The brakes are a part of your car you never want to take chances with. While every system on your vehicle is important, the difference between good brakes and bad brakes can be life and death. That's why you need to make sure your rotors are working at 100% all the time. If something goes wrong, the result could be catastrophic.
What Are the Rotors on Your Car?
The brake system on your car consists of several key components. There are pads, calipers, and the brake rotors. You can easily pick out the rotors if you go looking for them. They're metal discs, one on each wheel of your car.
The brake pads are connected to the rotor via the calipers. When your wheels are in motion, the calipers will squeeze the brake pad to apply pressure to stop the vehicle. The result is the creation of quite a bit of heat. The heat is a result of friction, and of course friction is what makes the will slow down and stop. In a nutshell, that's how your brakes work.
As you can imagine the rotors need to be functioning properly to ensure your car stops when you expect it to stop. If something goes wrong with your rotors, you need to make sure it's looked at and taken care of right away.
There are actually several kinds of rotors that could be on your car. The most common kind of rotors are Blank and smooth rotors. These are just perfectly flat smooth metal disks. When you look at most modern cars, you can easily see these.
Slotted rotors are very similar to smooth but there is a noticeable Ring of slots spread across the surface of the rotor. These are exceptional for larger Vehicles, think big trucks. The slots allow extra are across the surface of the rotor so that when you break more air circulates and dissipates the heat more quickly.
A third kind of rotor is known as drilled rotors. They're the same shape and size as the smooth rotors but there are a series of precisely drilled holes in them. The reason for this is that these holes allow water and debris to pass through more easily. These are more effective for driving in very wet conditions as they allow the water to be pulled away from the rotor itself preventing potential break slippage. Even though these excel in wet conditions, they're not good for high performance Vehicles as they give a fail under high heat.
The final kind of rotors are drilled and slotted. If you have a high-performance vehicle these are probably the rotors that you have. They're made for breaking at high speeds to offer the best heat dispersion. If you're not driving a performance vehicle, these would probably be unnecessary.
Signs That Your Rotors Need to be Replaced
When your brake rotors start to go bad there are a few signs that you could be on the lookout for.
If you hear a squeaking sound when you apply the brakes on a regular basis, it's a good sign that there's something wrong with your rotors. The sound of metal grinding on metal means that your pads have probably worn down and you're now grinding metal right against your rotors which is very damaging. The sound is unmistakable and will be very annoying when you hear it. It can be high-pitched or very loud and grating.
Over time, your rotors will wear down and become uneven. It's possible they could also suffer some corrosion. That affects their performance and makes them unreliable.
As simple as it sounds, the easiest way to see how your rotors are doing is to literally see how they're doing. You should be able to get a look at them through your rims. If you can't actually see through your rims, you may need to remove a tire first. If the rotors have clearly worn grooves in them, they will need to be replaced. Your rotors should be perfectly flat and smooth. Even if you have slotted or drilled rotors, the surface itself should be even all the way across.
If you can't tell right away whether or not the rotors are perfectly flat, you can park with your wheels turned to the left or right and get them on a good angle for viewing the rotors. Any substantial wearing down means they're not working as effectively as they could be.
In extreme cases, your rotors may have actually cracked all the way through. Cracks are very noticeable, and also very dangerous to leave unrepaired. Your brake pads can't get a proper purchase on a cracked rotor. Worse, the rough edges of that crack are going to shred your pads something fierce. The result of which will be incredibly uneven braking.
Aside from the sight and sound that the rotors will make when something is wrong, you'll also be able to feel it when you're driving. If you're getting some push back when your foot hits the brake, especially in the form of a wobbling or pulsating feeling, that's an indication that there is some issue with your rotor. When they wear down it's generally uneven so as the calipers press the pads into the rotor, the result is an uneven braking. That pushes back and you can feel it. It's a pretty helpful tool for judging whether or not you need to take your car in to get looked at.
In more extreme cases, you'll be able to feel these vibrations not just through the brake pedal but even in the steering wheel. This is because your steering and brake systems are very closely related in the car. You definitely want to get to a mechanic as soon as you can if you find that the steering wheel is giving you some vibrations or wobbles anytime you apply the brakes.
Even if you haven't noticed the sound or felt anything unusual in the brake pedal, you may notice when your rotors are failing because of poor performance. If it gets so bad that you find yourself having to stop far in advance of where you actually want to stop, then you know things have gotten bad.
When your brakes seem to be soft or spongy and even with your foot all the way down it takes a bit of coasting before you finally come to a complete stop, you absolutely need to get them checked out right away. It's far too dangerous to drive anywhere under these conditions. Imagine what could happen if you needed to break in a hurry to avoid another car or pedestrian, but your brakes were in such bad condition that it requires 10 or 20 extra yards to get that done. You can't take a risk like that.
There's a chance that your car will give you a warning when there's a problem with your brake rotors. Check the dash for the ABS light. If it’s staying on, then it's possible that your ABS system is suffering as a result of worn out and damaged rotors. This is especially problematic as fixing it requires not just your rotors being replaced but the ABS sensor could potentially need a replacement as well.
Because your anti-lock brake system relies on sensors, when you allow your pads and rotors to remain in that worn-out state for too long it can end up destroying your ABS sensor as well. It can cost anywhere from $100 to $200 for each ABS sensor that you need to replace on your vehicle. As you can see, this is an expense that's worth avoiding if you can do so.
What if You Don't Get the Rotors Replaced?
The longer you go without getting your brake rotors replaced when they're damaged or Warren, the more problems it's going to cause. Your brake pads in your rotors go hand-in-hand, so damaged rotors will end up damaging the pads and potentially the calipers as well.
Rotors that are allowed to continue to wear down not only get grooves worn in them, they can start to warp from the excessive heat. That makes the brakes work even more poorly. Not only does stopping become an extreme hazard, you could end up needing to replace the rotors, the brake pads, the caliper is, and even more as a result.
Basically, if you don't get the rotors replaced when you need to, it can cause a bit of a cascade effect damaging the entire rest of your brake system.
Most importantly though is the safety issue. You can't risk your safety, or the safety of other drivers and pedestrians by not getting this fixed. The moment you notice your brake rotors are malfunctioning, you need to head to a mechanic.
Cost of Replacing Your Car's Rotors
As with any repair, the cost of getting your brake rotors fixed or replaced can vary greatly based on several factors. Obviously, geography affects repair cost. Repair costs in California don't always align with repair costs in Idaho. Even on a smaller scale, mechanics on one side of town may not charge the same as a mechanic on the other side of town. Shop around to compare prices before you agree to anything.
The make and model of your car is also going to affect the cost of repairing or replacing your rotors. More expensive models tend to have more expensive repairs.
In general, you can expect your new rotors to cost somewhere between $30 and $80 each. That's just parts. When it comes to labor, you're looking at around $200 per axle for repairs. When everything is factored in together, including the fact that you're probably needing your pads replaced at the same time, and you may end up with repairs that’ll cost $300 to $500 per axle.
Unfortunately, changing your rotors is not the kind of repair the average car owner is able to do themselves. Unless you have a garage with the ability to actually raise your car up and remove the tires and associated components of your brake system, it's not even worth considering. Basically, if you're not sure right now that you can replace your rotors, you probably should not be replacing your rotors. Leave this one to the professionals.
What About Resurfacing?
Brake rotor resurfacing is potentially an option for fixing your rotors without actually having to replace them. This is a lot easier to do with older vehicles as older rotors tended to be made of thicker metal.
Resurfacing involves putting the brake rotor on a kind of lathe and literally smoothing it down. Consider it like using sandpaper to smooth down some wood. You're just removing the uneven surface until it is flat and even again. This could technically be done several times over the life of a rotor, as long as there's enough material left to ensure that the brake rotor is working safely and efficiently.
Because newer rotors are often made of thinner metal in an effort to reduce the overall weight and cost of the vehicle during manufacturing, it's harder to resurface them as easily. In time, resurfacing can make the brakes function poorly. Rotors will heat up more easily if the metal is thinner because it's harder for the friction to dissipate. That will cause them to wear it out even faster and warm more quickly in the long run.
In general, you should be able to get at least a couple of resurfacings done to rotors over their lifetime before it's no longer an option.
Resurfacing should be done every time you get your pads changed, which should be every 50,000 to 80,000 miles. The cost of resurfacing, also called turning, shouldn't be more than $10 to $30 per rotor. There are some mechanics who may charge as much as $50 or more for resurfacing, but this is not too far removed from the cost of buying a brand new rotor so it's best to avoid a price that high.