Understanding brake fade

Picture yourself driving down a steep road and all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, your brakes become less and less responsive. Or, picture driving on your regular route and needing to stop suddenly to prevent a collision, yet your brakes react slower than they usually would — and should.

This may be a consequence of brake fade. If not managed properly, brake fade can present serious risks for you and other road users. It's for that reason that here, we're going to look into brake fade: what it is, its causes and solutions.

What is brake fade?

Brake fade is a condition whereby a vehicle's braking system performance decreases significantly. Specifically, brake fade can present as a sudden loss of braking power, reduced pedal feel or soft brake pedal, among other possible symptoms.

More generally, it occurs when a braking system becomes less effective at converting kinetic energy into thermal energy, ultimately leading to decreased control and performance.

What causes brake fade?

There isn't just one cause of brake fade; there are a handful of reasons this may be occurring with your vehicle. While we'll present six potential causes below, consider consulting with your mechanic to determine what exactly is causing your system's deterioration.

Overheating brakes: As one of the primary causes of brake fade, overheating occurs when the conversion of kinetic energy to heat energy is not properly dissipated. This commonly occurs when driving for a prolonged period downhill or as a result of abrupt driving habits.

Brake fluid boiling: Brake fluid transmits hydraulic pressure to the brake pads. However, vapor bubbles can form if the brake fluid reaches its boiling point, in turn yielding a weak brake pedal and reducing braking power more generally.

Brake pad glazing: Prolonged and overly heavy braking can lead brake pads to become glazed. Glazing occurs when the brake pad material becomes overly smooth and polished, reducing its ability to generate friction and impairing general braking effectiveness.

Substandard brake components: Naturally, low-quality brake system components — whether brake pads, rotors or related parts — are more prone to fade when stressed compared to their higher-quality counterparts.

Nonoptimal brake maintenance: Part-and-parcel with substandard brake components, neglecting brake maintenance — particularly a failure to replace worn brake pads — can significantly increase the likelihood of brake fade. 

Inadequate ventilation: Brake systems are designed with ventilation for effective heat dissipation. Brake fade can — and commonly does — occur if this ventilation becomes compromised, whether due to improper installation or simple wear and tear.

Notably, while there are multiple causes of brake fade, there are also two different types of brake fade per se. Green fade occurs when the brake's components are cold and haven't reached their necessary operational temperature. Green fade is generally temporary and can be resolved by applying the brakes gently until they warm up. Hot fade is more significant and occurs due to overheating, generally as a result of overly abrupt braking.

How can I prevent and address brake fade?

Generally speaking, there are two golden rules to both prevent and address brake fade.

Golden rule #1: Adopt optimal driving habits

As a significant amount of brake fade is the result of aggressive driving, consider both driving in a more controlled manner and — if occasion necessitates abrupt driving — allowing time for your brakes to cool down. Furthermore, avoid riding your brakes downhill for prolonged periods. Instead, =consider downshifting as a means of reducing stress on your braking system.

Golden rule #2: Ensure your braking system is maintained periodically

There are a handful of brake system components to look out for to prevent brake fade, such as the state of your brake fluid, pads and rotors, ventilation and other related parts. The best thing you can do is periodically check in with your mechanic to ensure that your brakes are working as they ought to, and that all the necessary components are in optimal shape.

To that end, trust the experts at Greening. We are a fully certified brake testing lab that provides a variety of brake testing services worldwide, able to ensure that your brakes are in the best shape possible. Contact Greening for a complimentary consultation.