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As a consumer you have probably noticed that people are spending more and more money on brake service. It is not uncommon to hear of people spending over $700 to have brakes done at the big brake stores. This leaves us asking why is it so expensive, and is it all really necessary? It is my opinion that in many cases the extremely high cost brake service could have been done for much less.
Understanding the cost of brake repair first comes with understanding the components involved. The three major items serviced in disk brake repair are the calipers, pads, and rotors. The brake rotor is a disk that rotates with your tire. To slow your car down the brake pads are pressed against the rotor. The friction causes the car to slow. The caliper is a device that surrounds the pads and rotor. The caliper has a hydraulic piston that pushes the pad against the rotor every time you step on the brake. All three of these items can wear out over time. Brake pad material is designed to be soft and slowly wear away as you use your brakes. Additionally each time you press the brakes the pads begin to rub away a small amount of the rotor making it more thin. Brake calipers do not “wear” like the pads and rotors. However over time problems can develop with the hydraulic piston in the caliper. It can seize up with age or begin to leak brake fluid. Both of which can cause dangerous problems.
Do I need to replace all three of these?
People in the brake parts industry are pushing hard to have all three components replaced each brake job. The folks in some of the big brake stores are going right along with it as they like selling $700 brake jobs every time. However, the truth is that you don’t always have to go with everything. A well trained and experienced technician can identify what parts are worn, and sell you only what is needed. In all cases if you change a part on one side you should always change the same part on the other side. Brake pads are always sold in sets that cover both sides. However, you should always also buy two rotors at a time as well as two calipers. A technician looks for these problems:
The brake pad is the first thing inspected. If there is little pad material remaining then you are due for a brake job. At that time the other components are checked for problems.
All brake rotors have a thickness specification. The rotor can be measured with a micrometer to determine if it is within spec. If the rotor is within specification it can be resurfaced on a brake lathe and reused. A brake rotor must at least be resurfaced every brake job. If not machined flat the rotor will quickly warp or become grooved when a new flat brake pad is placed on it. It is not uncommon for a brake rotor to be below specification and need replaced. If a rotor is machined to below spec it can cause the caliper to overextend and work improperly. Other reasons for replacing rotors include deep ridges at the edge where pads do not contact, and rotors are also replaced for excessive rust build up. On modern cars many rotors are designed only to last one brake job. Most European cars are this way. The pads and rotors must be replaced every time on these vehicle.
The caliper is the most expensive component, and also the one that takes the most trained eye to spot a problem. When a caliper begins to fail it is usually a problem with the piston. Corrosion or debris causes the piston to stick in one or more places. These problems show as uneven or tapered wear in the brake pad. Occasionally a piston can seize entirely causing the brake to always be applied. This can cause your brakes to become so hot they can catch on fire. Pistons can also leak brake fluid causing loss of brake control. In most cases there is nothing wrong with the caliper, and it does not need replaced. However, every time you get a brake job you must be prepared to change the caliper if it is needed.
How much should it cost?
As with any repair only high quality parts should be used. I have seen cheap calipers seize up right out of the box. A cheap brake pad will squeak, and last only half as long as a quality product. A good technician knows what brands to use, and which ones to steer clear from. A standard brake service that only requires brake pads and resurfacing of rotors should cost you less than $200. In many cases rotors are needed, and the price of rotors varies greatly. A set of two new rotors will add anywhere from $75 to $300 to your brake job depending on the rotors. If calipers are needed you can plan on spending $100 to $200 each(Sometimes more!). So you can see how a brake job can exceed $700 fairly easily. To protect yourself from spending this much if not needed you should always ask why each component is being replaced, and ask to see the problem.