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Sometimes, you might hear the unmistakable sound of your brakes grinding – that metallic out-of-pitch groan as they complain about what they’re doing.
The sound of grinding brakes is one of the most alarming things you can hear coming from your car – there’s no doubt about it. Often, this sound can be relatively harmless, but sometimes you could have a potentially dangerous problem on your hands.
Either way, when it comes to brakes, it’s best to make sure – better to be safe than sorry. If your brakes make a grinding noise, come to a gentle stop in a safe area.
What Should I Do If My Brakes Fail Altogether?
On a slightly different note, you may encounter a situation where your brakes entirely fail while driving. This is, clearly, an extremely dangerous situation.
In very rare circumstances, the brakes could make a grinding noise as they break apart and fail, but this isn’t common. When this does happen, you’re likely not to hear anything at all than a series of “grinding” noises. The brake lines have probably developed a leak. If you push the brake pedal and it goes straight to the floor, you have no brakes on your wheels.
If you haven’t started driving the car yet, good – whatever you do, don’t. You’ll need to fix the problem at home, either by yourself or by calling out a mechanic.
If this problem happens while you’re driving, there are more immediate concerns, so bring the car to a stop as quickly and as safely as possible. Here’s a list of things to do, quickly, if you ever find yourself in this situation:
- Shift down the gears to the lowest one your car can cope with. Don’t shift down to too low a gear as this will cause the engine to over-rev and potentially stop working too. If that were to happen, you would have no way to stop at all.
- Pump the brake pedal – this will help to build up pressure in the hydraulic braking system, which may help the car to stop.
- Gently pull the handbrake – using gentle movements, slowly pull the handbrake on, not letting go of the button. Use this method if it’s clear that pumping the brake pedal isn’t working, or you don’t have time to find out. Don’t force it, or the car will simply skid round, which could be even more dangerous. Be prepared for the rear wheels to lock up. When this does happen, release the pressure ever so slightly, keeping the rear wheels braking hard but still being able to turn. This means you have as much traction as possible. The more traction you have, the higher your chances of being able to stop.
- Use gentle, smooth motions for the steering wheel as well. Again, this helps to maintain traction. If you have to steer around anything, plan ahead and move out of the way long before you reach that point.
- Avoid pedestrians and other vehicles.
- .Use any method to slow down – sometimes this may involve scrapping your car, using a wall or guard rail. To do this, drive alongside it and smoothly line up with it until the side of your car starts to connect. The friction will work to slow you down. Warn other drivers of this by flashing your lights and honking the horn.
- If you’re approaching an intersection of any kind, with no way to stop, warn other drivers as much as possible. Honk the horn repeatedly, turn on your hazards, and flash your lights – whatever it takes to get people to see you. Do your best to avoid them all and bring your car to a standstill as soon as possible.
We hope you never find yourself in this terrifying situation, but we also hope that – in the very unlikely situation you do, then this advice will spring to mind and help you.
Grinding Brakes? Here’s What It Might Be
Now that we’ve looked at what to do if your brakes completely fail let’s consider what causes the sound of brakes grinding.
We’ll divide the possible causes up into the instances in which they happen: when braking, while releasing the brake pedal, and while not braking.
Grinding Noises While Braking
- ABS coming on – The ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) is designed to prevent you from losing traction under heavy braking, especially while cornering. When you have to brake suddenly, the ABS pumps the brakes on and off. This prevents the wheels from locking up, and, as you’ve seen with applying the handbrake during an emergency, as long as the wheels are turning, you’ll have traction. The ABS coming on is completely normal and won’t damage your car or brakes at all. You’ll also feel it pulsing through the pedal a little bit. It’s worth practicing emergency stops (if you have somewhere you can practice safely) so that you get used to the feeling of the ABS).
- Rust build-up – This is especially likely if your car has been sat for a decent length of time in a humid area of the country. Small layers of rust can build up on your discs and pads during this time. Rust is, by nature, not smooth, and so you will notice a strange sound which may be similar to a grinding noise when braking.
- Old discs and pads – Like all parts of a car, the discs and pads in the braking system are perishable and will fade over time. The average expected lifespan of a set of discs and pads is about 20,000 miles. We advise you to change your discs and pads at the same time. This is because the pads “set in” to the disc, creating a groove that matches exactly how they are installed. When discs get old, you’ll see that the pads have dug into it an awful lot over the years. There will be a deep groove and a considerable lip at the edge of the disc. Expect to hear a sort of scraping sound here. Likewise, if the pads need changing, they’ll make a squealing sound. Pads are made with a layer of metal. This means there’s an audible warning when they’re running low, and you need to replace them.
- Low quality brake discs and pads – This is especially relevant to brake pads, although when you get new discs and pads, you should get the same make for both. If you decide to spend less money and purchase some cheaper brake pads but of low quality, these may produce some strange noises while you brake. It’s always a better idea to get some good, high-quality brakes that will last for a long time. You will likely save money in the long run by doing this because you won’t need to replace them as often.
Grinding Noises While Releasing the Brake Pedal
• Old shims – Shims make pads sit more uniformly in the caliper. They are made of thin metal or rubber, and using them means that the brakes produce less noise. Sometimes a mechanic might forget to replace them, or they might be getting old. Shims are usually quite cheap, so if you think this could be the problem, then it shouldn’t be too much work to replace them. This noise could also be made all the time or just under braking. That depends on how the pads are sitting in the caliper.
Grinding Noises All the Time
- Improperly seated brakes – Although this is rare, the brakes might not have been installed correctly. If this problem arises after having had a new set of discs and pads, we would recommend taking your car back to the garage that connected them. If they have installed the brakes incorrectly, they should fix the problem for you for free.
- Wheel bearing fault – If you seem to get a noise from the wheels at seemingly random times, or in certain situations (which may include braking), there could be a fault with the wheel bearing. The grinding sound may fluctuate between being loud and quiet as you drive. If this gets broken, you will need to replace it with a new part. Since these can be particularly fiddly parts (and the ball bearings inside them can get everywhere), we would recommend taking the car to an auto shop to get this job done unless you’re confident in getting it done yourself.
- A foreign body stuck in the brakes – If your car picks up something like a stone that gets lodged in between a brake pad and the disc, this could cause the grinding sound. After a little while, if this is the case, you may see a strange wear pattern on your brake discs as you look at them through the wheel. You can also remove the wheel and have a look, using a torch if necessary. If something is stuck in there, you’ll need to take the caliper apart to remove the said uninvited guest. If this isn’t something you’re particularly comfortable with, we would recommend taking the car to a professional.
Other Important Things to Note
This one is essential. Some articles out there recommend lubricating your brakes. If you know which parts of the brakes need to be lubricated, then go ahead. But if you aren’t sure, please don’t lubricate them. People often lubricate the wrong part of the brakes (such as the disc face), which will result in the brakes not working at all. Friction is used to slow a car down, and so, if you remove the source of that friction with improper lubrication, your car won’t stop.
Knowing your way around the braking system is a handy skill to have and, once you get used to it, it’s not too difficult. It might be good to learn how to fix brakes from someone who knows what they’re doing, which will enable you to work on your car yourself and potentially save you some money.
Don’t be ashamed if you don’t know what you’re doing, though. A new set of brakes is one of the most common things cars go in the garage for, and your local mechanic will be more than willing to help.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of problems that might be causing your brakes to grind. You may find the source of the problem to be something we haven’t mentioned on this list, such as caliper bolts or a rusted retaining screw. If so, be sure to let us know in the comments section.
We hope this article has been useful! Now you know how to spot problems with your brakes.