By Martha Uniacke Breen
Over the last two years, many consumers have been using their cars much less. Why on earth would the brakes need a thorough inspection, let alone the possibility of an expensive repair? Here’s some tips on how to explain the facts of brake service to your customer.
One of the interesting effects of the pandemic over the last two years has been that many drivers have been using their cars significantly less. This has led to a number of consequences. There’s been a measurable reduction on emissions levels worldwide; people are replacing their cars more slowly, leading to a worldwide shortage of quality used vehicles. And, closest to home for many service providers, there’s been a substantial jump in the rate of deferred maintenance, and one of the most critical of these is brake inspections.
As the restrictions lift and consumers gradually begin to resume our former driving habits, trouble is brewing. Corrosion caused by exposure to the elements, as well as salt and sand that many municipalities use on the roads can negatively affect brake components, and in some ways the impact of these elements is actually greater on a sitting car than if it had been driven regularly.
We asked several leading brake suppliers how to communicate to customers the importance of a thorough brake inspection, even – or perhaps especially – when they have not been using it very much over an extended period.
According to Nathan Killeen, Continental Product Manager for ATE Brake Systems, “Inspecting the braking system is a critical component of car care, and one of the necessary steps needed to ensure vehicle safety and maintain the performance and reliability of brake components such pads, rotors, calipers and other system parts.”
Even when fewer kilometres have been driven over the last few years, Killeen continues, “It does not mean that brake system maintenance for that vehicle can be overlooked. Drivers who put fewer km on their vehicles per year might not need to replace friction components such as pads and rotors as frequently, but they should have them checked.”
Braking systems are comprised of many different components that work together to make the entire system function properly, observes Killeen. So in addition to inspecting the pads and rotors, typically overlooked components such as slide pins, calipers, parking brakes, and brake fluid need to be checked and serviced as necessary.
“Brake pads live close to the road, so they see some of the worst conditions your vehicle sees. Water, mud, dirt, and road salt are all being thrown at your brake pads every time you drive. This creates an environment that is the perfect place for corrosion to thrive. Just look at your brake rotors after a rainstorm to see how quickly your brakes can form rust,” said galvanized steel brake pad maker NRS in a recent release. “Everyday driving and using your brakes creates heat that dries out the water very quickly. Because the pads wear quickly, they usually wear out and need replacing before rust becomes a problem.” But for a car that has been sitting, the water remaining on the pads can led to premature corrosion.
As Stephen Cwian, Product Engineering Manager, Brake Pads, Shoes, with First Brands Group observes, “With vehicles not being used as often, the brake discs can develop excessive corrosion (cast iron rusts!), which is not easily removed by the brake pads. This corrosion can cause a grinding noise along with brake squeal.” Additionally, he points out, “The ‘witness mark’ left where the pads sat does not have excessive corrosion buildup and can create a thickness difference. This thickness difference can lead to brake judder or pulsation when lightly applying the brakes from highway driving speeds.”
Killeen also adds that vehicles that are operated in geographical areas subject to high corrosion from road salt or the proximity to the coast may experience “Slide pins that become seized, backing plates that deteriorate due to rust, and brake fluid that develops a high moisture content.” Other components whose performance can be also challenged by rust and corrosion, Killeen advises, include parking brake assemblies, disc/drum combination, and manual caliper or electronic park brakes.
Brake fluid can sometimes be an area of extra concern as well, for a car that has been sitting unused. “Brake fluid is hydroscopic, which means it absorbs water,” explains Killeen. “Over time, excess water will lower the boiling point of the brake fluid, and that can affect how the brake system performs and how it feels. A lower boiling point can result in spongy brakes or soft pedal, brake fade, or at worst case, cause the brake system to fail.
“To prevent this, standard brake fluid should be changed at two-year intervals and replaced with fresh, new brake fluid from an unopened container,” he says. “Using a DOT 5.1 synthetic brake fluid can extend this interval to three years. It is also a good idea to check the moisture content of the brake fluid whenever servicing any component of the braking system.”
Cwian observes that while brake fluid has not changed dramatically over the past few years, we need to understand how important it is to the integrity of the system. “All quality brake fluids contain an additive package that combines corrosion inhibitors, anti-rust compounds, and pH balancers to extend the life of the brake components. The brake system is made up of many different materials such as steel, copper and aluminum that are not very compatible. The brake fluid not only protects parts from corrosion, but also allows dissimilar metals to work together. Brake fluid is working every day even when the car is sitting in the garage.
“The average life of DOT 3 is four to five years, while DOT 4 is two to three years, Cwian continues. “Note that DOT 3 and DOT 4 fluids are glycol-based and should not be mixed if the vehicle has DOT 5, which is silicon based. Bottom line, understand what fluid the vehicle is using.”
It’s one thing to be ever vigilant when it comes to ensuring the customer’s brake system is in top condition and ready for the resumption of normal driving. But being able to explain that an inspection – and perhaps even a considerable repair bill – may be needed is not an easy task, especially heading into a summer of skyrocketing gas prices, inflation and other demands on the customer’s wallet. How can we stress the importance of brake service?
For Stephen Cwian, it’s simply a matter of reminding the customer that “The brake system is a critical safety system of the vehicle. With long periods of sitting, corrosion build-up on the brake discs can lead to noise and pulsation concerns. Additionally, without use, the caliper functionality may become impaired, creating longer stopping distances. Brake system inspections can assure the proper function of the caliper, making sure the vehicle maintains good stopping power.”
Killeen agrees. “Educating the customer on different brake system components and how they function can be a useful tool for explaining the need for brake service, even though not many miles have been put on the car. In addition to wear items such as pads and rotors, the customer should be made aware that other components, such as slide pins, parking brakes and fluid need inspection and service to keep the system functioning properly and reliably.”