When it comes to driving safety, nothing is more critical than your tires and brakes. Here’s a guide to the two types of passenger-vehicle brakes, disc and drum. We explain how they work, how they’re different and alike, why you may have both types on the same vehicle, what kind of wear to expect, and what parts will need maintenance.
What is Disc Brakes?
Disc brakes are found on most vehicles today. They are mounted on the front axle and often the rear as well. To stop a wheel (and your car), a disc brake uses a caliper fitted with brake pads to grab a spinning disc or rotor.
The caliper is an assembly mounted to the vehicle with a bracket so it frames the rotor. It looks and functions like a c-clamp. It contains:
- Brake pads: metal plates bonded with material that provides stopping friction.
- One or two pistons to push the brake pads against the rotor when you brake.
- A bleeder screw to allow for servicing the brakes and replacing the fluid.
- A rubber piston seal that prevents brake fluid leakage and retracts the piston when the brakes release.
- A dust boot to keep contaminants out of the cylinder.
- Anti-rattle clips that keep the brake pads stable.
The rotor is made of cast iron or a steel/cast iron composite. It’s attached to the wheel hub and turns with the wheel. It’s the surface the brake pads contact. When you step on the brakes, pressurized brake fluid pushes against the pistons inside the caliper, forcing the brake pads against the rotor. As the brake pads press against both sides of the disc, the friction stops the wheel’s rotation.
Rotors can either be solid or vented. Vented ones have more surface area and can more easily dissipate heat.
What is Drum Brakes?
They don’t use brake pads as the friction material. Instead of a caliper that clamps brake pads against a rotor, a drum brake system has a wheel cylinder with pistons that push brake shoes out against the inside of a spinning drum. This contact slows and stops the rotation of the brake drum and the wheel.
Drum Brakes vs Disc Brakes – Which Is Better?
Although they both operate with the same basic hydraulics, the two types of brakes perform differently. Disc brakes are more efficient, provide better stopping power, dissipate heat easier, and work better in wet conditions, all while being less complex.
Most of today’s vehicles have disc brakes on all four wheels. Some base models have a disc on the front axle and a drum on the rear, to keep costs down.
In these models, why are discs put on the front and drums on the rear? It’s due to weight factors. A typical, unloaded vehicle is already about 10 percent heavier in front due to the engine. Then when you hit the brakes, the weight of the car transfers to the front. More braking power is needed there, making it a job for disc brakes.
Here’s more on how disc and drum brakes compare:
- Stopping power. Disc brakes apply more braking force faster, resulting in shorter stopping distances.
- Heat management. Since they are exposed to air, disc brakes cool better. Drum brake components aren’t as exposed to the air so they take more time to cool down after braking. This can cause brake fade, a loss of stopping power when friction material overheats.
- Wet performance. Disc brakes perform better in wet conditions because they are open to the air and can sling water off easily. Plus, the rotors get dried by the pads dragging across them. When water gets inside a drum brake it tends to get trapped inside the drum, so it takes longer for the friction material to dry out.
- Weight. Discs are lighter than drum brakes designed to apply the same force.
- Emergency brake. A vehicle’s emergency brake is usually applied to the rear axle. This feature is easier to install on a drum brake than to a caliper or inside the hub of a disc brake rotor.
- Cleaning. Disc brakes are self-cleaning. The brake pads “wipe” the rotor off when they’re engaged. Drum brakes are closed and are prone to brake dust collecting from the shoes, so they need periodic cleaning.
- Repairs. Drum brakes have more hardware and can be more complex to service. But drum brake shoes and wheel cylinders typically cost less to replace than disc brake pads and calipers.
- Since a lot of heat is generated by the braking system, plenty can go wrong. The act of braking converts kinetic (moving) energy of the vehicle into thermal energy (heat), subjecting many parts to very high temperatures.
- This means a lot of wear and tear even in normal conditions. Some brake components will need to be replaced over the life of a vehicle. There’s no set interval for this since it depends on your driving style, climate and road conditions.
- The solution is simply to get regular checks and replace pads, shoes and other components before braking is compromised or other parts get damaged.
4. Friction material
Disc brake pads slow the rotor through friction and they wear with normal use. Eventually, they become too thin to function properly. Same thing for drum brake shoes. The friction material on the shoe gets worn out and braking is compromised.
These components should be inspected regularly. You don’t want to wait until pads/shoes wear down to the metal and grind against the rotor or drum.
Other items in the braking system are just as important to keep in good repair. Routine brake service should also include the following.
5. Brake fluid
The brake system should be checked regularly for leaks and fluid should be replaced every few years (usually when the brakes are serviced). Any leak in the master cylinder, the brake fluid reservoir, the wheel cylinders, lines, or hoses will reduce the hydraulic pressure that’s created when brakes are activated. Basically, the system can’t generate the sufficient force needed to create braking power. You’ll notice you have to push your brake pedal a lot further in order to slow or stop.
Changing out brake fluid occasionally is also essential. This liquid is specifically formulated to prevent corrosion of the brake hydraulic components. But time and moisture contamination can damage its ability to do this important job.
Moisture that infiltrates the fluid will mix with the brake fluid, lowering the boiling point. Even though it resists evaporation, brake fluid will then be more likely to boil and turn into vapor when it gets hot. There will be less pressure in the hydraulic system, causing a low possibly very low brake pedal.
Along with moisture, it’s also very common for impurities like rust, road grit or brake dust to get into the fluid, causing internal damage to parts and reducing braking performance.
These rubber rings keep the hydraulic fluid from leaking and protect it from moisture and contaminants. They also cause the piston to return to its off position so the brake pads disengage properly when you release the brake pedal. If this doesn’t happen, you could experience brake drag and premature wear and the vehicle may pull to one side when you brake.
7. Brake Lines
Brake lines are steel tubes that connect the master cylinder to the brake hoses. A spongy brake pedal could mean air has gotten into a line.
Brake hoses carry the hydraulic pressure from the brake lines to the wheel cylinders and calipers. The rubber brake hoses flex, allowing the wheel cylinders and calipers to move up and down with the wheels in relation to the vehicle’s frame.
If the rubber wears out, your vehicle may pull to one side during braking or you may even get fluid loss and brake failure. If there’s wear inside the hose, small rubber particles can restrict the flow of fluid, causing a brake pull or drag.
The rotor surface can thin unevenly from the brake pad not releasing, leaving the pad in contact even when the brake pedal isn’t activated. When this happens, you’ll experience shaking or wobbling in the steering wheel when you brake.
10. Dust Boots
Brake components are constantly exposed to road debris and brake dust. The dust boot prevents grime from entering the caliper piston. If it fails and can’t do its job, piston damage can occur, causing brake drag, pulls, and premature wear.
11. Master Cylinder
Failing master cylinders can leak internally. In this case, you may get a low or fading pedal without visible fluid loss. Regular fluid maintenance is important for prolonging cylinder life.
Drum vs Disc Conclusion
So which brake type is better? As with most things in life, the answer is rarely clear-cut. Drum brakes have some major design flaws: they overheat too quickly, take longer to dry off, and are typically heavier than disc brakes.
At the same time, disc brakes cannot be used as parking brakes because they expand when hot and contract when cold. If we relied on them for a parking brake after using them, they would eventually cool off, shrink, and lose contact with the brake disc. Obviously, we’d have a problem here.
The two brakes are just different. Disc brakes are the more effective and reliable choice, but they have their limitations. Drum brakes are not very practical, but they are crucial to parking a car unless of course, you’d like to go back to wooden blocks on sticks.
Therefore, drum brakes are often still found in modern cars. Manufacturers will usually outfit the front wheels with disc brakes since they have to work the hardest, and drum brakes in the rear. Some sports cars will use disc brakes on all four wheels, but have one additional drum brake for parking purposes.