Exploring the Alternative: All About Air Brakes

The brake system is one of the most important components of a roadworthy car or truck. If you’ve been doing your research, you may have come across the concept of air brakes, which is different to the traditional brakes you will find in your everyday vehicle. In recent years, search trends indicate that more and more general consumers are wanting to learn more about these types of brakes, as an alternative. Is it true that air brakes can be fitted to all vehicles? What are they traditionally used for? Where can I source air brakes in South Africa? These are all questions we’re going to delve a little deeper into in order to give a comprehensive overview of this interesting system.

What is Air Brakes?

Air brakes are more formally known as compressed air brake systems. The system allows for compressed air to apply pressure to the brake pads, in order to more effectively bring the vehicle to a quick stop. First developed by George Westinghouse in 1869, the idea was for this type of system to prevent train collisions and to more effectively allow trains to come to a stop in an emergency. Going through numerous refinements in the years to follow, the system eventually branched out, with the patent even resulting in the surprise creation of the automatic brake. Having proved its efficiency on the railway, it was subsequently adopted by heavy duty road vehicle manufacturers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Benefits of Using Air Brakes Over Hydraulic Brakes

Hydraulic brakes use a liquid to transfer pressure and subsequently stop the vehicle in the process. Air brakes, as the name suggests, use air, providing a range of benefits, and increasing the efficiency of the brake system as a whole. In a nutshell:

  • The system can never run out of its primary operating fluid, as the supply of air is unlimited. A small leak will not shut down the entire system, as would happen elsewhere.
  • Air becomes the primary transmission fluid, but also contributes as a transmission of force. It stores as potential energy when it is compressed, whereas hydraulic fluid is incompressible. If the compressor fails, there will still be a reserve of air to stop the vehicle, which is a major safety benefit, especially in an emergency.
  • Air line couplings are easier to attach and detach than hydraulic lines, as there is no risk of air getting in the hydraulic fluid. There also isn’t a need to bleed the brakes during a service.

Why All Vehicles Don’t Have Air Brakes

Knowing the advantages, you’d think that air brakes would be incorporated into most modern vehicles, and not just those where hydraulic brakes would not be strong enough to bring the heavy vehicle to a stop. The following reasons attribute to their establishment in the commercial vehicle industry, rather than in passenger vehicles:

  • Air brakes are traditionally more expensive than hydraulic systems.
  • Maintenance costs are also generally higher, as a side effect of the system is that it produces moisture, which needs to be removed regularly using air dryers. This is not something that your average consumer would keep an eye on or be interested in doing, in the same way a large company with a fleet of trucks would be able to.
  • In some countries, you need an additional license in order to drive a vehicle with an air brake system. From a logistical point of view, governments are not too keen to implement this. There is also a rather steep learning curve when it comes to using an air brake system, rather than a traditional hydraulic one.

Air Brake Suppliers in South Africa

If you’re just as fascinated as we are, and curious to learn more about air brakes, or you’re wanting to make sure you equip your commercial truck fleet with the right brake system, a good place to start your research process is Safety Brake & Clutch in Johannesburg. These guys are brake and clutch specialists, and are always happy to answer any questions related to their specialist products. Depending on your needs, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction, equipping you with the knowledge you need to make the best possible decision for your business, family or even just for your own vehicle.