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How car brakes work and how to maintain them

There is no doubt about it: Engines are sexy and brakes are not. Engines get all of the attention, and brakes get covered in dust.

But if you want to drive at today's highway speeds – or just want to drive safely – brakes are what it's all about.

What do brakes do?
Most people think that brakes stop the car. Wrong! It’s the friction of the tires against the road that slows down and stops a car – the brakes actually stop the wheels from turning.

Because most modern cars use disc brakes exclusively, we will ignore drum-type brakes for this article. To simplify things, we won't get into anti-lock brakes either.

Disc brakes consist of five things:
  1. Brake discs (or rotors)
  2. Calipers
  3. Brake pads 
  4. Brake lines
  5. Brake master cylinder

A disc brake has a plate-like disc (also called a rotor) attached to the wheel. This plate is squeezed by the brake pads within a caliper, much the same way that you might squeeze a spinning plate between your thumb and fingers to slow it down.

The brake pads consist of two layers: a metal backing plate and a high-friction material that does the work by pressing against the brake disc. In addition to serving as a "platform" for the friction material, the backing plate also protects the brake caliper from excessive heat buildup.

The brake caliper that wraps around part of each disc contains small pistons. These pistons push the brake pads against the disc. The pistons are pushed outward by the hydraulic action of brake fluid that comes from the brake master cylinder.

The caliper often contains two or more such pistons so that the brake pads will evenly distribute pressure against the brake disc.

Generally speaking, the more pistons in a caliper, the more evenly the pressure on the pads is spread onto the brake disc, which is why high-performance cars have multiple-piston brake calipers.

The hydraulic brake pressure is built up in the master cylinder by the action of your foot on the brake pedal. The pressure travels through the brake lines from the master cylinder to the calipers.

Most brake systems have power assistance that helps increase the action of your foot on the brake pedal, reducing the braking effort.

Heat is the enemy
Now that we know the basics of how brakes work, it would be good to know what causes problems. Heat is the No. 1 enemy of good braking.

As the brake pads press against the brake disc, an enormous amount of heat is generated. To remove this heat, especially from the heavily loaded front brakes, the disc is usually ventilated with internal vanes that pull cooling air from the center of the disc to the outer edges. By "pumping" hot air away from the discs, the brakes remain cooler and less prone to "fading."

Fading occurs when the brakes are overused and overheated. In the worst cases, the brake fluid can actually boil in the calipers, causing a loss of braking ability. When brakes fade:

  • The pedal depresses farther, closer to the floor.
  • The pedal sometimes goes all of the way to the floor without any braking action occurring, in the case of badly faded brakes.
  • The distances it takes to stop increase dramatically.
  • The brakes emit a burning odor.
  • In the most extreme cases, the brakes can actually smoke or catch on fire.
When brake fade happens, the only thing you can do is pull over and allow your brakes to cool.

Old tech, new tech
Not too long ago, brake pads were made from asbestos materials that were very effective in resisting heat but produced a hazardous dust.

Asbestos pads also produced significant amounts of gasses during hard braking. To prevent the gasses from interfering with the contact of the brake pads with the brake disc, holes were often cross-drilled into the discs of extremely high-performance vehicles.

Because newer brake pads don't use asbestos, not as much gas forms, and the latest brake disc technology uses slots to promote cooling and disrupt gas buildup. The slots are also much better at preventing stress cracking, something that drilled rotors often suffer from.

The new materials used in today's brake pads are safer for the environment, but unfortunately they can cause brake discs to warp prematurely, causing a pulsing feel in the brake pedal.

High-performance brake pads
Brake pads designed for everyday use must meet a variety of requirements, including:

  • Performance when wet
  • Low noise and squeal
  • Low dust production

For those looking for high-performance brake pads, however, companies produce specialized brake pads that resist fading even under high-temperature buildup.

The downside is that these brake pads often don't produce very good braking at the lower temperatures found in standard street driving. Using racing pads on the street is never a good idea, because they almost never reach the operating temperature for which they were designed.

Change your fluid
Brake fluid is hydroscopic, meaning it attracts moisture. This is bad for several reasons:

  • Moisture in the brake fluid reduces its boiling point, which makes it easier for the fluid to boil under heavy braking.
  • Boiling brake fluid can cause brake fade when driving down long mountain roads, especially with a heavy load or while towing a trailer.
  • Moisture also acts to corrode metal components within the braking system, possibly causing an eventual failure.

Fortunately, the solution is easy. Brake fluid should be changed on the service interval recommended by your vehicle's manufacturer, or around every two years or so.

Fresh brake fluid is something few people think about, even though it can dramatically affect braking performance.

Keep your brakes happy
Most well-maintained cars have plenty of braking capability. For those who take their cars to the track, uprated brake pads and even larger brake discs are available.

Just remember: What is good for the high-temperature environment of a speed-based event may be completely wrong for that cold, rainy drive home from work.

By making the right choices and regularly changing your brake fluid, your brakes should perform flawlessly and go almost unnoticed.

Maybe that's why engines get all of the glamor.

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