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Borgman How To: Understanding Your Vehicle’s Braking System

April 18th, 2018


The Borgman Service Center – Your Home For Expert Brake Service in West Michigan

Brakes do an awful lot of work, even on a simple trip around Grand Rapids or to the grocery store. Bringing a moving vehicle to a complete stop is no small feat, even though we may take it for granted. On the other end of that brake pedal are some clever feats of engineering that harness the power of hydraulics and friction to turn a vehicle’s kinetic energy into heat.

The Borgman Service Center in Grand Rapids is your home for making sure your brakes and other systems within your vehicle are properly functioning and maintained. In our latest Borgman How To, we’ll give you a general idea of how this system works and enough insight to know when it’s losing performance.

Here’s the “Brake-Down” of major components:

  • Hydraulic Components: The two main components connected to the brake pedal are the Master and Slave Cylinders, which compress fluid to multiply the force from the brake pedal. The fluid is distributed to the vehicle’s wheels to power the brakes.
  • Disc Brake Components: Disc brakes are very common on the front wheels because of their efficiency. They consist of a rotor, calipers, and pads with an open design to quickly dissipate heat.
  • Drum Brake Components: Drum brakes are very common on the rear wheels because of their durability. They consist of a metal drum that spins with the wheel, and shoes that press against the insides. They require much less maintenance and are often used for the emergency brake.

Hydraulic Braking System Basic Components

Hydraulics are based Pascal’s Principle: “Pressure exerted on a fluid is distributed equally throughout the fluid.” This is possible because fluids don’t compress the same way gasses do, enabling you to press down gently on a brake pedal and have that small amount of pressure affect all of the fluid in the system. It is then multiplied and used to stop the entire vehicle. The system you’d find in a New Ford or Mazda is more complex than this example, but here’s a rundown of the basics:

When you use the brake pedal, it pushes on a plunger in the master cylinder, building pressure. Brake fluid is forced through the plumbing to the 4 wheels of the vehicle, where slave cylinders further amplify the hydraulic force. This fluid then actuates pistons in the brakes with enough force to create enough friction to stop the wheel. Modern systems also use enhancements like a “brake booster” which uses vacuum to assist with compressing the master cylinder. This whole hydraulic system is responsible for stopping the vehicle and therefore your safety and those around you, so it is common to see redundancies like two master cylinders. If you notice your brake pedal feeling spongy or needing more pressure than usual, check your brake fluid level and schedule an appointment.


Note on Brake Fluid: If you do your own fluid checks, and we highly recommend that you do, you might notice low brake fluid. A little fluid loss is normal as the pistons in the calipers extend with wear (the system is actually just getting bigger) but a dramatic loss usually points to a leak. While hydraulic theory applies to most liquids, brake fluid is specially-formulated for vehicles. It is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture, and this is to make sure the boiling point stays high (fluids boil under pressure) and that water cannot pool in the brake system. If you open a bottle of brake fluid and don’t use all of it, seal it up tightly and write the date on the bottle. It’s already started absorbing water from the air, so you’ll want to use it in 3 to 6 months or throw it away.

The Difference Between Disc & Drum Brakes

Disc brakes, the ones you’ll interact with most, are often found on the front wheels because they’re more heat-efficient and easier to service. Here, pressurized fluid from the slave cylinder squeezes down on the rotor through the caliper’s pistons. The rotor is attached to the wheel and spins, but the caliper is mounted to the vehicle itself.

Brake pads are fixed to the inside of the caliper and are made of high-strength and heat-resistant materials like ceramic or carbon. As they squeeze down to the spinning rotor, they generate enough friction to slow the vehicle. On the front wheels, brakes have to work harder and can reach temperatures of over 900°F. Disc brakes work best here because they cool much faster than drums – thanks to their open construction. The pads wear faster, but they’re much easier to replace.

Drum brakes are built differently. Instead of a rotor, a metal drum houses a series of shoes that push against the rotating edges from the inside. Their construction is more durable, but they tend to trap heat so they’re often only used on the rear wheels. If the shoes (different type of pads) are heated well above 900°F, they lose their “grippiness” – colloquially called heat fade – and the vehicle may not be able to stop.

Thankfully, the rear brakes are doing much less work than the front, and this is by design. As the weight of the vehicle shifts forward while stopping, too much braking force in the back can lock up the rear wheels and cause them to skid. The master cylinder sends less force to the back to counter this, making the rear brakes more supplemental than active. However, the emergency brake is usually connected to the back wheels, so it’s important to have them inspected – even if they don’t need service as often.


Need Your Brakes Inspected or Replaced? Visit The Borgman Service Center in Grand Rapids!

If you’re hearing a squealing noise when you stop, that’s a metal tab rubbing against the rotor letting you know it’s time to visit the Borgman Service Center in Grand Rapids. Our highly-trained and certified technicians will make sure that any maintenance on your brakes is performed properly, and keep an eye on connected components for faults – so you can get back to exploring West Michigan safely.

During your visit, be sure to ask the Borgman Quick Lane staff about the Lifetime Brake Pad Guarantee. Now whenever you need new brake pads, we’ll waive the part cost and replace them with dependable, long-lasting Motorcraft pads for as long as you own the vehicle. You can browse the latest Service Specials, Schedule an Appointment online, or Contact Us with any questions you may have. Come see why Borgman is the Best in the West!


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