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Don’t mess with screeching brakes

April 16, 2013 Car Care

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Driving around with brakes that are screeching or grinding can be more than just irritating — it’s a big red flag to get your brakes checked out immediately.

The good news is the screeching is actually part of a built-in system with the brake pads — called a wear indicator — that is designed to alert people their brake pads are running thin and may need to be replaced. So by taking quick action when the screeching starts, you may avoid a costly fix.

“It’s hard to say what the most important thing on your car is, but safety wise, brakes are definitely one of the most important things,” said Duke Cardwell, an auto technician with the Car Care Center of Sacramento, Calif. “You need to take your car in if you hear a sound.”

Having your vehicle’s brakes looked at by a professional at the first sign of trouble will not only bring safety to you and your family, it could save you hundreds of dollars in the long run. Brakes get progressively worse the longer you wait to repair them, so contact an auto technician when you first hear the noise.

Rod Tate, with Colony One Auto Center in Stafford, Texas, said brakes should be checked about every 10,000 miles to see if they’re working properly.

“By ignoring the squealing brakes or the brake light, you can destroy the brake rotors and possibly the calipers, easily adding hundreds of dollars to a brake job,” Tate said. “Keep in mind that just because your car stops when you’re pushing the brake pedal doesn’t mean everything is OK. You have to pay attention to the sound and feel of your brakes. A little common sense will go a long way.”

Often times, your brakes only need new pads, which can cost between $100 and $300 to replace. If the brake pads go out, damage can be caused to your rotors or calipers, leading to an expensive replacement of up to $1,000 or more. The pads are connected to the calipers, which clamp down on the rotor to make the tires stop.

Cardwell said, while the squealing sound often comes from your brake pads, a grinding noise means something is rubbing against the rotors. Pulsations or vibrations when you apply the brake pedal also indicate there is a problem with your rotors.

“Generally, the first thing people will need are their brake pads replaced,” Cardwell said. “You’ll hear that high-pitch squeal noise warning you the brake pads are about 2 or 3 percent from metal to metal contact with the rotors,” Cardwell said. “It’s a great reminder not to ignore it when you hear that high-pitch squeal.”

Tate said a lack of brake fluid maintenance can also be an issue.

“Brake fluid should be flushed out of the system and replaced about every 30,000 miles because it accumulates moisture and can boil at a lower temperature and also damage the internal parts of your brakes’ hydraulic system,” Tate said.

Brake fluid should be checked frequently for condensation, which can be harmful to the braking system. Pads, meanwhile, should be replaced every 25,000 miles, but that varies depending on whether you do the bulk of your driving on city roads or on the highway. Stop-and-go driving likely will mean quicker replacement.

People can also increase the longevity of their brakes by not putting so much pressure on the petal when they brake. Two-footed drivers can also wear down brakes.

“The No. 1 thing I see all the time in automatic transmission cars is people driving with two feet,” Cardwell said. “Two-foot drivers rest their foot on the brake pedal. Sometimes they don’t think they’re touching it, but just applying one percent of pressure can cause significant damage to your brakes and brake pads.”

It’s important to have your brakes looked at by a trusted auto technician. Tate said one of the biggest gimmicks he’s seen is advertisements for low-cost brake pads, only to be told by the technician you also need new rotors, calipers and cylinders.

Angie Hicks is the founder of Angie’s List, a trusted resource for local consumer reviews on everything from home improvement to automotive repair.

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