that the dust boot that protects the piston from the elements can tear, when this happens water and debris can penetrate the metal in the calliper and cause it to rust and corrode. A stuck piston cannot push the fluid pressure back into the bore and this will result in an uneven pressure on the pads, which will then make the vehicle to pull to one side. To fix this problem you may consider replacing the calliper. A frozen calliper may not be the sole culprit if your vehicle acts in this way. A brake calliper houses the brake pads and the pistons; it is possible that a warped or bent piston cannot move freely anymore, causing the calliper to bind and limiting the amount of pressure to the pads. The calliper can also seeze up if the calliper slide pins lose lubrication due to a lack of proper maintenance. If you find your vehicle pulling to one side when applying your brakes, then address this issue please.

Brake pedal pulsates up and down when applying brakes

When this happens, the problem usually lies with warped rotors or rotors that lost their “trueness”, so to speak. Rotors age and go through the heating and cooling process countless times, so it is inevitable that they will eventually lose their original shape (“trueness”). If you are hard on your brakes, you will probably run into this problem many times during the life of your vehicle. This problem can be fixed by resurfacing the rotors, but only if they are still thick enough. SAC’s advice would be to have them replaced.

Whole vehicle shakes when brakes are applied

If your entire vehicle shakes when you apply your brakes, it could be your rear brakes. As a rule of thumb, shaking caused by a problem in the front end of the vehicle will manifest itself in the steering wheel, where you will feel it clearly. A problem with your vehicle’s rear brakes may however cause a shaking that will seem to affect the entire vehicle. If this happens, have it checked at your nearest SAC Service Centre.

Brake light on

Do not ignore a red or yellow brake indicator on your dashboard that lights up. Make sure that the parking brake is disengaged and fully released. An engaged parking brake can cause the brake light to go on. If the light is still on, acquaint yourself with the message behind the warning sign and address it. It is never safe to drive your vehicle while the brake light (or any other warning light, for that matter) is illuminated. All our branches are equipped with the right tools to find the problem behind burning engine lights.

Burning smell/smoke while driving

A sharp, chemical odour from the brake area is a sign of overheated brakes or even clutch. Make sure the vehicle’s parking brake disengaged and allow the brakes to cool. If there is smoke coming from a wheel, it may be a stuck brake calliper or something is leaking onto the brakes. If axle seals are leaking onto the brakes, it will ruin the brake pads and rotors. Have it fixed as soon as possible.

Brake stays on

It may feel as if the brakes stay engaged after having applied the brakes. If the rotors and wheels (all of them) get hot then the cause of this problem may be either the master cylinder, a faulty brake hose or a faulty ABS (Anti-lock Brake System). If only one wheel shows this symptom, then probably a brake calliper is stuck. Whichever the case may be, this is something that you should not take lightly.

Brake fluid leakage

You should immediately address any leakage in the braking system, irrespective of severity and location. Leakages will render the braking system ineffective, which may have serious repercussions for your entire vehicle.

We have drawn your attention to the fact that brake parts have a life span and – because of this – they need to receive a regular service and at times even replacement if you want them to work properly. You should also have a better understanding of the symptoms brought about by a faulty brake system. Address such faulty issues; do not procrastinate on them. Be on the safe side and maintain your brakes, give them the necessary love and care, and schedule a yearly brake inspection. After all, the safety of your life and that of others depend heavily on the smooth functioning of your vehicle’s braking system.