Knowing you can stop your car quickly and safely is key to having peace of mind behind the wheel. It’s no wonder that many drivers have no problem shelling out money to make sure that their brakes are in impeccable condition.

Brakes are incredibly important to safety, but unlike other safety mechanisms in your car, brakes have been largely unchanged by technology. In fact, they operate on a fairly simple premise. Understanding a bit about brakes will help you stay safe and avoid costly unnecessary repairs.

Brakes 101: Brakes are pretty impressive: they can completely stop a fast-moving, heavy car in just a few seconds. In order to understand your brake repair options, you need to have an idea of how brakes work.

Here’s a very basic overview: When you step on the brake pedal, you apply pressure to brake fluid in a master cylinder that is connected by brake lines to your front and rear brakes. That increased pressure causes the calipers to press the brake pads against the rotor on your wheel. This creates friction, slowing the wheel. The more you press, the more pressure is applied and the more friction is created, which causes you to stop faster.

All of this friction causes wear and tear on the parts, which is why brakes need to be replaced regularly. How often will depend on the type of driving you do (more city driving will mean replacing your brakes more often), but you can expect to replace them roughly every 50,000 miles.

Signs Your Brakes Need Attention: Luckily, it’s fairly easy to tell when your brakes need work. Here’s what to look for.

  • Squeaking brakes: Brake pads are built with metal pieces inside them to help alert drivers when the pads need to be replaced. When the pads wear down, these metal wear indicators will grind against the rotor, giving the tell-tale squeal that indicates you need new brake pads.
  • Loose brakes: If you put your foot down and don’t get much responsiveness from your brakes, you likely need to top up your brake fluid.
  • Vibrating: Vibrations and rattling when you step on the brakes indicates that your rotor has become worn or misshapen. This happens naturally over time from the brake pads pressing into the metal rotor.

Brake Replacement Options: There are a few different options for brake repairs. Knowing which is best for you can save you money

  • Replacing the Pads: The pads get the most wear and tear, and have to be replaced most often. Luckily, this is a relatively cheap fix, and can even be done at home by people who are confident in their DIY abilities. Replacing the pads will cost approximately $150 per wheel. You can disperse the cost by replacing just the front or just the rear pads, although if one set has worn out it’s likely that the other set will not be far behind.
  • Topping Up Brake Fluid: This is a simple, at home fix, that is as easy as filling the washer fluid. Your owner’s manual will dictate what type of brake fluid your car needs. If your brakes feel loose again soon after top-up there may be a leak in the brake lines, so you should visit a mechanic.
  • Machining the Rotors: Machining the rotors involves sheering off a thin layer of the rotor in order to reduce the vibrations that you feel when you step on the brake. The sheering makes the rotor smooth again. Since it also makes the rotor thinner this can usually only be done once, but it is a good cost-saving measure.
  • Total Replacement: A total replacement will give you new pads, rotors and calipers (which control the pads). This is the most expensive fix, but will be necessary over the life of most cars.

Fixing your brakes can be intimidating because they’re so crucial to safety, but understanding the different repair options will leave you confident in your decision.