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Brake Noise

My brakes are squealing. Does that mean I need a brake job?
Not necessarily. A certain amount of brake noise is considered "normal" these days because of the harder semi-metallic brake pads that are used in most front-wheel drive cars and minivans. This type of noise does not affect braking performance and does not indicate a brake problem. However, if the noise is objectionable, there are ways to eliminate it.

Brake squeal is caused by vibration between the brake pads, rotors and calipers. Pad noise can be lessened or eliminated by installing "noise suppression shims" (thin self-adhesive strips) on the backs of the pads, or applying "noise suppression compound" on the backs of the pads to dampen vibrations. Additional steps that can be taken to eliminate noise are to resurface the rotors and replace the pads.

Some brands of semi-metallic pads are inherently noisier than others because of the ingredients used in the manufacture of the friction material. Strange as it may sound (pardon the pun), cheaper pads are sometimes quieter than premium quality or original equipment pads. That's because the cheaper pads contain softer materials that do not wear as well. For that reason, they are not recommended. Premium quality pads should cause no noise problems when installed properly and will give you better brake performance and longer life.

Conditions that can contribute to a disc brake noise problem include glazed or worn rotors, too rough a finish on resurfaced rotors, loose brake pads, missing pad insulators, shims, springs or antirattle clips, rusty or corroded caliper mounts, worn caliper mounts, and loose caliper mounting hardware. Drum noise may be due to loose or broken parts inside the drum.

Most experts recommend new caliper and drum hardware when the brakes are relined, a thorough inspection of the calipers and rotors for any wear or other conditions that might have an adverse affect on noise or brake performance, and resurfacing the rotors (and drums) if the surfaces are not smooth, flat and parallel.

If you hear metallic scraping noises, on the other hand, it usually means your brake linings are worn out and need to be replaced -- especially if your brake pedal feels low or if you've noticed any change in the way your vehicle brakes (it pulls to one side when braking, it requires more pedal effort, etc.).

Some brake pads have built-in "wear sensors" that produce a scraping or squealing noise when the pads become worn. In any event, noisy brakes should always be inspected to determine whether or not there's a problem. And don't delay! If the pads have worn down to the point where metal-to-metal contact is occurring, your vehicle may not be able to stop safely, and you may core the rotors or drums to the point where they have to be replaced.

A pulsating brake pedal, which may be accompanied by a shuddering or jerky stop during normal braking, usually means a warped rotor or an out-of-round drum -- although it can sometimes be caused by loose wheel bearings, a bent axle shaft or loose brake parts. If the vehicle is equipped with ABS, however, some pedal feedback and noise is normal during panic stops or when braking on wet or slick surfaces. But you should not experience any ABS pedal feedback when braking normally on dry pavement.

The faces of a disc brake rotor must be parallel (within .0005 inch on most cars) and flat (no more than about .002 to .005 inches of runout) otherwise it will kick the brake pads in and out when the brakes are applied, producing a pulsation or vibration that can be felt in the brake pedal as the rotor alternately grabs and slips.

You can often see warpage in a brake rotor by simply looking at it. If the rotor has telltale glazed or discolored patches on its face, chances are it is warped. Measuring it with a dial indicator and checking it for flatness with a straight edge will confirm the diagnosis.

Resurfacing the rotor to restore the faces will usually eliminate the pulsation (unless the rotor is bent or is badly worn and has started to collapse in which case the rotor must be replaced). But it may only do so temporarily because of metallurgical changes that take place in the rotor. Hard spots often extend below the surface of the rotor. Resurfacing will restore the surface, but the hard spot may reappear again in a few thousand miles as the rotor wears. For this reason, GM and others recommend replacing warped rotors rather than resurfacing them.

Pedal pulsation caused by drum warpage isn't as common, but it can happen. A drum can sometimes be warped out-of-round by applying the parking brake when the brakes are hot. As the drum cools, the force of the shoes causes the drum to distort.

What causes a rotor to warp? Overtorquing or unevenly torquing the lug nuts with an impact wrench is a common cause. For this reason, most experts recommend using a torque wrench to tighten lug nuts when changing a wheel. There are also special torque-limiting extension sockets called "Torque Sticks" that can be safely used with an impact wrench to accurately tighten lug nuts. But a plain impact wrench should never be used for the final tightening of the lug nuts because most provide no control whatsoever over the amount of torque applied to the nuts.

Overheating can also cause rotors to warp. Overheating may be the result of severe abuse or dragging brakes. Defects in the rotor casting, such as thick and thin areas can also cause uneven cooling that leads to warpage. Hard spots in the metal due to casting impurities can be yet another cause.