Why Are My Brakes Squeaking, and How Do I Fix Them?

Updated on September 13, 2019
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Scott Huntington is an automotive writer who has been features on Top Speed, Yahoo Autos, Business Insider, and more.

Nothing squeals quite like a disc brake. The high-pitched wail your stoppers make when they need attention is enough to drive you mad. Plus, bad brakes can put you and others on the road in danger. What causes this behavior, and how can you remedy it?

Squeaky brakes can manifest for a few different reasons. Some of them are more urgent than others, and some are more costly to fix. You can fix some yourself, and others will require the help of a professional mechanic — unless you're quite handy and in possession of some specialized tools.

Know Your Squeaks

Not all brake noise is caused by the same issue. In fact, a certain amount of din from your car's brakes can be normal. For example, the first few stops you make after moisture has accumulated on your brakes overnight might cause a few squeaks. That's the sound of the thin layer of rust on your brake discs being ground down against the pad material. It's nothing to worry about.

Dirty brakes can squeak, too. The dust that builds up on the outside of your disc can vibrate between the friction surface. In this scenario, you again have nothing to worry about. You can stop the squeak by giving your car a good wash. Blow some dust out of the brake calipers and the surrounding area so it doesn't fall back between the disc and pads. Softer, more performance-oriented brake pads are prone to this behavior because they make more dust.

Many brake pads use a piece of thin-gauge steel that's integrated into the pad itself as a wear indicator. When this metal hits your brake disc, you'll know it by the sound. It's less of a squeal and more of a groaning peel. That sound is intended to let you know it's time to replace your brake pads. If you don't know when your car's brake pads were last replaced and you can't get the noise to stop using other methods, it's probably time for a fresh set.

Holistic Squeak Remedies

All-natural would have been a stretch, but there are some methods to reduce the squeak some brake systems have. You can insert a Teflon shim in between the brake disc and caliper or to apply some brake grease or anti-seize liquid to the backing of your pads. In some applications, glue can also do the job.

By changing the pad's resonant behavior against the backing plate, you change the natural frequency of the entire system. In simpler terms, you secure the pad better in its backing plate, so it vibrates less, which leads to less noise. Just be careful not to get any liquids that might cause slippage on the friction surface of the brake pad. The priority of your braking system is to stop the car, squeaks or no squeaks.

If your car's brake pads are squeaking because they're worn down, the best fix is to install a new set. You can have a mechanic do this job, which won't cost you much more than the average alignment or patched tire. However, this is not too difficult for the average weekend warrior to do — assuming you've got a few tools and some space to work.

Changing Brake Pads

Begin by finding out what kind of brake pads your car uses, and then deciding whether you'll continue using them or switch to a different pad. You might choose to change to a high-performance brake pad if your car sees frequent spirited driving or track use. You could also switch to a low-dust or longer-lived pad to save money and make cleaning easier at the cost of a small amount of braking performance. Either way, be sure to select one that fits your car's braking system.

Raise your car off the ground using a quality jack and jack stands. Do not perform this job using the spare-tire jack and no stands, because it's not safe. Use a tire iron to remove all four wheels or only the ones that need new brake pads. With the wheels removed, you should easily see the car's braking system.

Do some research using a service manual or online resources to see how the brake pads in your car's system release. In most cases, you'll be able to remove the caliper assembly by loosening a few bolts and then slide the brake pads out from the inner caliper. The installation will be the reverse of this procedure, except that you will apply some grease to the back of the new pads. Put the calipers back on and then mount your wheels and tires.

Don't go out and do your best Mario Andretti impression just as soon as you've installed your new brake pads. They will require what is called "bedding in" to function properly. Every pad manufacturer will have a different procedure, but the process involves making several firm stops to bite into the friction surface on the brake pads and make them soft. You might even experience a little bit of noise from the brakes during the bed-in process. That's ironic, isn't it?

Why Changing Brake Pads Is Important

Maybe you've decided that life with squeaky brakes is no big deal. You can live with the noise, and the car still stops. You may think this seems like a good way to save the money you would have spent on brake pads, but it will only lead to a much costlier service down the road. The last thing you want is an emergency stop at a garage to fix something that could have been prevented through simple maintenance.

When brake pads wear down, the friction material gives way to bare metal. Metal-on-metal contact with your brake discs will scar them, leading to unsafe stopping performance. A new set can be upwards of $1,000 installed, depending on your car. So listen to your ride and replace those squeaky pads. Your vehicle — and your wallet — will thank you.


Photos credit: Pixabay

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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    © 2019 Scott Huntington

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