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Brake Servicing 101—Advice on Making Sure it Gets Done Right

In recent focus groups, people who had paid anywhere from $50 up to $1500 for brake repairs on their cars were interviewed about their level of satisfaction. Regardless of cost, none had complaints. 

Why? Because their brakes worked afterwards. But there's more to it.

Here are some basics about brake servicing and what to look for in a reputable shop, so you’re treated fairly—and so the work gets done right the first time.

Brake service: no hard and fast rules on how often

It’s hard to pin down the proper interval between brake service. But there are some basic tests:

  1. Don't take chances with brake performance. You should never wait to get a brake check if you think something isn’t right with your brake system.
  2. Understand that you can’t easily have a look yourself, because inspecting brakes means putting the vehicle on a lift, removing the wheel, and sometimes taking apart the components.
  3. You can’t plan on needing brake service on a set schedule, say every 20,000 or 50,000 miles. Brakes can wear out after 18,000—or 60,000. It depends on individual driving habits and road conditions.

Factors in brake wear

Driving habits. Are you regularly hauling a trailer or heavy loads? Or do you tend to be a prudent driver who keeps lots of distance between you and the car ahead?

Hauling loads will mean more frequent brake servicing

Where you drive. If you’re in stop and go traffic in a daily commute, or regularly driving mountain roads, your brakes will wear more quickly. Off-road travel also puts high demands on brakes. Dirt and grime can degrade brake parts. The quality of parts previously installed. Just like any product, brake parts vary in durability and price. And even premium parts won’t last if they’ve been installed wrong.

6 questions to ask when deciding on brake repairs

Recommendations and costs for brake service can be all over the map. So don’t be afraid to ask questions about just what you’re getting for your money. For example:

1. What’s included? Some shops advertise a low price to just replace brake pads, but if any other problems are discovered the cost goes way up. A good brake job should include flushing old brake fluid, adding new, resurfacing rotors, and adjusting braking mechanisms.

2. Turn-around time. How many days will it take for the garage to get you on their schedule? Can they offer same-day service for the work?

3. Quality of parts. If your garage buys from an auto parts house, quality control for parts is in the hands of those who aren’t working on your car. These suppliers may buy from one manufacturer with a special on price today, and another tomorrow. Ask what kind of quality control measures the shop has for parts. You just don’t want to skimp on brake components.

4. Approach to replacing parts. There are big differences in how brake service and repairs are done. It’s pretty common at most brake repair shops to pull the calipers off, replace the brake pads, and reinstall the unit.

But there are many parts of the brake system that work just as hard as the brake pads that may need attention. Built-up grit on pistons can result in brake pads not disengaging when you take your foot off the brake pedal—then your brake pads are going to wear faster, or unevenly.

Heat from the action of the piston can break down the rubber seals, creating a leak in the braking system. And that could result in the brakes fading—or not working at all—when you hit the brakes.

The problem is that it’s not easy to inspect all of these parts—like boots, seals, bushings—without full disassembly. Taking everything apart is time-consuming. It also increases the number of things that can go wrong. Shoddy reassembly is a common reason cars have to come back to the shop following a brake job.

Key parts of a disc brake system

Disc Brake

A better option is replacing all the brake components with a unit made to your vehicle’s original specifications. This heads off any problem with other parts wearing out before your next brake pad job. Ask your mechanic which approach he uses.

5. Warranty. With people holding onto cars longer, a brake repair warranty can mean a lot. Brake pads are going to wear as the brakes are applied, so at some point your car or truck will need them replaced.

Ask your shop for specifics on the brake warranty before the service. If it’s a lifetime warranty, does that cover only the parts, or the labor, too? Are free brake inspections included?

6. Trust. You should feel you’re getting straight talk. A good mechanic is always happy to explain repairs by showing you what’s being done, and more than willing to save the parts removed for you to look at.

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