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Why Are My Brakes Smoking? Potential Reasons Explained

Everyone knows that a failure in the braking system of a vehicle can be potentially fatal, depending on the extent of the issue. Brakes that are smoking can cause panic, but it is also not a common problem, raising even more alarm when it does occur.

Some of the reasons brakes start to smoke are brake overheating, a stuck brake caliper, twisted or pinched hoses, driving with the brakes on, brake corrosion, and new pads or calipers.

What Are Brakes?

Most everyone knows that the brakes work by pressing the brake pedal and stopping the car. Most do not know all of what works between the pedal pressing and actual braking. Even though the nitty-gritty details can be more complicated, the braking system is quite simple when examined briefly.

What happens after pressing the brake pedal? The piston within the master cylinder opens, forcing brake fluid through the brake system, creating the force needed to open and close the calipers. The calipers are part of the brakes that contain the brake pads which contact the brake disc and close to stop the car. 

disc brake

The Reasons Your Brakes are Smoking

Even though it is not normally a common problem, several different things can cause your brakes to smoke.

A Stuck Caliper

A stuck caliper happens when something prevents the brake caliper to not open back up after the brake pedal is lifted. This could be caused by corrosion, a broken brake hose, or debris that accumulates between the brake housing or brake shim. It is one of the more common causes of brake sticking but can be corrected by taking your car to a mechanic.

Signs of a stuck caliper included pulling one direction or another while driving, visible caliper sticking, and of course, smoke or the smell of smoke from the brakes where the caliper sticking is occurring.

New Pads or Calipers

new brake pads
A set of new brake pads

Many new things require a "brake-in" period, including new vehicles, brake pads, and brake rotors. Brake rotors and pads have to work together; Even though rotors do not have to go through a brake-in period per se, pads surely do. Brake pads could be the culprit of smoking brakes (even brake squeak), but after they get broken in, they should stop.

Debris

Although a much rarer reason brakes smoke, debris that is wedged between the shim and brakes, or debris that is wedged between the pad and rotor can be the cause of the smoke. Calipers and pads putting pressure on a rotor that is spinning incredibly quickly can build up massive amounts of heat. Friction causes heat buildup, and heat buildup can eventually cause fire and smoke.

Incorrect Installation

Incorrect installation of just about anything can lead to some drastic consequences, especially if it's mechanical. This is a very broad category for most things - including braking systems - but it does happen, most frequently in DIY jobs where a professional is not utilized.

For instance, brake pads are not universal; They vary based on size, shape, brand, friction material, purpose, and more.

Overheating

Overheating brakes are another large contributor to brake smoking. Brakes always have the potential to overheat since so much weight has to be stopped and so much pressure needs to be applied to the brakes to do so. Hills, where speed control is necessary, can also do havoc on the brake pads, causing them to overheat, and eventually, smoke.

Corrosion

Corrosion is another common culprit for a large number of issues. When it affects the braking system in any way, it could cause the calipers to stick shut, can cause hoses and pipes to fall apart, and prevent almost any part of the braking system to do its job.

Restricted Brakes Lines and Other Hoses

Damage from an accident, corrosion, or age can all cause hoses and piping that carry essential brake fluids to fail. This can come in the form of disintegration to pipes and hoses getting bent out of shape for several reasons. Damage from an accident would cause this fewer times and general age.

Two-Footed Driving or Driving with the Parking Brake Applied

Most new vehicles have quite a few warning lights, but that still does not always have an effect in preventing a vehicle owner from ignoring them or not seeing them. The emergency brake light is no exception. Even though the emergency brake is not as large as regular brakes, the amount of friction produced can still cause smoke.

In a vehicle with an automatic transmission, you only need one foot to drive the car – your right foot for accelerating and braking. A vehicle with a manual transmission will require your right foot to operate the brake and accelerator, and your left foot for the clutch pedal. Two-footed driving is when someone uses their left foot the brake and their right foot for the accelerator.

The problem with this is when your left foot is resting on the brake pedal while the car is accelerating or driving. The constant friction while driving causes heat to build and smoke to occur. 

What is the Expected Lifetime of Brakes?

worn out brake pads
Worn out brake pad

Brake pads are usually the first braking component to wear out. They are designed to do this, and they can last anywhere between 20,000 miles and 70,000 miles depending on the quality and driving style of the vehicle owner. It is much rarer for other braking components like calipers, the master cylinder, and even rotors to wear out sooner. Rotors can usually go several thousand more miles than pads.

Regardless of why your brakes smoke, 40,000 miles is a good average time-span of any braking component before a repair or replacement needs to be made. 

How Much Do Brakes Cost to Replace?

Any time a brake component starts showing smoke, the first step should always be to check with a mechanic concerning the issue. Unless the reason for smoking is readily apparent, a tow truck is the best option to get your vehicle to a mechanic for diagnosis. After getting the vehicle where it needs to be, the diagnosis should be an indicator as to how much will be needed to be spent on the issue. 

If rotors and pads are the main reasons for smoking, you may be gifted with a financial break. They are both easily accessible and costs can range from $500 to $1,000, depending on how many rotors and pads need to be replaced. Throwing in caliper replacement can cost from $300 to $1,000 depending on how many need to be replaced.

Replacing the entire braking system is quite a large undertaking and can potentially cost thousands more, but the entire braking system is rarely the reason that the brakes are smoking.

It is much more common that it can be an easily fixable solution that will be less than $1,000 in total. Many brake smoking issues can even be as little as $100, especially if you perform the work yourself.

Final Thoughts

Brakes are some of the most well-known vehicle parts, even though most people only know that they stop a vehicle from moving. The braking system as a whole is still relatively unknown to the average driver.

When your brakes start smoking, it can inevitably frighten the driver. Most brake smoking causes like debris that gets caught within the brakes, two-foot driving, brake overheating, corrosion, and new pads require relatively simple fixes.

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
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