Brakes for Your Vehicle: The Definitive Guide

Brakes: an afterthought until you need them most. That critical safety system you probably think about during your day-to-day as often as you think about going to the dentist (until you break a tooth).

Your brakes!

But with regular maintenance and by keeping a sharp eye on the warning signs, you’ll never find yourself in a dangerous “if only” situation as you’re trying to decelerate your vehicle unexpectedly…

  1. “If only I’d gone to the shop sooner.
  2. “If only I took the signs seriously.”
  3. That’s not a risk you need to take.
  4. But what does regular brake maintenance entail?
  5. What are the costs you should plan for?
  6. How does the braking system in your car even work?
  7. And what exactly are the warning signs you should be aware of?

What you’ll learn in this article about brakes:

  1. How do brakes work?
  2. What goes into a brake inspection?
  3. When should you schedule a brake system inspection?
  4. What are the warning signs of brake trouble?
  5. How much does taking care of your brakes cost?

1. How Do Brakes Work?

A discussion of your car’s brake system should naturally begin with a crash course on the pieces that bring the system all together to make your car slow down when you need it to. Knowing the names of these parts and understanding how they interact will give you valuable context as you stay alert for the signs of wear, practice preventative braking habits, and communicate with your mechanic.

A Braking Scenario

You’re driving along in the Riverwoods and a line of ducklings enters the road following mama duck. What do you do? Well, you’re not a monster. You brake, of course, and here’s everything that happens in sequence to save those little ducklings’ lives:

As your foot presses the brake pedal, the cylinder that holds brake fluid is activated. The fluid is then delivered through hoses to the calipers, which engage the brake pads. Once engaged, your brake pads apply pressure to the rotors attached to your tires, creating the friction that will stop them spinning, decelerate your vehicle, and spare a beautiful little family of ducks.

There’s the nitty gritty, but we’ll go into more detail as we go along.

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2. What Goes Into a Brake Inspection?

To put it simply, your typical brake inspection will provide a hands-on assessment of each of the above brake system components in addition to the odds and ends that bring it all together:

  • Brake pads (also called “shoes”)
    • What makes contact with the rotors to create the friction that stops the car.
  • Calipers
    • Padded clamps triggered by the brake fluid to activate the brake pads.
  • Rotors (also called “drums” or “disc”)
    • Rotors connect to the tires and spin while the car is in motion. The brake pads stop the rotors from spinning.
  • Wheel cylinders
    • A component of a hydraulic drum brake system.
  • Brake Hardware
    • Springs
    • Adjusters
    • Hoses
    • Parking brake cables
    • Wheel bearings
    • Grease seals
  • The condition of the brake fluid
    • Your entire brake system is compromised with a brake fluid leak. It’s the pressure generated in the fluid lines that distributes the energy to make the other necessary components work.

3. When Should You Schedule a Brake System Inspection?

The answer to when you should get your brakes inspected is “immediately” if you’re experiencing any of the warning signs of wear or damage (see below).

If your vehicle’s built-in wear sensors are alerting you (with a screeching noise when applying or releasing brakes), it’s time for a brake pad replacement.

Some cars even have electronic wear indicators, but those are few and far between and it’s wise for all car owners to observe some sort of maintenance schedule.

Here’s what we advise.

First of all, it’s important to consider how you’re using your car. Is it mainly a commuter vehicle or is it used largely for urban driving?

A car that commutes 20,000 miles a year over freeways and highways will need to have its brake pads replaced a lot less frequently than one that putts around the city 5,000 miles a year.

Basically, the less you use your brakes, the less wear they’ll experience.

For most cars, however, an advisable frequency is:

  • Whenever you have your tires rotated (at least every six months), or
  • Once a year.

4. What Are the Warning Signs of Brake Trouble?

We mentioned screeching wear sensors, but another tell-tale sign is a delayed reaction time when applying your brakes. In other words, it takes much longer to stop than it you’re used to. Other signs you should look for are:

  1. Worn brake pads: You’ll feel this in the delayed reaction time mentioned above, but you can also manually look at your pads depending on the design of your car wheel. Some designs won’t allow you to see through the spokes, but if you can, you’ll find the brake pad between the caliper and the rotor. A healthy pad is generally ¼ of an inch thick.
  2. Screeching, squealing, and grinding: There’s still more to be said about the sounds you should be listening for. The wear indicator is an attachment near the pad that makes contact with the disc to create a screeching or squealing noise that will certainly be hard to miss. There may also be a different feel as you press the pedal. However, once this squealing turns into grinding, your pads are gone and you’re now scraping the calipers against the rotors. Here’s where you’re in increasingly hot water as stopping your car becomes much more difficult and repairs will now include resurfacing or replacing your rotors.
  3. Pulling: Like a testy horse, your car doesn’t seem to be listening to you as well as usual. It’s pulling to the left or the right as you’re driving or braking and you’re wondering what it could mean. While pulling can be a symptom of bad alignment, worn or uneven tires, or a problem with your car’s suspension, it can also be an indicator that something is wrong with your brake system:
    • A stuck caliper: This would cause friction on one of the four wheels and result in pulling toward the side of the stuck caliper.
    • Collapsed brake hose: When you apply the brakes, a collapsed brake hose would impede the flow and pressure of the brake fluid and cause the calipers to react unevenly.
    • Uneven brake pads: If the brake pads have worn down unevenly, the wheels are going to receive differing amounts of pressure, resulting in pulling.
  4. Vibrations (steering wheel shake): If you’re feeling vibrations or pulsing through your brake pedal and/or steering wheel under normal (versus emergency) braking conditions, note it. While it could be due to misaligned wheels, feeling vibrating feedback through the brake pedal is also a sign of warped rotors. In emergency conditions, your car’s antilock brakes will execute a series of quick grabs to the rotor to decelerate the car. But when the rotors are warped, your brake pads and your foot will notice.What warps a rotor? Extreme stress over extended periods of time will generate enough friction to do the trick. The rotors will heat to extreme degrees while you’re descending steep mountainsides or braking often while towing heavy loads. The cure is rotor-resurfacing or replacement.
  5. Temperamental pedal: Now it’s time to assess the action of the brake pedal. Is it “mushy” or oversensitive? A mushy pedal will make you feel like you need to stand on it before the brakes are finally engaged. And an oversensitive pedal with make your car jolt at the slightest touch. Here’s what could be happening in either case:
    • Mushy pedal: This could be caused by worn pads or a hydraulic system malfunction (air in the line or a fluid leak.) If you suspect a leak, you can put a piece of cardboard or paper under your car engine overnight and check the drippings in the morning. Brake fluid will be clear and have the consistency of vegetable oil.
    • Oversensitive pedal: Unevenly worn rotors and/or contaminated brake fluid can cause an oversensitive pedal.

5. How Much Does Taking Care of Brakes Cost?

Whether you’ve decided to get the health of your car on the same schedule as your personal yearly physical, or you’re actively experiencing any of the above warning signs of a struggling brake system, you’re probably wondering at this point “Okay, but how much is all of this going to cost?”

The Brake Inspection

This will vary by shop. An inspection that covers all the above components can run from “Free, with or without conditions” or up to $80. At Dickerson we [insert Dickerson’s brake inspection details.].

Costs of Brake Repair

Before we go into the piecemeal repair and replacements costs you can expect from your average shop, here’s a ballpark range for the most common service: brake pad replacement. Unless your car is experiencing a special type of malfunction, replacing your brake pads on time (before the calipers and rotors are affected) is generally the solution to brake system troubles and the average cost is $150 per axle/wheel.

It’s also important to note that your mechanic’s priority will be to create an evenly balanced system, so you can expect them to replace components on either side of the axle simultaneously to ensure safety and quality.

A complete brake job can range between $300 to $1000. Don’t forget that your repairs will land on the higher end of this spectrum if your rotors have been damaged, so make sure you’re keeping those brake pads fresh!

Comparing Brake Component Costs

Next to brake pads, rotors and calipers are the most commonly addressed components in a brake job.

Brake Pads

As mentioned, the parts themselves will run between $50-$150 each, but after factoring in labor, you’re looking at an invoice for $150-$250.


Comparable to brake pads in cost, this part runs between $50 and $100. After labor, the total cost of replacing the calipers will be $150-$200.


Protect your rotors. This part will cost between $200 and $400, which puts you at $350-$550 after labor.

[BONUS]: Quality & Value of Brake Repair

Another important thing to do is weigh the cost of your repairs against quality and value.


Not all components are created equally. Some mechanics will tout the best deals while installing inferior parts. Before handing over your payment information, ask your mechanic the brands of components they use and why they would recommend them. If your mechanic can’t or won’t give you this information over the phone, that may be a sign to keep shopping.

Quality brands include:

  • Bendex
  • Akebono
  • Hawk
  • NAPA
  • AC Delco
  • Motorcraft
  • Brembo
  • Wagner
  • Value

What guarantees or warranties are offered by the shop or the maker of the component? A company that will stand behind their work and product creates a special value that you should simply not go without.

Our Promise at Dickerson Automotive

We stand behind our work at Dickerson. If you’re worried about your brakes for any reason, don’t put it off.

Every Question about Your Car's Brake System

Call us for a quote today


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