Why Are My Brakes Squeaking?

It's a sound pretty much every driver becomes familiar with sooner or later. One day you go to pump your brakes only to hear them respond with a high-pitched squeak or two instead of the quiet, innocuous whoosh you're used to. When it comes to cars, a new or unexplained noise is never something to ignore, so it only makes sense that you'd have questions. Why are my brakes squeaking, and what can I do to make them stop? How big a cause for concern are squeaking brakes? Is it still safe to drive a car if the brakes are squeaking, squealing, or otherwise making noise? Here's a closer look at the answers to all of those questions and more.

When Are Squeaky Brakes Nothing To Worry About?

Whether your brakes are squeaking constantly or only occasionally, the reasons why are largely due to simple physics. Your car’s brake mechanism consists of a metal disc that sits in between two pads. When you step on your brake pedal, the pads move toward one another, squeezing the disc between them and ultimately either slowing the vehicle down or bringing it to a complete stop. Naturally, this creates quite a bit of friction and vibration (that you can’t feel), and sometimes that vibration hits a frequency that you can actually hear. If the conditions are right, that sound can be a squeak or even a squeal. Such sounds don’t necessarily mean your brakes aren’t working, and they can occur for many reasons. The following are some good examples that are nothing to worry about:

  • Worn brake hardware is the leading cause of brake noise. Even though the steel clips look fine when you do a brake job, they are actually spring loaded and lose their tension over time which creates brake noise. This could also cause your pads to wear more quickly, but it’s not a cause for immediate concern.
  • Sand, dirt, or debris can sometimes make its way between the pads and rotor and generate noise when the brakes are activated. It is likely removed quickly, but often leaves grooves in the rotors that will lead to noise down the road.
  • Moist conditions can cause a thin layer of rust to form while a car stands idle overnight or over the course of a few days. This can make your brakes squeak or squeal until it clears.
  • Cold weather can similarly affect your brakes, as well as cause them to squeak when activated. Once the system generates enough heat from a few stops, the noise will go away.

None of the above reasons are cause for concern. However, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between squeaking caused by issues like these and noises that can definitely indicate a problem. Here’s how to know when noisy brakes may actually be cause for concern.

When Should I Worry About Noisy Brakes?

Brakes that are squeaking for innocent reasons usually aren’t noisy all the time. They’ll be noisy until that layer of morning rust clears or while you’re towing a heavy load behind you and then go back to being quiet. However, brakes that squeal literally every single time you activate them or noise that persists even when you’re not braking should be investigated. Most brake pads contain a little finger of metal that’s there specifically to tell the driver that it’s time for a replacement set. If you hear squealing, squeaking, or grinding that is present all the time and under every condition, that could easily be the reason for it.

Persistent or unusual brake noise can also be a sign that your brakes need to be lubricated or adjusted. It can be a sign that part of the braking mechanism itself is wearing out or otherwise needs to be serviced as well. In other words, it’s better to have your brakes looked at if they’re consistently noisy or appear to be getting progressively noisier. Your brakes are nothing if not a critical safety feature, so it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

How Can I Make My Brakes Stop Squeaking?

Even if you know for sure that your brakes aren’t squeaking because there’s actually something wrong with them, you may still want to know how to stop brakes from squeaking. It can be irritating to say the least, not to mention all that squeaking can be really distracting when you’re trying to keep your mind on your driving. The following are a few simple, easy ways to address the problem.

A few simple changes to the way you drive can eliminate a lot of potential noise. Make sure you’re not forcing your vehicle to pull or carry loads that it wasn’t built to handle. When tackling steep grades, get into the habit of downshifting instead of riding your brakes the entire time. Also take care to keep a safe distance from other vehicles on the road so that you don’t overuse your brakes.

There are products you can buy to cut down on the amount of noise your brakes make as well. Brake lube is one example that comes in many forms, including spray-on formulas in cans and gel-like options that come in tubes. Many auto supply shops also carry adhesive pads that can be applied directly to the points where your brake pads meet the metal disc between them. Such pads are designed to absorb some of the vibrations that cause irritating noises and make driving a much quieter experience.

If you know your brakes are equipped with bargain brake pads, you may want to consider an upgrade at some point. Better quality pads not only do a better job of slowing and stopping your car, but they’re a lot less likely to squeak or squeal. They tend to last longer as well.

At the end of the day, it’s simply not possible to be too careful when it comes to your brakes. Whether or not yours are currently squeaking or otherwise giving you trouble, get into the habit of monitoring them regardless. Bring your car in for a routine brake pad replacement if you know it’s time. (Most brake pads are good for 20,000 to 70,000 miles, depending on the quality level and degree of use.) Bring it in sooner if you have any reason to believe something’s really wrong as well.

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