Safe and Secure: Effective Brake Inspections

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Tom Stapor from NAPA Autotech discusses the fundamentals of brake inspections during a visual tutorial. Photo: NAPA

In the first of a two-part series, we look at why a thorough brake inspection is so important for both the shop and the customer.

Brake servicing can be one of the most straightforward and lucrative revenue streams for a service repair shop, yet it can also be a source of frustration, friction, lost income and lost business if not performed properly.

A successful brake service starts with an effective brake inspection, and, as NAPA Autotech’s Tom Stapor reveals, there is more that goes into the inspection than many technicians often realize.

Effective brake inspections are broken down into specific segments. These consist of:

  • A preliminary inspection
  • A vehicle road test
  • A detailed visual inspection (which includes inspecting the brake calipers, drums and wheel cylinders; friction material, brake lines, master cylinder, bleeder screws, fluid; wheel speed sensors and parking brake system.)

For most of us, a vehicle is either the first or second most expensive item we will ever own. It often depreciates the minute we drive off the lot and often; we will hold onto it for a number of years (the average age of a vehicle in Canada is now up to 9.7 years, in the U.S. it is even higher at 11.8 years).

During that time, the vehicle will need maintenance and much of that work will revolve around serviceable wear items, which of course, includes brake components.

Stapor notes that the way in which service providers and technicians approach vehicle servicing will have the biggest long-term impact on both revenue and customer attention and, as he notes, it’s often the little things that count.

Protecting the vehicle

Starting off, Stapor says that the shop should take steps to protect the customer’s vehicle when it is in the shop and this includes installing disposable seat covers, floor mats, even steering wheel covers. “If you get grease on a modern heated steering wheel, it is virtually impossible to remove,” he says. “You might end up performing a $1200 brake service and then find yourself having to fork out for an $800 replacement steering wheel, meaning your profit for that brake job goes down the drain.”

Additionally, Stapor recommends that technicians should ensure their hands and uniform are clean before touching the vehicle.

When it comes to inspecting the vehicle, start by doing a preliminary review of the vehicle and assessing any visual damage, including scrapes, cracks, dents, corrosion, road rash and stone chips to the bodywork and wheels. Not only can this ensure prior damage is documented to prevent any customer disputes down the road, it can also provide an idea about how the vehicle is maintained and driven.

“Is it being driven on primarily paved roads, is it being driven on dirt roads, has it been damaged due to curb hits?” notes Stapor. These are all things that must be considered before delving into the brake inspection itself.

Road test

Next up is the road test. An effective way is to go with the customer on a pre-designated, standardized test route that lets them drive with the technician riding shotgun. The reason for this, notes Stapor, is that the technician can observe the way the customer drives the vehicle.

Are they light or heavy on the throttle and brake? Do they engage in aggressive maneuvers? Do they hold their foot over the brake pedal when they’re driving? Also, are they tensing up their hands when driving, which could indicate a problem with the vehicle such as misaligned steering, leading to further mechanical and potential safety issues.

Also, by riding in the passenger seat, the technician can also pay attention to any noises or vibrations during the test drive. If the vehicle has major issues with the braking system, chances are the customer won’t want to drive it and even if a vehicle is delivered to the shop, it should be checked and secured before even inspecting it (a car with no brakes that rolls around the shop will cause big and potentially very serious problems).

A surefire way to avoid this, is by performing a pre-start test on the vehicle in which the ignition is set to the “run” position. Stapor says the technician should get into the vehicle and press the brake pedal. On most modern cars and trucks pedal feel should feel normal the first time you put your foot on it, since there will still be vacuum in the power brake system.

Then, the technician should pump the pedal three to five times and hold it in the down position until it feels hard. Turning the ignition to the run position should cause the dash to light up. Then by starting the vehicle, the brake pedal should drop, indicating there is vacuum in the system and its operating normally.

Taking your time

Once this has been performed, Stapor recommends diving into the visual inspection. And this is where things can go awry because not enough time is spent going over the vehicle. “This is much more involved than you might think,” explains Stapor. “A lot of guys wind up passing through this really quickly,” and while he notes that the more experienced you get at doing these inspections, the less time they will take, often technicians feel under pressure to get the job done as fast as possible, and by not taking their time to do the inspection thoroughly it can set them up for bigger problems down the road.

A logical place to start with the inspection is under the hood. Stapor says checking the brake fluid level and condition should be at the top of the list. “The fluid level should be somewhere between the add and the full mark,” remarks Stapor. “So that is where it should normally be, regardless of the vehicle’s age.”

Even if the pads are completely worn, the brake fluid should still be above the add level in the reservoir. If it’s at the full mark, chances are the vehicle was serviced recently and the fluid topped up, which it shouldn’t be, notes Stapor. Therefore, any signs of a high fluid level should be a red flag for the technician, hinting at sloppy service or repairs performed previously.

Contamination is bad

At this point, the fluid itself should also be inspected by removing and cleaning the cap on the reservoir. Brake systems are designed for glycol based fluid only, so if there are any signs of oil or any other petroleum based fluid entering the brake system such as orange gunge on the inside of the reservoir cap, the system is contaminated and a full rebuild will be required in which all components featuring rubber parts must be replaced. This will include everything from the master cylinder, calipers, wheel cylinders, hoses, brake valves and ABS modulators—which can run into thousands of dollars for the customer.

Next time, we’ll continue with our brake inspection, looking at the individual braking components and how to spot telltale signs of damage, abuse and neglect.

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