Why Do Brakes Fade and How to Prevent It?

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Your car’s brakes are essential for safety. It ensures that you stop smoothly, whether you’re pulling into a parking spot or halting at a red light. But, if your brakes start losing their grip, it could mean trouble, like not stopping in time and bumping into the car in front.

Ever wondered why brakes lose their power or what brake fade and overheating are all about? Read on to get the lowdown on these brake troubles, their causes, and the signs to watch out for. This way, you’ll know when it’s time to get those brakes checked and fixed.

What is Brake Fade?

Hitting into a parked car while parking a vehicle in a parallel line parking space

At its core, brake fade refers to the loss of a vehicle’s braking power – something that can happen without warning and lead to dangerous situations on the road. This reduction in braking effectiveness happens when the brake system, primarily the pads and rotors, becomes overheated, decreasing the friction needed to slow down or stop the vehicle effectively.

Brake fade is a crucial safety concern in vehicle dynamics, often described as a condition where the braking efficiency decreases, leading to longer stopping distances and potentially dangerous driving situations. This typically happens when the braking system loses its ability to generate enough friction to slow down or stop the vehicle effectively. The root cause of brake fade is usually connected to the overheating of the brake components, but some factors and types contribute to this issue.

Understanding brake fade is crucial for many reasons. First, it directly affects a vehicle’s safety performance. In situations where rapid deceleration is needed, such as in heavy traffic or emergency braking scenarios, the ability of a car to stop promptly and reliably can be the difference between a safe stop and a potential accident.

Secondly, being aware of brake fade can help drivers recognize the early signs and take measures to prevent it. This kind of awareness is essential for those who often drive in demanding conditions, where brakes are more susceptible to overheating.

Types of Brake Fade

There are primarily three types of brake fade: friction fade, fluid fade, and mechanical fade. Each type has distinct causes and characteristics.

Friction fade

This is the most common type of brake fade and happens when the brake pads and rotors overheat. High temperatures cause a reduction in the amount of friction between the brake pad and the rotor. This can happen during prolonged periods of braking, such as driving down a long, steep hill, or during aggressive driving situations where the brakes are used frequently and intensely. As the temperature rises, the effectiveness of the brake pads weakens, leading to reduced braking power.

Fluid fade

Fluid fade is related to the hydraulic system of the brakes, particularly the brake fluid. Under extreme braking conditions, the heat from the brake components can transfer to the brake fluid, causing it to reach its boiling point. When brake fluid boils, it creates air bubbles within the hydraulic system, leading to a loss of hydraulic pressure.

As a result, the brake pedal may feel spongy or soft, and the overall braking power is significantly reduced. This type of fade emphasizes the importance of using high-quality brake fluid and ensuring it is replaced at regular intervals.

Mechanical fade

While less common than the other types, mechanical fade can occur due to the physical changes in brake system components under extreme heat. For instance, the expansion of brake drums or distortion of brake discs due to high temperatures can decrease braking efficiency.

Mechanical fade can also be a result of wear and tear on the braking components, such as worn-out brake pads or glazed pads and rotors, where a hard, glossy surface forms on these components, reducing their ability to create friction.

Sometimes, brake fade also varies in intensity or occurrence, leading to two other types:

Temporary brake fade

This is common with new brakes or just after a brake service. It’s because the fresh brake parts haven’t fully bedded in or adjusted to each other yet. This type of fade usually disappears after the brakes have been used for a bit.

Chronic brake fade

This is a more concerning type of brake fade. It often comes from the brakes overheating, which makes the brake pads wear down quickly and lose their stopping power. If you don’t address chronic brake fade, it can lead to some risky situations, like needing more distance to stop or even total brake failure.

Causes of Brake Fade

Brake fade can be caused by several factors, such as:

1. Overheating of brake pads and rotors

The most common reason brakes fade is because the brake pads and rotors get hot. This happens often when driving down steep hills or pulling something heavy. The brakes generate heat, and if they get too hot, they don’t work as well. This is a bigger problem for regular brakes that aren’t meant for tough driving. Check out our guide to discover how to prolong the life of your rotors.

2. Brake fluid getting diluted

Brake fluid is essential in a car’s braking system. Over time and under intense driving conditions, brake fluid can absorb moisture, which makes it boil at a lower temperature. When it boils, it produces vapor bubbles in the brake lines, and your brakes feel spongy, leading to a loss of hydraulic pressure. Changing the brake fluid regularly and using good-quality fluid can help prevent this.

3. Mechanical issues such as worn components

The overall condition of the braking system significantly impacts its susceptibility to brake fade. If your brake pads are thin, or the rotors are warped, or if something’s wrong with the calipers, your brakes can fade faster. Keeping these parts in good shape and getting them checked often is critical.

4. Environmental factors and driving conditions

External factors also play a role in brake fade. Driving in mountainous or hilly areas, where prolonged braking is common, increases the risk. Similarly, driving in extreme temperatures, either hot or cold, can affect the performance of the braking system. High-speed driving and aggressive braking habits also contribute to the rapid heating of brake components, increasing the likelihood of fading.

Signs of Brake Fade

Recognizing the symptoms of brake fade is crucial for driver safety, as it often provides the first indication that there is a problem with the braking system. Here are the primary symptoms to look for if you suspect your brake is fading:

1. Reduced brake responsiveness

One of the first signs of brake fade is a noticeable reduction in the braking power. This is often experienced as a feeling that the brakes are not as effective as they should be. Drivers might find that they have to press the brake pedal harder than usual to achieve the same braking effect. This reduction in responsiveness can be subtle at first but may become more pronounced as the condition worsens.

2. Longer stopping distances

As the efficiency of the braking system decreases due to fading, the vehicle will need a longer distance to come to a complete stop. This is particularly dangerous when quick stops are needed, like in heavy traffic or emergency braking scenarios. Drivers may notice that it takes longer than usual to slow down or stop the vehicle, even when applying the brakes firmly.

3. Unusual noises or vibrations during braking

Another common symptom of brake fade is the occurrence of unusual noises or vibrations when the brakes are applied. These can include grinding, squealing, or thumping sounds. Vibrations may also be felt through the brake pedal or the steering wheel. These symptoms often indicate overheated brake components and should be addressed promptly.

4. Soft or spongy brake pedal

In cases of fluid fade – this happens when the brake fluid reaches its boiling point and air bubbles form in the hydraulic system – drivers may notice that the brake pedal feels soft or spongy underfoot. This sensation is due to the reduced hydraulic pressure in the brake lines and indicates that the brake fluid is no longer functioning effectively. A soft pedal may require more travel than normal to engage the brakes, which can be disconcerting and dangerous, especially in emergency braking situations.

5. Unusual burning smell

A distinct burning odor is a clear indicator of brake fade and overheating. This smell comes from your brake pads getting too hot and sometimes from the brake fluid boiling.

6. Smoke from the brakes

In severe cases of brake fade, the components can get so hot that they produce smoke. If you see smoke coming from the area around your wheels, it’s important to stop and let your brakes cool down completely to avoid further damage.

Prevention and Maintenance Tips

Preventing brake fade involves a combination of regular maintenance, using high-quality parts and fluids, adopting best-driving practices, and considering cooling methods or upgrades for high-performance scenarios. Here’s how each of these aspects contributes to minimizing the risk of brake fade:

1. Perform regular maintenance and inspection

You can help prevent brake fade if you regularly schedule your maintenance. This includes routine checks of brake pads, rotors, calipers, and brake fluid levels. Brake pads and rotors should be inspected for wear and replaced if they are thinning or damaged.

It’s also important to check for any signs of uneven wear, which could indicate a problem with the brake caliper or the suspension system. The brake fluid should be checked for contamination and changed at regular intervals, as recommended by the car manufacturer. These inspections and maintenance routines extend the life of the braking system and ensure it operates effectively and safely.

2. Use quality brake parts and fluids

High-quality brake components can significantly reduce the risk of brake fade. When replacing brake parts, choose high-performance brake pads and rotors designed to withstand higher temperatures and provide better friction.

Similarly, using a high-quality brake fluid with a higher boiling point can prevent fluid fade. Although these components might be expensive, they offer better performance and increased safety, especially under strenuous driving conditions.

3. Practice good driving habits

To keep your brakes from deteriorating quickly, develop good driving habits.

  • When you need to stop, hit the brakes gradually rather than abruptly. This will help reduce the heat generated by the brakes.
  • Avoid excessive speed and maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front to reduce the need for hard braking.
  • In hilly or mountainous terrain, use engine braking or downshift to help control speed without over-relying on the brakes.

These practices not only prevent brake fade but also extend the lifespan of the brake components.

4. Try cooling methods and upgrades for high-performance use

For cars that are frequently used in high-performance situations or challenging driving conditions, consider additional cooling methods or upgrades. This can include installing brake cooling ducts to direct airflow to the brakes, using vented rotors for better heat dissipation, or upgrading to a higher-specification braking system designed for performance driving. These modifications can enhance the braking system’s ability to handle high temperatures and reduce the likelihood of brake fade.

What to Do If You Experience Brake Fade

Experiencing brake fade can be alarming, but knowing the right steps can greatly mitigate the risk and ensure safety. If you notice signs of brake fade, it’s essential to act promptly and cautiously.

If you notice signs of brake fade, here are some steps you can do:

  • Reduce speed gradually: If you feel the brakes are not responding as they should, the first step is to reduce your speed slowly. Avoid sudden braking, which can worsen the situation.
  • Downshift gears: If you are driving a manual transmission vehicle, downshift to a lower gear to help slow down the vehicle using engine braking. For automatic vehicles, some have a manual mode or low gear setting that can be used similarly.
  • Use engine braking: Engine braking, achieved by releasing the accelerator and allowing the vehicle to slow down naturally, can be a helpful technique, especially if you’re driving in hilly or mountainous areas.
  • Pump the brakes: If the brake pedal feels soft or spongy, try pumping it to build up more pressure in the brake lines. This can sometimes improve braking power temporarily.

If the brakes are overheating, here are solutions:

  • Stop and let them cool: If you suspect your brakes are overheating, the best action is to pull over and allow your vehicle to stop safely. This allows the brakes to cool down, which is crucial for their recovery.
  • Avoid using water: While it might be tempting to use water to cool the brakes quickly, it’s not advisable. Pouring water on hot brakes can lead to warped rotors or cracked brake pads due to sudden temperature changes.

To fix brake fade:

  • Consider an upgrade: If you frequently drive in conditions that stress your brakes, think about upgrading to a high-performance brake system. Options include vented or slotted rotors and better brake pads.
  • Switch to high-boiling-point fluid: If brake fade is due to your brake fluid boiling, switching to a fluid with a higher boiling point can help.

When in doubt, seek professional help.

If your brakes are still not performing well after cooling down, it’s wise to consult a professional. Regular inspections by a qualified mechanic can identify and fix potential issues before they become major problems.

Once you’ve safely stopped the vehicle, it’s important to wait to drive it until the brakes have been inspected by a professional. Even if the brakes seem to return to normal after cooling down, there could be underlying issues that need addressing.

If you’ve experienced brake fade or if you frequently drive in conditions that can lead to it, have your brakes inspected regularly by a qualified mechanic. They can check for wear and recommend replacements or upgrades as needed.

If brake fade becomes a recurrent issue, it strongly indicates that your vehicle’s braking system might not be adequate for your driving habits or conditions. A professional can assess whether you need higher-specification components like high-performance brake pads or rotors.

Takeaway

Knowing about brake fade and overheating helps you keep your car performing well and staying safe on the road. If you’re worried about your brakes, contact a trusted mechanic. They can pinpoint the right fix for your car’s specific brake problems.

For extra convenience, consider a mobile mechanic. They can come to your home, handle regular brake upkeep, preventive care, and other car repairs. This way, you get top-notch service without stepping out.

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