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Brakes: Replacing Brake Pads, Rotors and Rear Brakes

Brakes are one of your car’s original safety systems. Long before seatbelts, airbags and traction control systems, drivers were pulling a hand lever to apply a block of wood to their iron or steel-rimmed wheels and bring their vehicle to a stop.

And although brake systems have evolved quite a bit since the early days of the automobile, the role they play in your safety has not changed. Keeping your brakes in prime stopping order is key to your family’s safety.

How do I know when I need new brakes?

Brake pad lifespan depends on the vehicle you drive, how you drive it and driving conditions. If you’re commuting in stop-and-go traffic every day and you like to gun the gas and slam on the brakes, your brake pads are probably not going to last as long as someone who spends most of their time on the highway.

Here are some telltale signs that your brakes need some attention:

  • Your brake pedal vibrates or pulsates when you stop.
  • You hear or feel a squealing, squeaking or grinding when you press or release your brake pedal.
  • You have to push the brake pedal to the floor in order to stop.
  • Your brake fluid warning light or your parking brake light turns on and off intermittently – or is permanently on.
  • Your brake pedal feels “mushy.”
  • Your brake pedal is unusually hard to push down.
  • Your vehicle pulls to one side when you apply the brakes.
  • Your brake fluid level is low.

What might be wrong with my brakes? Let’s check the brake fluid

  • Brake fluid level: With your car on a level surface, look at the side of the brake fluid reservoir. The brake fluid level should fall between the lines marked “min” and “max.” If the fluid level is low, it could be a sign of worn brake pads or a hydraulic leak. If you choose to add brake fluid, only use the recommended fluid from a sealed container and follow the correct procedure, which should be outlined in your owner’s manual. If you need help, you can always stop by Glenbrook Auto Parts or one of our affiliated NAPA Auto Care Centers to ask for help.
  • Brake fluid condition: Brake fluid breaks down over time as it absorbs water and is subjected to heat. This can lead to fluid oxidation, which can wear out the hydraulic system. Imagine your brakes rusting from the inside out. New brake fluid is a golden color. If your brake fluid is black, it’s time to replace it. It’s ideal if you can flush the brake fluid when you’re replacing brake pads or shoes.
  • Brake warning light: The brake warning light may come on for a variety of reasons, including when you apply the parking brake, the fluid level is low, worn brake pads or another system malfunction. Don’t ignore this warning light!

What might be wrong with my brakes? Let’s take a test drive

Not sure what your brake pads, rotors and shoes are telling you as you drive? Here are a few things to observe as you’re driving:

  • Unusual noises: Your brakes should be almost silent when you come to a stop. If you hear any squealing, scraping or rubbing noises when you press on that brake pedal, that’s a sure sign your brakes need some attention. Abnormal noises could be caused by something as simple as a stone tossed up into the brakes or as serious as a loose bolt or broken pad. Clicking or clunking sounds can be a sign of abnormally loose brake or suspension parts. Don’t ignore any of these warning sounds!
  • Pulling left or right: If the vehicle pulls to one side when you apply the brakes, you may have a hydraulic or mechanical problem. For example, if the vehicle pulls to the right, one of the driver-side brakes could have air in the system or a seized brake caliper slider or piston.
  • Pedal feel: When you step on the brake pedal, it should feel progressively firmer the harder you step on it. If you step on the pedal and it feels light through part of its travel with instances of sudden heaviness, there may be air in the system or a mechanical fault, such as a seized caliper slider. For cars with rear drum brakes, it may be time for a rear brake adjustment.

What parts might I need to replace my brakes?

When you’re ready to inspect and service your brakes, here’s a list of auto parts we can help you with:

  • Brake cables
  • Brake fluids
  • Brake hardware
  • Brake pads
  • Brake rotors
  • Brake shoes
  • Calipers – Loaded
  • Calipers – Remanufactured
  • Disk brake pads
  • Drums
  • Electric trailer brake controllers
  • Hoses
  • Hydraulic brake parts
  • Master cylinders
  • Power boosters
  • Wheel cylinders

Key DIY Tips

In many cases, replacing brake pads is a straightforward job. But here are a couple of tips from our NAPA Know How Blog:

  • Safety first. Even though changing brake pads may seem easy, remember that brakes are a critical safety feature. The first time you do something like this, seek advice from someone who’s done it before. Ideally, they can walk you through the steps. If your friends are not so mechanically inclined, you can seek out online videos or a repair manual for your car. Most importantly, double check your work and go for a test drive when you’re all done.
  • Calibrating calipers. Just before installing new brake pads, you will have to compress the caliper pistons. This may require a special tool if you have multi-piston calipers or rear calipers with an integrated parking brake. After putting in the new pads and mounting the caliper, the brakes will be exceptionally loose. Pump up the brakes before you put the car back down on the ground. Get a friend to help you make sure the wheels don’t turn when applying the brakes.

What other repairs or maintenance should I do at the same time?

If you’re replacing your brake pads, rotors, shoes or drums, you may also want to:

  • Flush the brake fluid.
  • Clean and adjust rear drum brakes.
  • Replace the brake hardware (on drum brakes).
  • Lubricate the caliper slides (on disc brakes).
  • Rotate your tires.

Remember, with Glenbrook Auto Parts in Glenview, you can save time by ordering your parts online and picking them up in the store. We’ll have them ready and waiting for you.

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