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On The Road

Brake repair cost varies by mechanic

Q: I think I need new brakes. I've called around to a few repair shops and received a wide range of quotes. Why is there such a difference? Should I just go with the lowest price?

A: There is no official definition of what a brake repair should involve. This means that every repair shop you call will be giving you a price estimate on a different repair procedure, based on its own definition, performed by variously qualified employees using parts of varying quality. Without inspecting the brake system of your vehicle, repair shops have no true way of knowing what must be done.

A brake inspection should consist of:

• A road test to check brake operation.

• A wheels-off inspection to measure brake rotor thickness. Every brake rotor has a specification for thickness to ensure safe operation. When they are outside this measurement, they cannot be used.

• Measuring the thickness of the brake material to determine if it is above a minimum thickness. The brake pads not only provide the necessary friction, but also help dissipate heat. If pads are too thin, they cannot perform these two important functions.

• Inspecting the brake calipers for damage, such as torn dust boots and sticking pistons. If the brake calipers are not performing as designed, they will not allow enough force to be applied to the brake pads to stop the vehicle.

At a minimum, a brake repair should consist of cleaning, inspecting and lubricating the brake hardware and components. In most cases, this would also include machining brake drums and rotors. These procedures are not performed as part of most cheap brake services but are probably the most critical. Lastly, the brake repair should include installation of new brake materials that meet or exceed the original design specifications.

The quality of parts used is another important aspect of the brake repair. There are lower-cost brake rotors and drums that are made of low-quality metal and are improperly heat treated. If inferior-quality components are used, they will not allow the vehicle's brakes to operate within the design criteria. Stopping distance increases.

For example, if a vehicle is designed to go from 60 mph to 0 mph in 230 feet, low-quality parts can increase the distance to 280 feet or more. That could mean the difference between no accident and a serious injury accident.

A correctly performed brake repair should do what is needed to allow the brakes to perform as they were designed. A brake repair that is not done correctly or done with low-quality parts, or both, may result in your vehicle not being able to stop in time to avoid an accident.

In short, deciding where to get your brakes repaired should not be based solely on the cost. Remember, it is important to have a brake inspection performed first, in order to receive a realistic estimate for the correct repair. For such an important and potentially lifesaving procedure, it is best to stick with a shop that you know and trust.

Warren McCord is an ASE certified master technician and owner of Dean's Automotive Inc., 2037 Old Middlefield Way, Mountain View. For more information, call 961-0302 or e-mail McCord at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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