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Atlantic Racing Scene

How our Atlantic Canada climate affects your braking system

xBy Jay Lerue

Anyone who lives in Atlantic Canada and thinks our winters are not detrimental to their cars, is either in complete denial, or simply has not lived here for very long.  The fact remains that our winters, though considered to be “moderate,” are aggressive enough to wreak havoc on our cars, trucks or just about any metal vehicle we choose to drive throughout the cold months. If this were not the case, the “Winter Beater,” industry would not become so vital towards the end of every Autumn season.

As winter closes in, those of us who have a means of storing a good car away to preserve it, will often look for “road side specials,” consisting of whatever older, more worn, but still road worthy “sacrificial” cars we can buy privately to get us through the snow and slush.  The one area that I want to focus on this issue, is how our climate affects the braking system on our cars, here in the Atlantic provinces.

Have you ever noticed that after a period of sitting still, you can peer through your car’s rim and see that your rotors, which are usually shiny and clean looking, have already begun to oxidize, or rust?  Of course, this poses no immediate threat to your braking system, as it quickly falls away when you next apply your brakes.  But over time, the cast iron in your car’s rotors become heavily rusted and along with regular wear, can be reduced to the point of warping.

2006 Lincoln Zephyr technical illustration: Four-wheel disc brakes, ABS and traction assist.

The very nature of the way rotors work, is that your caliper pushes your brake pads against the inner and outer wall of your rotor, which slows you down and stops you, ultimately. Rotors by and large, are very resilient and must endure intense heat from friction.
The result of this repetitive strain, combined with the elements, can result in intense damage. When this happens, your choices are limited to either replacing them, or putting them through a process often referred to as “turning them down,” where upon a sharp bit is placed against the turning rotor and a very light skim of cast iron is removed, giving your rotor a smooth, newly leveled surface and a temporary new lease on life.

The accepted wisdom seems to be that you can do this as many as two times, before complete replacement should occur.  Exactly how often this rotor maintenance or replacement process occurs in other regions is anyone’s guess and is likely limited to a case by case basis, where there are many variables and arbitrary factors to consider.
But, the fact remains that cars from the warmer, dryer climates have a better track record and longevity than those that are here, exposed to greater levels of humidity, precipitation and perhaps the most harsh ingredient of all, road salt.

Rotors, calipers, brake lines and even your brake pads are all susceptible to the almost caustic properties of salt.  Sodium Chloride being it’s scientific name, salt can make short work of even the toughest iron or steel, when exposed to it long enough.

When I took a welding course years ago, we were taught that iron is for lack of a better word, “starving,” for all the elements surrounding it, making it vulnerable, when exposed to certain conditions. For iron to become iron oxide, or rust, three things are required: iron, water and oxygen. Here’s what happens when the three get together: When a drop of water hits an iron object, two things begin to happen almost immediately. First, the water, a good electrolyte, combines with carbon dioxide in the air to form a weak carbonic acid, an even better electrolyte.

As the acid is formed and the iron dissolved, some of the water will begin to break down into its component pieces - hydrogen and oxygen.

The free oxygen and dissolved iron bond into iron oxide, in the process freeing electrons. The electrons liberated from the anode portion of the iron flow to the cathode, which may be a piece of a metal less electrically reactive than iron, or another point on the piece of iron itself.

The chemical compounds found in liquids like acid rain, seawater and the salt-loaded spray from snow-belt roads make them better electrolytes than pure water, allowing their presence to speed the process of rusting on iron and other forms of corrosion on other metals.
Aluminum, for example, will not rust, as it is non-ferrous (no iron content) but will corrode greatly, giving off an almost “fuzzy,” white by-product that has the ability to cause a tire’s seal to let go on an aluminum alloy rim.
The end result of all this scientific information, as far as your braking system is concerned, simply, is that it affects it greatly.
A preventative maintenance schedule is the best defense against any braking related issues that you might incur.   Often, a technician will use a file, or even an air tool to remove any unwanted rust from your rotors and or brake drums, keeping them free and clear of obstruction.
A special compound, often copper or nickel based, either aerosol, or brush-able paste is also applied to your various braking parts, which acts as a buffer between two iron surfaces, preventing any “seizing.”  The technician is also trained to spot any weak areas in your brake lines, where a “blow out” could result in a lack of braking.

The benefits of adhering to a regular brake maintenance schedule, especially here in the Atlantic provinces, far outweigh the cost of doing so.  Anyone who has ever had to make a sudden stop and been able to do so successfully can attest to this.  Your ability to stop arbitrarily and quickly has a very adverse and direct affect on collision avoidance.  
Remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Till next time, take care and happy motoring!

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