I had experienced classic brake fade.
Brake fade can occur essentially two ways. First, a brake pad can overheat from extended application—such as a long descent—and form a slick glaze on its surface. When this happens the brake pedal will still feel firm, but increased pressure will have little or no effect. Second, the brake fluid itself can heat to its boiling point. When this happens, the fluid turns to a gas—and gas, unlike the fluid, is compressible. So your desperate standing on the pedal just compresses the gas in the calipers and does little to squeeze the brake pads. This is what we experienced. The condition can be aggravated if you don’t regularly flush your brake system. Brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water, and since water has a much lower boiling point than pure brake fluid, old, contaminated fluid can cause premature boiling and fade.
Of course even stock vehicles with no weighty accessories bolted to them can be subject to brake fade, and even if no calamities ensue when it occurs it is a deeply unsettling experience. The logical first response is, “I need better brakes!” Indubitably true, but the path to obtaining them is fraught with hype and numerous ways to spend lots of money for very little if any gain.
Let’s start with that brake fluid. Brake fluid is graded on a DOT scale, based on its minimum boiling point, both dry (uncontaminated with water), and wet (contaminated). Most braking systems come from the factory filled with DOT 3 fluid, which has a minimum dry boiling point of 401ºF dry and 284º wet (see now how much water can degrade your brakes?). Dot 4 fluid is rated at 446º and 311º minimum, respectively, and DOT 5.1 fluid carries a 518º and 374º rating. So simply spending 20 bucks or so upgrading your brake fluid can give you a full 100-degree margin over DOT 3 before gassing occurs. Note that these standards are minimums; many premium brake fluids will perform well above that and will say so on the label. And what happened to DOT 5 fluid? That’s a silicone-based fluid as opposed to the glycol base of DOT 3, 4, and 5.1. You can mix glycol-based fluids all you like, but cannot mix glycol and silicone fluids.
It will do little good to install better, high-temp brake fluid if your brake pads are sub-standard. Most vehicles come from the factory with organic-compound pads, or NAO (non-asbestos organic). These are sufficient for most use—they are quiet, don’t create much brake dust, and are easy on the discs—but if overheated can be subject to the glazing we discussed earlier. Semi-metallic pads, which are a mixture of iron, copper, steel, and graphite in an organic matrix, are significantly more resistant to glazing, at the expense of (sometimes) more noise, more dust, and faster disc wear—and of course slightly higher cost. A third type of brake pad, ceramic, attempts to solve the noise and dust issues of semi-metallic pads, and is resistant to fade, but less aggressive and generally not recommended for heavy-duty use, especially in cold climates—although the technology is still advancing..
So if your braking system is in good order, you’ve upgraded your brake fluid and switched to semi-metallic pads, and you’re still experiencing brake fade, what then? (I’ll refrain from suggesting, “Leave some of that crap at home.”) It might be time for a more drastic upgrade.
And that’s where marketing hype gets really tricky.
Many commercial kits (as well as a whole bunch of do-it-yourself threads on forums) “upgrade” the front brakes—where most braking occurs—simply by means of replacement calipers with more and/or larger pistons and larger pads than the originals. More pistons equals more squeeze and better braking, right?
Not so fast.
Remember all that kinetic energy we’re turning into thermal energy every time we stop? That energy (heat) has to be dissipated to enable repeated stops—or a safe descent down a mountain grade—without overheating the pads or brake fluid. And the way that heat is dissipated is through the brake disc. So if you install more powerful calipers on your existing discs, here’s what’s likely to happen: You’ll take the vehicle out for a trial run around town, and be impressed at the increase in stopping power. Those new four- or six-piston calipers grab that disc right now. Awesome. So you’ll then head confidently to that long downhill that resulted in a scary spongy brake pedal last month, and . . . oh. Whoa. Halfway down, the pedal feels like it’s got an entire bag of Sta-Puft marshmallows between it and the calipers. That’s because you’ve installed the means to inject more heat into the braking system without installing the means to get rid of it. As long as you’re just trundling around town you’ll get some benefit from the more powerful calipers, but under prolonged application all they’re likely to do is make your fade problem worse.