Spring has sprung in West Michigan and soon many intrepid adventurers will be hooking up their trailers and towing boats, campers, dirt bikes, and other gear all across our fair state. Bringing the right vehicle for the job and equipping it correctly is an important step, but as we discussed in our last Tao of Towing article, there’s a little more to it than making sure you, your gear, and other motorists stay safe during the journey.
Today, we’re going to dig a little deeper into braking, and some techniques you can master that will not only save you in maintenance costs but help you tow safer out there as well.
A Quick Refresher on How Brakes Work
We did a deeper dive on this in our post about your vehicle’s braking system, but here are the short strokes. When you press the brake pedal, a hydraulic system squeezes the brake rotor, a metal disc attached directly to the wheel. The calipers use brake pads to do the gripping/squeezing, slowing the wheel and bringing the vehicle to a stop. This is a disc brake setup, and drum brakes work on a similar principle. We’re going to focus on disc brakes for today, as they’re more common and actually more heat-efficient.
When Towing, Brake Heat Management is Key
Remember in elementary school when the teacher told everyone to rub their hands together for a minute to generate heat to demonstrate the concept of friction? With your brake pads (which are stationary) being pressed against the rotor (which is spinning,) you’re going to generate a lot of heat through friction when slowing the vehicle down. Disc brakes have an open design so under normal conditions they keep relatively cool.
Here’s the kicker: how fast your vehicle is moving and how much it weighs both determine how much time it will take to bring it to a stop, and how much heat is generated in the process. So if you’re towing and braking downhill, heat is something you need to try and minimize to prevent premature wear of parts or create an unsafe situation. Ford Trucks and SUVs can handle it, but to get the most out of them you do need to take this into account while towing.
What Happens When Brakes Are Overheated
Excess heat can disrupt your brake performance and damage components. When the brake pads reach a certain temperature, they start to smooth over and lose their grip – known colloquially as “brake fade.” This is usually temporary but nonetheless can be dangerous if your brakes are taking longer than you expect to slow you down. Repeatedly putting them in this condition can start to form a glaze on the pads and the rotor, and that can be permanent.
Other issues that can arise from repeated overheating are cracks in the brake pad, warped rotors, or even fluid leaks. Damaged axle seals are somewhat unrelated here, but they can throw grease onto the rotor, making it slippery and reducing performance. There are other variables as well, such as damage from going through a cold puddle with superheated rotors.
Driving Habits While Towing to Keep Your Brakes Cool
Mostly, just being aware of the fact that your brakes generate heat while towing is enough to lend context to what you can do to keep it from snowballing. One trick truckers use to save their brakes while going down a big hill is to bypass them altogether, using a technique called engine braking. If you’re driving a manual transmission or have a SelectShift automatic, you’d select the gear below the one you’re in and use the engine to slow the vehicle instead of the brakes. You can then use the brakes as needed. Be aware that this is noisy, so please don’t do it in residential areas.
If you need to brake hard with a trailer, some newer Fords have features that will help control the trailer brake automatically. Just keep your eyes on where you want to end up and undershoot by about 50-100 feet. Then, when you’re close to that mark, let off the brake to let the vehicle creep forward the rest of the way. This spinning allows the brakes to let off all that heat before being reapplied to keep the vehicle at a stop. Braking hard and then stopping in place, especially with a trailer, can then trap heat in one spot on the rotor, leading to warping or cracking.
Towing Something On Your Next Adventure in West MI? Trust the Experts at the Borgman Service Center
The key to making your brakes last longer while towing is to think of your stopping distance as a finite resource. After you get comfortable towing, you build up a sense of what your safe stopping distance is. If you find yourself running out of runway a bit while towing, or it’s been a while since you’ve last had your brakes checked, it’s definitely time to stop by the Borgman Service Center in Grand Rapids, MI.
Our highly-trained technicians will thoroughly inspect your braking system for signs of wear, heat damage, and leaks. We’ll be looking over all of your other vital systems as well, to make sure your next adventure is fun, worry-free, and safe. Please feel free to ask your Borgman Service Advisor any questions you may have about your vehicle – we’re more than happy to help. Be sure to check our specials page for the latest Service Center Coupons, use our easy Online Appointment Scheduler, and Contact Us if you have any questions. Come see why we’re the Best in the West!