There’s an old joke that goes something like this: The beautiful young girl asks the daring race car driver, “Isn’t it terribly dangerous racing around the track at such high speeds?” The race car driver doesn’t hesitate when he responds: “It’s not going fast that you have to worry about; it’s the sudden stop that will kill you!”
While the above may have a little bit of truth in it, the reality is for most drivers, it’s not being able to stop that might kill you (or your customer). That’s the reality and seriousness of your job when working on a customer’s brake system. There are maybe only one or two other systems on a vehicle that are as critical to safety as the brake system. The job of repairing vehicle brakes is getting harder every day. Due to all kinds of reasons, good and bad, the systems continue to get more complicated almost on a daily basis. Once upon a time, brakes were a relatively simple system. The brake system had two main functions: the hydraulics to create force, and the brake pads and shoes to create the friction to stop.
Today, brake systems are comprised of many sections including such things as anti-lock braking systems (ABS), active traction or skid controls, computer-controlled braking, vacuum assist, electro-servos for various jobs, electric parking brake circuitry and several other new additions. Oh, and let’s not forget, vehicles still have hydraulics, friction materials, hardware, springs and the myriad of other small bits and doo-dads to hold everything in place while Mr. or Mrs. Customer does a panic stop at 80 miles an hour in the pouring down rain at rush hour on the 405 expressway!
Following is a look at some of the types of tools and equipment you should consider adding to your tool box to make sure you’re staying ahead of the curve when it comes to servicing today’s modern brake systems. I have attempted to cover the major types of repairs that you might see come into your shop. The list is broken down into groups based on these repairs.
While there are many times where you will be able to repair a vehicle’s brakes without a scan tool, you only have to run into one car that needs this to make it worth having. The reality is that if your customer’s vehicle is 10 years old or newer, there’s nearly a 100% chance that you could need a scan tool to perform some sort of test/repair on the brake system.
There are two main options when making a buying decision about scan tools. You can purchase a stand-alone ABS scan tool/tester, or you can choose to purchase a scan tool system that has ABS available standard or as an add-on piece of software. Almost as important as the software itself are OEM vehicle-specific ABS connectors/cables, which allow you to access brake systems via connections other than the standard OBD II connector. This is a must for certain vehicles and systems.
The scan tool will allow you to do many services, such as diagnosing and repairing an ABS failure, clear brake-related codes and, in some cases, reset service lights after a standard brake service, such as brake pads.
A new and growing system on vehicles has created the need for a specific piece of electronic equipment. A few years ago, a couple European car manufacturers made electronic parking brakes standard equipment on their vehicles. Since that time, many other manufacturers have followed suit. This has made the Electronic Parking Brake Tool a necessity for working on many European and domestic late-model systems. This tool is even needed for the simple job of replacing brake pads.
The parking brake system uses computer-controlled electronic servo motors to activate the parking brakes. In order to replace the pads on these vehicles, you’ll need this tool. The tool does several things including retracting the pistons, as well as “teaching” the on-board controller that the car has gotten a new set of pads. In addition to facilitating the repair, this tool will also help reduce or eliminate the chance of you doing hundreds or even thousands of dollars of damage to a set of electronic calipers.
Resurface or Replace
This continues to be an often discussed (argued about) subject. According to many OEMs, brake rotors and drums should be replaced, not resurfaced. Some (including this writer) wonder how much of this is based on safety as opposed to economic reasons. In any event, there are still several tools and types of equipment to consider that are either directly or indirectly used for resurfacing brake drums and rotors. The most expensive and complicated piece of equipment is the actual lathe used to resurface drums and rotors. There are two main types that you should consider when making this capital expenditure for your shop — the on-car lathe and the traditional bench-style lathe.
On-Car Lathes — The on-car lathe is used and was created to service brake rotors while they are still installed on the vehicle. There are two reasons why this might be done. The first is vehicles that have trapped rotors. This simply means that the rotors cannot be quickly or easily removed. They might be pressed on the vehicle or be installed in a manner that requires a large amount of labor to remove other components in order to remove the rotors. In these situations, it’s beneficial to be able to turn the rotors in place for time and labor savings. This also reduces the chance of damage and injury to the technician.
The second reason you might choose an on-car lathe is because in some instances the results obtained with this type of machining are superior to the results of machining rotors on a bench-mounted lathe. The reasons for this can be several, but the main one is that the rotor is being turned while it is mounted and in a real-world situation. By machining on the car, you can eliminate the possibility for mistakes or differences that can occur during mounting and set-up on a bench lathe. This can give the customer a better result including less noise, chatter, vibrations, etc. When purchasing an on-car lathe, it’s important to find out if the unit you’re looking at comes with or has as an accessory a drive unit. This is an electric motor that will rotate the vehicle’s wheel assembly during the machining process. This eliminates the need to operate the vehicle’s motor while it’s on the lift. The drive unit will add cost to the total purchase price, but in many instances this is a safer way to do the process.
Bench Lathes — The standard bench lathe still has a place in automotive repair as it has for the last 80+ years. While most new passenger vehicles have disc brakes standard on all four wheels, many light- and medium-duty pickup trucks still use drum brakes on the rear wheels. If your shop services light- or medium-duty trucks, it may make sense to purchase a bench lathe. The bench lathe can service both brake drums and rotors. Bench lathes, in many cases, are less expensive to purchase initially and are incredibly dependable with a relative low cost of operation. The basic design of the tool hasn’t changed in more than 50 years, and it’s not uncommon to find these old beasts still just plugging along after all that time.
Measurements of brake drums and rotors and the friction material are performed regularly as part of brake service. Below are some things to consider when purchasing measuring tools.
Drum/Rotor Measurement Tools — During any standard brake service, you need to verify that the rotor is still thick enough to be used or resurfaced. The minimum thickness is stamped on 99.9% of rotors. This is the discard point for the rotor. Some rotors also have machine-to specs, which is the thinnest that you can safely machine the rotor to. In many instances, brake drums also have the maximum diameter that is safe to use stamped on them.
Rotor Measurement — Brake rotors have to be measured with a caliper due to their design. Calipers are available in either digital or analog formats. Both offer accurate readings, you’ll have to decide which one you’re more comfortable with. Good analog calipers are accurate to 0.001” or 0.01 mm. One reason to choose analog over digital is there’s no battery or electronics to replace/repair. In any event, make sure that you choose a tool that can read both in inches and millimeters, as many vehicles are marked in millimeters. On digital calipers, be sure to check on features such as data hold, auto shut-off and back lighting. These will all make using the tool easier and faster.
Drum Measurement — Many of the topics listed above are exactly the same for brake drum measurement. The tools are available in both analog and digital styles. One thing to think about on a drum micrometer is maximum and minimum capability. Some mid-size trucks can have big brake drums! Also import and compact cars can have very small rear drums and some have a drum for the parking brake inside of the rear rotor, which can be very small. So be sure to ask your dealer for the min/max on the tool.
Combo Tools — Some of the digital tools are combination rotor/drum micrometers. This allows you to use one tool for both jobs. While the cost is higher than a single micrometer, in most cases, it’s less expensive than two single-function tools.
Some may argue that these aren’t really tools. I would disagree and here are a couple of reasons why. Many manufacturers require fluid change and/or testing on a regular maintenance schedule. This can be based on mileage or time in service. Brake fluid quality is becoming more and more important as the systems become more complicated. Brake calipers, once relatively inexpensive replacement parts, can now run into the hundreds of dollars. One cause of component failure is corroded internal brake parts. Corrosion is a by-product of moisture and acid formation in the brake system, and the OEMs are becoming more and more critical about brake fluid quality. Below is some information about fluid testing tools.
pH Fluid Testing Strips — One of the simplest and most inexpensive methods to verify the health and remaining life of your customer’s brake fluid is with a pH test strip. Once confined to the doctor’s office, this strip is the fastest way to determine the need to replace or flush a customer’s brake fluid. Simply dunk the strip in the brake fluid reservoir, wait a few seconds, and voila! The strip will give you a clear color reaction that you can compare to a chart on the package to determine the health of the fluid. This is a great tool for upselling brake service. You should implement this into your service on every car that comes in the shop. This 30-second test can create hundreds of dollars in add-on business for your shop.
Electronic Brake Fluid Testers — These testers are electronic tools that use probes and a low-level electric current to test the brake fluid. You simply insert the probe into the brake fluid reservoir; the tool will display a light for good, bad or marginal. This tool uses resistance to measure the moisture content of the fluid. It is initially more expensive than the test strips, but if you use the tool in a high-volume shop, you may possibly be able to break-even on the cost. In most cases, the tool uses replaceable batteries that will add to the cost of service. Both styles of tool are good assets to diagnose brake fluid. Ultimately, it will come down to personal preference as to which one is right for you.
Brake Fluid Flushing
Many late-model cars require regular fluid changes as mentioned above. On older cars, fluid flushing and fluid bleeding was pretty much the same thing. How many of you remember this game: Pump!…Hold!…Pump!…Hold!? Ahh, the good old days! As you probably know, in many cases, you can’t change or flush the fluid on late-model vehicles without the assistance of a brake bleeder. To complicate matters a bit further, some vehicles can only be flushed via pressure, while others use vacuum or a combination of both! To be able to bleed or flush/exchange fluid, your shop needs to invest in the right equipment. Below are several ideas for brake fluid tools.
Hand Vacuum Pump — This versatile, inexpensive tool is the absolute minimum tool, in my opinion, that is pretty much mandatory to service late-model brake systems. These tools are available in a number of different configurations. The basic tool has the ability to generate 29 inches of vacuum by means of you squeezing the pistol-style grip. The higher-end tools are more desirable and are able to create vacuum or pressure with the flip of a lever. This pressure function is becoming more important with some vehicles as you must force clean fluid through the system. Both style pumps come with a large assortment of adapters for bleeder valves as well as fluid reservoirs.
Air Assist Bleeders — This intermediate-priced tool uses shop air to assist in bleeding vehicles. This can be a big help on large systems. While more expensive than the hand pump tools, this can be a job saver for some cars and trucks.
Brake Fluid Service Machines — While the most expensive option for fluid service operations, these tools should be considered for several reasons. These multi-function tools can assist in several activities including Flush, Fill, Exchange and Bleed. If your shop is a high-volume one doing lots of brake work, this tool is one to consider. There are lots of reasons why this equipment can make sense; one important benefit to this tool is supply management. This tool can help eliminate every tech in the shop having a half-empty bottle of brake fluid sitting on their bench. No more open bottles of fluid getting contaminated with air. The brake fluid machines keep fluid air-tight and spill-proof, cutting down on wasted product, messes and bad fluid going into customers’ cars.
These machines can exchange fluid in a vehicle in a fraction of the time it takes a technician to do it using conventional methods. They are especially handy for filling up a system after component changes. The better machines have a large selection of wands for sucking out fluid in various sized fluid reservoirs. You should also inquire about fluid capacity for both dirty and clean fluid in the machine.
A nice feature is capacity information by model. This should provide you with capacity, as well as fluid type required. Finally, ask your dealer if the machine can hold more than one type of fluid. This can be an expensive purchase and if it will only service one fluid type, you’ll be faced with deciding if you want to purchase more than one machine or go back to bottles for the less common fluids.
While not all of the tools and equipment needed to service today’s cars and trucks, the above are ones that can make your shop and you more productive, safer and hopefully more successful in your career.
Here’s hoping all your customers’ stops are safe ones!