Gimme brakes
September 20, 2007 4:33 PM   Subscribe

Teach me the best way to drive to save my brakes

I just had to replace the front brake pads -- for the second time -- on my beloved '05 Volvo XC90. It has just a hair over 37,000 miles on it. When I asked what the deal was in having to replace the pads again so recently (they were fully replaced at about 12-14k), the service guy commented that a lot of it has to do with 'how a person drives, where they drive, and what's in the car when they're driving'.

Any truth to this? For the record, I do mostly "Mom driving" (stop and go, 20-45pmh) around town, although it's not unusual for me to do longer runs on weekends on highways at higher ( consistent, 65-75mph) speeds. With regard to what's in the car, well, mostly, me, two little kids, sometimes a couple dogs, etc. It's not like I'm hauling anything truly interesting. It's a no-brainer that it's the stop and go nonsense that's killing me and my brakes. But at over $500 a pop, I need suggestions on how to make these babies last.
posted by dancinglamb to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
That's some extreme brake wear! A set of brakes should last somewhere between 50,000 to 90,000 miles depending on a variety of factors. You should definitely not be on your 3rd set by now.

Riding the brakes is the only habit I can think of that would prematurely wear them out to such a degree. By this, I mean driving with 2 feet in an automatic transmission car, the left foot resting on the brake pedal all the time. There are people who actually do this, and it's terrible for your brakes (and counterproductive to the whole process of driving as transportation).

Barring any unusually bad driving habits, I wonder if your front calipers are having problems and causing the brakes to drag at all times. Do you ever get a burning smell from driving the car? Does the car get poor gas mileage?
posted by knave at 4:39 PM on September 20, 2007

Some questions. The most obvious being, could the repair shop/dealer just be changing them as routine service whether or not they need it, and charging you? How did you know you had to replace the pads again? Did you having trouble braking in time and it was getting worse (you had to press harder and harder on the pedal or start braking sooner to accomplish the same amount of braking)?

Next most obvious, are you aware of your driving habits and do you ride the brake? I know a lot of people who have this gas-brake-gas-brake method to keeping a consistent speed, when better use of only the gas pedal would do.

Other than that, any chance you routinely drive off with the emergency brake engaged?
posted by cocoagirl at 4:52 PM on September 20, 2007

Other than that, any chance you routinely drive off with the emergency brake engaged?

Typically emergency brakes only activate the rear brakes, so it wouldn't affect front pad wear at all.
posted by knave at 4:57 PM on September 20, 2007

$500 for front brake pads? Is that really how much it costs? You should find a new garage, I think.
posted by davey_darling at 5:17 PM on September 20, 2007

On hills use the downshift (on automatics) to reduce and maintain consistent speed rather than use the brakes. I navigate most of the hills where I live in this way without using the brakes at all.

On the flat with a lot of lights, make sure to time your driving to the lights by remaining slow or "freewheeling" if the next light is on red. This makes for a far more comfortable ride and reduces brake wear, fuel consumption, and all sorts of things.
posted by wackybrit at 5:25 PM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: My first thought was, "This is a good question for Car Talk". You'll find that some brake pads are made of better material and will last longer. When you're getting your car serviced, is it being done by a Volvo dealer with OEM parts?

It is possible that there is a mechanical defect causing premature wear, but a good mechanic should have caught it.

There is a discussion on the Car Talk forums about brake pad wear here
posted by dereisbaer at 5:30 PM on September 20, 2007

Use only your right foot to drive an automatic transmission vehicle. Use your left foot only when the vehicle has a clutch, and only to operate the clutch. This will prevent you from applying engine power while braking, and it will also save your transmission, if you're doing it. Because if you're wearing out brakes at this rate, and sloppy coordination of braking and throttle is the reason, you're also killing your transmission prematurely. The cost of brake replacement pales compared to automatic transmission repair. But if you're going downhill frequently, you may need to shift to low gear ranges to assist with engine braking, as opposed to riding the brakes downhill, on such a large vehicle.

If your vehicle has the electronic brake assist, which is sort of ABS/traction control on steriods, it's important that the dealership look for malfunctions in that system, beyond just replacing pads and disks. That said, Volvo XC90s aren't thought highly of, when it comes to reliability or repairs. Consumer Reports just listed the V6 powered models as among their short list of vehicles that are "bad bets for lasting 200,000 miles."

Beyond these things, you could also learn the chauffeur stop technique, which has been taught at Rolls-Royce's chauffeur school. This involves braking normally, until just before the final instant, when you swiftly release the brake pedal entirely, to avoid the sudden "jerk" that comes when the moving brake disk changes from sliding friction to static friction, with regards to the brake pad. This is taught to chauffeurs to help them avoid the "lurch" that otherwise occurs at the last instant of stopping, thus saving their patron from spilling drinks unduly, or worse, tumbling out on the sidewalk when exiting a limo in a hurry. But it also saves major brake wear, by reducing the amount of fiber pulled out of the brake pads in that last instant.

You could also look for higher performance aftermarket brake parts, but the tradeoff for higher temperature, lower fade brake parts is poorer performance when cold. But if you're wearing out brakes in 12,000 miles, I'm betting your brakes are never cold. I generally get 90,000 to 100,000 miles on a set of front brake pads, driving mid-sized American sedans and pickup trucks.

I can't imagine ponying up $500 for brakes every 12,000 to 14,000 miles. That's terrible, but it does help to explain that vehicle's high cost of ownership, over 5 years.
posted by paulsc at 5:36 PM on September 20, 2007

If manual, change gear down and engine-break when doing a prepared stop (red lights etc).

But since you list speeds in mph, I'm guessing you drive an automatic.
posted by lundman at 5:44 PM on September 20, 2007

* Find another garage with ASE certified mechanics and ask them to inspect everything to ensure nothing is out of whack. I believe you can wear through the things early if the calipers are misadjusted, etc. (point is - it's worth looking into).
* You can ask for high carbon brakes which should last a lot longer but will cost more. With the wear and tear you're going through though, it'd be worth it.
* Lastly take it in after about 6 or 7,000 miles from now and to see how they are wearing. Sometimes the wear is uneven and that can cause us to go through them too quickly, even though half of it is still there. There is a procedure that makes it all even again and should prolong the life, but I can't remember the name of it for the life of me.
posted by jwells at 5:46 PM on September 20, 2007

1. follow the two second rule. Don't just tell yourself you're following it -- set your watch to beep every two seconds and actually train your self to follow the two second rule ALWAYS and at various speeds

2. follow the two second rule when starting up from being stopped at an intersection. Don't start until 2 seconds after the car ahead of you starts. People behind you will be annoyed at this. This is because they have never done or read about the standard 2nd or 3nd year Comp Sci traffic simulation project that would conclusively prove to one (assuming one is unable figure it out for oneself) that if everyone did this it would REDUCE traffic congestion, not increase it.

3. Notice when you are likely to have to stop again at the next intersection or two and don't accelerate to that intersection. Instead, coast to a stop. Again, people behind you will be annoyed by this. These are the stupid people. There are a lot of them. If you've ever had any doubt about our having evolved from the same ancestor as monkeys, following these driving habits will quickly eliminate those doubts.

I could continue but I think I have it out of my system. Sorry if you are insulted, but people who drive the way your brake wear indicates you do -- unfortunately way over half of drivers -- cause traffic congestion, accidents, road rage, and increased pollution.

These driving habits will also increase your city mileage by about 30-40%.
posted by lastobelus at 5:55 PM on September 20, 2007

Tell us more about how often you brake. Are you doing it in relatively free-flowing traffic? Are you accelerating and then braking trying to keep to a targetted speed?

You can really very effectively control your speed using only the accelerator and gears. You really only need your brakes to shed excess speed fast, to come a stop, and in emergencies.
posted by bonaldi at 5:57 PM on September 20, 2007

Response by poster: I got the car when it had about 5,500 miles on it (it was a demo, so that might explain the first set of brakes going). Volvo's servicing is every 7,000 miles or so (which is very different from our last car, a Camry).

It's an automatic transmission, with a manual option (meaning, no clutch, but I can switch over to manual -- which i do primarily when i need fast acceleration on on-ramps, changing lanes, etc.)

I don't ride the brakes (very conscious of that), only use one foot to drive, and know the chauffeur trick (grandfather taught me that ;) ). I also am hyper-aware of not doing to on again, off again method of driving with the pedals. It makes me totally nauseous, so I don't do it. :)

It is a lease, so I highly suspect we won't be doing a buy out for this reason. I absolutely love the car, but I knew going in that Volvo parts are sick expensive (yes, the car is serviced at a dealership). The $500 included the brake pads, labour and having the brake lines flushed (not to mention the freaking state sales tax, but that's another bitch). The actual line item receipt is out in the car, otherwise I'd look more specifically at it. Will have to wait for now.

Oh, and knave - yes, I do sometimes smell a burning, metallic scent. Not necessarily after breaking hard, either.

I've not heard of Car Talk. Will check it out. Thanks!
posted by dancinglamb at 5:59 PM on September 20, 2007

Response by poster: OK, some more thoughts. I *do* know how to drive a manual transmission, but have found it *very* counter-intuitive to try and do with with the oddly-fangled no-clutch version the Volvo has (for anybody that's not actually experienced it, it's all 'up and down' no actual 5-speed layout).

Any insight on how to do that? I have no problem converting over to using the quasi-manual version if it will save me brakes and gas.
posted by dancinglamb at 6:01 PM on September 20, 2007

Response by poster: @bonaldi:

I only use my brakes when I need to. My grandfather taught me to drive over twenty years ago. He impressed upon me that you never use your brakes unless it's an emergency. You take your foot OFF the gas to slow the car down and coast, and you sure as shit don't brake on the highway unless you want to scare the hell out of the guy behind you and cause an accident. He also taught me that I should always leave enough room between me and the guy in front of me when I stop so that I can see the bottom of the guy's rear tires *plus* six feet of asphalt, which would leave me enough escape room should I have to get out of the way from some idiot who's not paying attention and is about to rear end me. A noble and wise man, my grandfather was.

Obviously, on local four lane highways, with regular lights, I have to stop more often. I try and not accelerate to more than 30mph so that I can coast in between, without hitting brakes unless some dope inevitably cuts in front of me (if it makes a difference, I'm in NJ ;) ). I do admit, though, that I occasionally can't get out of having to drive in NYC, and then, all bets are off and I drive to win. :)
posted by dancinglamb at 6:09 PM on September 20, 2007

That pretty much entirely rules out you as the problem! New mechanic time.
posted by bonaldi at 6:14 PM on September 20, 2007

This was discussed on Car Talk once. Their (admittedly unscientific) consensus was that it's not worth trying to engine brake in order to save your brake pads, because you'll risk damaging or causing increased wear to parts of the engine and transmission that are far more expensive than the pads. However, I don't think they were factoring in $500 in pads every 15 to 20,000 miles.

If you are not riding the brakes as you drive, and you're not doing anything otherwise excessive (doing jackrabbit starts and then braking hard), I think you need to go to a different garage and get the brake system inspected, to see if the pads are rubbing.

Also, unless the rotors are ruined also, $500 seems ridiculous just for pads. I mean, you can go to Meineke and although you'll always pay more than whatever they're advertising (usually they advertise the prices for organic pads, which almost nobody uses anymore), you should get out for under two bills, if I had to guess. And I think some of the chain places warrant their pads for a certain number of miles, so if they did wear out, you'd at least get the replacement pads free (probably no labor though).
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:17 PM on September 20, 2007

Yea, don't downshift in a passenger car to save brakes, bad idea. Reserve that for vehicles with monster trannies.

I'm gonna guess that you didn't get ceramic pads last time, and I'm also going to guess that you're one of those "my foot's always on one pedal or the other" sort of drivers. Learn to coast, it's your friend.

But about ceramic pads, they're significantly more expensive, but they last longer and don't throw nasty black dust. And..$500 isn't out of line for a full brake service, really. Before I learned to do it myself, and the reason I learned to do it myself was that one WHEEL cost me $490, although my caliper had seized.

Look the parts up yourself at advance autoparts and/or Napa or wherever, and then factor in ~3 hours of labor at 40-90 bucks an hour, depending on where you are.
posted by TomMelee at 6:22 PM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: Oops, bad me on not reading all the posts. If you're burning pads that fast w/o braking, you MIGHT have a siezed caliper, what's your gas mileage like now compared to when the car was new? What made you decide to take them in for service? Noise?
posted by TomMelee at 6:23 PM on September 20, 2007

"... Any insight on how to do that? ..."

The "manual option" on your automatic transmission is just an override for the standard shifting selection the automatic transmission controller performs. If you manually select 1st gear, the transmission will not shift into 2nd or higher, and will inform the engine control module of the situation, possibly inserting a slightly lower rev limit cut out for the engine, to prevent you overspeeding the engine, when coming downhill. The shift gate is intentionally awkward to prevent people from easily shoving the shifter into 1st gear from Drive at 75 miles per hour, coming off the freeway exit ramp. Moving the shifter manually won't help you with improved mileage or brake wear, except if you have the will to lock the vehicle in low or 2nd (which will usually allow a speed upshift to 3rd, too, but not overdrive) when you come down hills. Then, the additional engine braking you can achieve with higher engine RPMs can save some brake wear, and more importantly, prevent your brakes from fading completely on a long downhill run, when your vehicle is fully loaded. Preventing vehicle runaway is the main reason for manually downshifting, but if you have a lot of steep downhill sections you drive daily, it might help with overall brake wear.
posted by paulsc at 6:24 PM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: Oh, and knave - yes, I do sometimes smell a burning, metallic scent. Not necessarily after breaking hard, either.

I'd be willing to bet you have brake caliper issues then. A stuck caliper will keep the brakes on all the time. Have the shop look for this, and hopefully as a warranty service item... If it turns out to be the culprit, I'd even expect to be refunded the cost of at least one brake job.
posted by knave at 6:45 PM on September 20, 2007

This involves braking normally, until just before the final instant, when you swiftly release the brake pedal entirely, to avoid the sudden "jerk" that comes when the moving brake disk changes from sliding friction to static friction,

I find it incredibly weird that I learned this trick in rural Wisconsin from a serious redneck friend of mine. It's bizarre to think that it may have originated from the good people of Rolls Royce.

And I will Nth using the engine to brake whenever possible, by which I'll pretty much take the opposing view of this:

TomMelee : Yea, don't downshift in a passenger car to save brakes, bad idea. Reserve that for vehicles with monster trannies.

I've driven cars in America for the last two decades. I've owned over 20 cars and 2 motorcycles, and I've never had to replace a transmission because it wore out from engine braking. Now I may be incredibly lucky or I have a great knack for finding good cars, but I think it's more likely that modern transmissions are more than capable of taking this kind of load without a problem.

For the record, I once limped a Nissan pickup along for two weeks with no brakes at all, (in a rural environment) by doing nothing other than down-shifting. So I swear by it's effectiveness from experience.

[And yeah, don't try that at home, kids.]

posted by quin at 10:54 PM on September 20, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks Guys! As always, the Hive Brain rocks. I'll call the dealership and ask them to look at the calipers next week. I'll update and let you know what they say.

Oh, and knave - I may be a woman, but damn, man, I so know the difference between driving with and without the emergency brake on. :P
posted by dancinglamb at 11:20 PM on September 20, 2007

Response by poster: @TomMelee:

I brought the car in for its scheduled 37,000 oil change. The brakes were making a slight noise, but I kind of dismissed it as brake dust (they always have that nasty black ick on the exterior of the wheels). I need to make a trip in the next few weeks and wanted to get the oil change out of the way now. I asked them to do a once over since the road trip involves taking my daughter down to Philly and don't need any unwanted surprises. The service guy called me and said that I had 'less than 2% remaining on my brake pads'. I told him that I really wasn't in the position to be dropping all kinds of cash on the car, and he told me he understood, but said that it wasn't the kind of thing that could really wait, especially if I was going to be doing a road trip at high speeds. Now, I know on a certain level it's a scare tactic. But on another, hey, I'm driving around two really little kids. So, yeah, call me a paranoid parent. But I digress...

I would say that the mileage is perhaps slightly lower than it used to be, but that's hard to say, since a lot of that is a variable - tire pressure, how much stuff I'm carrying in the car, distance/time, etc. If I had to take a shot in the dark, I'd guess maybe ~<10% over the past 3yrs I've had the car. I've honestly not given it much thought or attention to tell you the truth. Gas prices have sucked so badly this summer, that I've kind of just gone with the flow as it were, kwim? Still, nothing has been so egregious that it's really made me sit up and take notice. (I don't know if that answers your question or not.)
posted by dancinglamb at 11:36 PM on September 20, 2007

Their (admittedly unscientific) consensus was that it's not worth trying to engine brake in order to save your brake pads, because you'll risk damaging or causing increased wear to parts of the engine and transmission that are far more expensive than the pads.

Wouldn't that only be true if, during engine braking, you caused particularly high revs, etc? That is, on gentle hills.. it's no problem, but if your engine is screaming down a hill, then this advice makes sense?
posted by wackybrit at 3:39 AM on September 21, 2007

Oh, and knave - I may be a woman, but damn, man, I so know the difference between driving with and without the emergency brake on. :P

Don't look at me, cocoagirl suggested it.
posted by knave at 3:41 AM on September 21, 2007

@ Quin:
I drive 4 vehicles regularly:
A 7,500 lb international diesel box truck w/ automatic trans.
A 5,000 construction outfitted panel van
My current bike, a KZ750 LTD
And my little 2004 stratus.
I live in the mountains, steep mountains. Big truck gets engine braking allllll the time, the other two not so much. Yea manual trannies can take it more, but I still wouldn't recommend it unless you're towing or in a larger beefier vehicle. If you've owned 20 cars over 20 years, then maybe you just haven't had one long enough to tank it from engine braking, or maybe you just don't do it enough. You seriously use engine braking on a motorcycle?

@ dancinglamb
Nasty black ick means someone put on non-standard brake pads last time, with or without your permission. An 05 volvo would certainly need ceramic pads. Now, I've seen people in 06 Escalades insist on non-ceramic pads because the ceramics are $300 a wheel, but...

The gas mileage issue was to root out the stuck caliper possibility. It's not guaranteed that you'll lose significant mileage w/ a stuck caliper, but it's likely. Often, when you brake the car will tug to one side or the other as well, just a little bit, and only when stopping.

Good luck, I'm sure you'll get to the root of it.
posted by TomMelee at 4:23 AM on September 21, 2007

Car Talk says don't downshift for normal stop and go. Only time to do it is traveling down a long, steep decline to avoid the chances of brake failure!
posted by zackola at 7:46 AM on September 21, 2007

If you've owned 20 cars over 20 years, then maybe you just haven't had one long enough to tank it from engine braking, or maybe you just don't do it enough.

This is one of those tricky issues, most cars I buy are beaters that last me about three years, problem is that I tend to own more than one car at a time (for instance, right now I own five: one dead, one being restored, one about to be sold, and two that my wife and I drive.) Though truth be told, my standard daily drive is pretty flat and my engine braking isn't due to inclines, so that could definitely account for the differences in experience on this one.

You seriously use engine braking on a motorcycle?

Sure, but that was in my misspent youth, and I did all kinds of dangerous and stupid shit on those bikes. Generally it was an easy way to dump some speed without lighting up my brake light.

I leave it to your imagination as to why that would have been useful to a 17 year old with a taste for trouble. :)
posted by quin at 10:27 AM on September 21, 2007

Lol, I've done the same trick on my bike, I guess, now that I think about it.

I've never burnt a tranny engine braking, but I'm going on the idea that it's included as part of the SOP for the big truck and NOT in the manual or anything for the little car, there might be a reason for that. :)
posted by TomMelee at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2007

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