10 Troubleshooting Common Brake System Problems

Troubleshooting any problem with your car can be daunting, as many mechanical systems are complex, and you may not understand how they work. Fortunately, if you have the right knowledge and use a systematic approach to elimination, it is relatively straightforward to diagnose most issues. Haynes Manuals provides detailed instructions on how to fix many of these issues once identified.

When it comes to brakes, working out what is wrong can be particularly tricky because they experience so much wear and tear. Even when there are no major signs of wear in the system, quirks like noises or shudders can start happening without warning.

By understanding possible causes and symptoms of common brake issues, you will be able to make sound decisions about what repairs or maintenance needs to be done. This makes finding the corresponding instructions in your Haynes Manual for corrective action easier. Dig into learning more about it.

Here are the 10 Troubleshooting Common Brake System Problems

IssuePotential CausesRecommended Actions
Brakes Not WorkingLow brake fluid, air in brake fluidRegularly check and service brakes
Brakes Hanging UpSeized calipers/pads, seized parking brake cableInspect and address the issue promptly
Grinding/SquealingWorn-out brake pads, slow brake response timeReplace worn-out pads, flush and replace fluid
Brake Pedal LowFluid leak, air contamination, faulty master cylinderCheck fluid level, inspect, and service system
Weak BrakesAir in brake fluid, low fluid pressureBleed brakes, top up fluid, inspect for issues
Decreased PerformanceWorn brake pads, damaged rotors/drums, faulty calipersInspect wear patterns, check components
Brake Light OnAir in brake lines, low fluid level, ABS issuesTop up fluid, diagnose and repair the system
Unresponsive PedalLeaks in brake lines, sticking caliper pistonsInspect lines, and calipers, replace the master cylinder
Grinding NoisesSeverely worn brake pads, damaged rotors/drumsReplace worn parts, inspect rotors/drums
Pulsating PedalWarped rotors/drums, excessive heat exposureMonitor fluid levels, replace rotors/drums

1. The Brakes are not Working Well

Brake failure is one of the most dangerous scenarios that can happen when driving. Thankfully, car manufacturers have taken this into account and equipped their cars with fail-safes to prevent complete brake failure from happening.

Modern cars have a redundant hydraulic system that can provide fail-safe braking if one system fails and a parking/emergency brake for added safety. In simpler systems, each individual wheel will have its own braking power provided by the master cylinder, which contains two pistons and seals able to control them separately.

Though complete brake failure is mainly prevented thanks to these designed failsafe, there can still be some problems with your brakes. A soft pedal where you don’t feel like the brakes are engaging fully can indicate low brake fluid or air in the brake fluid, which means the brakes cannot create friction and stop your vehicle properly.

It’s important to check your vehicle regularly for any issues related to the brakes and keep it properly serviced to drive safely without any risk of complete brake failure.

2. Brakes Hanging Up

When brakes start to drag or hang up, it can be a dangerous problem as it causes energy to turn into heat. Not only is this very dangerous and possibly hazardous to your car’s performance, but it can also generate an unpleasant burning smell and noise.

The most common cause of this type of braking issue is when one of the calipers or pads becomes seized. This can often happen after extremely cold weather conditions where the brake fluid contracts, which makes the brake parts expand more than usual — and go out of compliance with each other.

Additionally, a seized parking brake cable could be another potential cause for your brakes hanging up or dragging. Whatever the reason for your car’s brakes not completely disengaging may be, it’s important to have them inspected as soon as possible by a professional mechanic in order to ensure you stay safe on the roads.

3. Grinding or Squealing Noises

Grinding or squealing noises coming from your brakes is a common problem that can cause concern. The most common cause of these sounds is worn-out brake pads. As the brake pads wear down, they begin to contact the metal rotor, which produces a grinding sound. It’s important to replace the worn-out brake pads as soon as possible in order to avoid further damage to the brakes.

Another common brake system problem is a slow response time when applying the brakes. This can be caused by air or moisture in the brake lines, which can reduce the effectiveness of your brakes. In this case, it’s best to have an experienced mechanic flush and replace the fluid in your brake lines to

4. Brake Pedal Low

Opening the car door and depressing the brake pedal with your foot should feel firm and responsive. A soft, spongy feeling or a brake pedal that touches the floor, when pressed, is an indication of low fluid pressure in the brake system. Low fluid pressure could be caused by a leak in the system, air contamination, or a faulty master cylinder.

In any case, there is an urgent need for attention as it could lead to failure during braking. To check for any signs of deterioration in the master cylinder, top up the reservoir with new brake fluid to its recommended fill line.

Wait a few days and retest to see if the level has dropped again — if so, take your car to a professional mechanic for service. The mechanic will determine if repair or replacement is needed and can inspect other components of the system while they’re at it. Proper maintenance is key to ensuring a safe and comfortable driving experience over time.

5. Weak Brakes

If you’ve noticed that your car’s brake pedal feels weak or spongy, there is likely air in the brake fluid. The first step to resolving this issue is to bleed the brakes, removing air bubbles from the line and assuring a good firm pressure throughout the system.

Before doing so, make sure to top up your brake fluid to the fill line indicated in the reservoir. If necessary, have a garage take a look at the system for any major issues.

If you feel confident enough, you can also inspect your car’s braking system independently. Jack up the vehicle and remove all four wheels before inspecting each braking system component, including pads and rotors (if any).

For drum brakes on certain models of cars, you will need to remove their casing first to check them properly. If you detect anything unusual while checking out your brakes, don’t hesitate to contact an experienced mechanic or technician for assistance.

6. Decreased Brake Performance

As your brake pads wear down, their overall performance can suffer. This common issue should be addressed as soon as possible to ensure your safety on the roads. It’s best to inspect the wear patterns on your brake pads to check for any signs of deterioration.

If they are significantly worn, you may need to replace them. It’s also important to check the rotors or drums for any signs of damage (if your car has either).

In addition, make sure that the brake lines aren’t leaking or cracked and that all calipers are functioning correctly. If everything appears to be in working order, you may need to have your braking system flushed and add new brake fluid. It may be time to replace the entire system if all else fails.

7. Brake Light On

When the brake light on your dashboard illuminates, it usually signals a problem with the hydraulic system in your brakes. This could be caused by air in the lines or a low brake fluid level, which will require flushing and refilling to restore the system. Additionally, it may signal an issue related to the ABS ( anti-lock braking system).

Start by checking the fluid levels and topping up the reservoir with new, clean brake fluid. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, it’s best to take your car to a mechanic for further diagnosis and repair.

8. Unresponsive Pedal

If your brake pedal feels unresponsive when you press it, it could be due to a number of issues. First, check the brake lines’ overall condition and ensure there are no leaks or cracks in them — if so, replace them immediately. You should also inspect the caliper’s pistons for any signs of sticking or corrosion.

Next, check the master cylinder for any signs of damage and wear — if necessary, replace it with a new unit. Lastly, top up the brake fluid reservoir to its recommended fill line. If all else fails and your brake pedal remains unresponsive, take your car to a professional mechanic for further inspection and repair.

9. Grinding Noises

If you hear a grinding noise when you press the brake pedal, it could indicate that your brake pads are severely worn. Inspect your brake pads for any signs of wear and tear — if so, replace them with new ones. You should also check the rotors or drums for any signs of damage and have them replaced if necessary.

If you hear a grinding noise when you press the brake pedal, it could indicate that your brake pads are severely worn. This type of noise is caused by metal-on-metal contact and can be very dangerous. To prevent further damage and keep you safe, it is important to inspect your brakes for any signs of wear and tear.

10. Pulsating Pedal

When your brake pedal pulsates or vibrates, it could be due to warped rotors or drums, which can occur when the brake system is exposed to excessive heat. To avoid this issue, monitoring your brake fluid levels and ensuring they are adequate is important. If the pulsation persists, you may need to replace your rotors or drums.

When your brake pedal pulsates or vibrates, it’s a sign that something is wrong with your brake system. In most cases, this issue is caused by warped rotors or drums, which can occur when the brake system is exposed to excessive heat. This issue can also be caused if you are driving on uneven terrain.

Ways To Diagnose Problems With Your Brakes

Diagnosing brake problems early is crucial for your safety and the performance of your vehicle. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to diagnose issues with your brakes:

  1. Listen for Unusual Noises: Pay attention to any grinding, squealing, or scraping noises when applying the brakes. These noises could indicate worn brake pads, damaged rotors, or other issues.
  2. Check for Warning Lights: If your brake warning light on the dashboard is illuminated, it indicates a problem with the brake system. Check your vehicle’s manual to understand the specific issue associated with the warning light.
  3. Observe Brake Pedal Behavior: Notice if the brake pedal feels soft, spongy, or unresponsive when pressed. A soft pedal could mean the air in the brake lines or low brake fluid.
  4. Feel for Vibrations or Pulsations: If you feel vibrations or pulsations through the brake pedal when applying brakes, it might suggest warped brake rotors or drums.
  5. Inspect Brake Fluid Level: Check the brake fluid reservoir under the hood. If the fluid level is low, it could indicate a leak or worn brake pads.
  6. Look for Leaks: Examine the areas around your tires for any signs of brake fluid leaks, which can appear as wet spots or drops.
  7. Check Brake Pad Thickness: If you can see the brake pad through the wheel spokes, it’s time to replace them. Inspect the brake pads for uneven wear or excessive thinning.
  8. Examine Brake Rotors or Drums: Inspect the brake rotors or drums for grooves, scoring, or uneven surfaces. Damaged rotors can lead to poor braking performance.
  9. Test Emergency Brake: Engage and release the emergency brake while driving at a low speed. If the emergency brake doesn’t release smoothly or if the vehicle doesn’t come to a complete stop, it may need adjustment.
  10. Pay Attention to Steering Pull: If your vehicle pulls to one side when braking, it could indicate uneven brake pad wear or a sticking brake caliper.
  11. Feel for Brake Fading: Brake fading occurs when the brakes lose effectiveness after prolonged use. It might be due to overheating if you notice reduced braking power, especially on downhill slopes.
  12. Inspect Brake Lines and Calipers: Look for signs of brake fluid leaks around the brake lines, calipers, and master cylinder. Damaged or corroded brake lines can compromise brake performance.
  13. Test Drive: Take a short test drive in a safe area to assess the overall performance of your brakes. Pay attention to how the brakes respond, the noise level and the pedal feel.

If you’re uncertain about diagnosing brake issues on your own, you should seek help from a professional mechanic. Regular brake maintenance and inspections are essential for ensuring your safety and the proper function of your vehicle’s braking system.

Frequently Asked Questions [FAQs]

1. What Are The Common Brake System Problems?

Various signs such as screeching, grinding, squealing, and rubbing noises may suggest a need for brake pad and shoe inspection. It’s important to address this issue promptly to avoid potential damage to other parts and costly repairs.

2. How Can I Tell If My Brake System Is Working Properly?

One way to tell if your brake system is working properly is to take your car for a test drive and pay attention to how the brakes respond. You should also check the fluid levels and ensure that they are topped up and that the lines are not leaking or cracked. Lastly, inspect the brake pads and rotors for any signs of wear and tear.

3. What Should I Do If My Brakes Are Not Working Properly?

If your brake system is not functioning as it should, the first step is to check for any warning lights on the dashboard. If the light is illuminated, you must top up the reservoir and flush and refill the lines with clean brake fluid. Additionally, inspect the calipers, rotors, and drums for any signs of wear and tear. If everything fails, take your vehicle to a qualified mechanic for further inspection.

4. What Is The Cause Of A Spongy Brake Pedal?

A spongy brake pedal can be caused by several issues, including air in the lines or contaminated fluid. To identify the problem, inspect the brake lines for any signs of leaks or cracks and top up the fluid reservoir with new brake fluid if necessary. Additionally, check that all connections are securely tightened and that the brake pads are in good condition. If the problem persists, take your car to a professional mechanic for further inspection.

5. What Are Brake Caliper Issues?

A technician can identify early indicators of a failing caliper, such as corrosion, dirt buildup, leaks, and guide pins that are not functioning properly. In the event that a caliper is already experiencing issues, the technician may observe uneven brake pad wear caused by a caliper that is either stuck open or closed.


It’s important to understand the signs that could signify brake system problems. Common brake system issues include grinding noise, pulsating pedals, spongy brakes, and caliper problems. If you suspect any of these issues with your vehicle, it’s recommended that you take it to a qualified mechanic for inspection and repair.

John D. Archer