Fade, or brake fade is the reduction in stopping power caused by a buildup of heat in the braking surfaces (and in the case of drum brakes the change in dimension of components in response to heat; the curvature of the brake shoes then failing to match the curvature of the brake drum) . It occurs most often during high performance driving or when going down a long, steep hill. Owing to their configuration this is more prevalent in drum brakes. Disk brakes are much more resistant to brake fade and have come to be a standard feature in front brakes for most vehicles, although the brake rotors can become warped due to excessive heating. Fade can also be caused by the brake fluid boiling, gas is released and since gas is compressible you get a spongy pedal. This condition is worsened when there are contaminants in the fluid, such as water, which some types of brake fluids are prone to absorbing.
Brake fade and rotor warping can be reduced through proper braking technique; When running down a long downgrade that would require braking simply select a lower gear (for automatic transmissions this may necessitate a brief application of the throttle after selecting the gear). Also, periodic, rather than continuous application of the brakes will allow them to cool between applications. Continuous light application of the brakes can be particularly destructive in both wear and adding heat to the brake system.
There are a couple of causes for brake fade:
- When the fluid boils in the calipers, gas bubbles are formed. Since gasses are compressible, the brake pedal becomes soft and "mushy" and pedal travel increases. You can probably still stop the car by pumping the pedal but efficient modulation is gone.
- Pad fade is when the temperature at the interface between the pad and the disc exceeds the thermal capacity of the pad, the pad loses friction capability due partly to out gassing of the binding agents in the pad compound. Pad fade is also due to one of the mechanism of energy conversion that takes place in the pad. In most cases it involves
the instantaneous solidification of the pad and disc materials together - followed immediately by the breaking of bonds that releases energy in the form of heat. This cycle has a relatively wide operating temperature range. If the operating temperature exceeds this range, the mechanism begins to fail. The brake pedal remains firm and solid but the car won't stop. The first indication is a distinctive and unpleasant smell that should serve as a warning to back off.
In either case temporary relief can be achieved by heeding the warning signs and letting things cool down by not using the brakes so hard. In fact, a desirable feature of a good pad material formula is fast fade recovery. Overheated fluid should be replaced at the first opportunity. Pads that have faded severely should be checked to make sure that they have not glazed and the discs should be checked for material transfer. The easy permanent cures, in order of cost, are to upgrade the brake fluid, to upgrade the pads, or to increase airflow to the system (including the calipers). In marginal cases one of these or some combination is often all that is required.
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