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Brake Pads 101:
Everything You Need To know

July 15, 2020

When it comes to keeping you safe on the road, nothing is more important than your brakes. They don’t just keep you safe, they keep everyone else around you safe as well. Best of all, they aren’t expensive to replace, and once you know the telltale signs of your brake pads needing replacement, you can even save yourself thousands of dollars over the lifespan of your vehicle.


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What Are Brake Pads?

Brake pads are a key component of your vehicle’s braking system and play an important role in making your car stop when you press the brake pedal. They are made of a flat piece of steel that has a thick friction material on one side. When you press the brake pedal, the brake pads make contact with the brake disc. This causes friction which stops the wheels from turning.

As you might imagine, wheels on a car can rotate incredibly fast, and bringing a heavy vehicle to a stop by using friction causes stress on the brake pads, causing them to eventually wear down over time. How quickly your brake pads wear down depends on how often you drive as well as your driving style. If you drive through heavy traffic daily and are using your brakes frequently, or you have a heavy braking style, you will need to replace your brake pads more frequently than somebody who does mostly rural driving or only drives occasionally.

In this article, we will discuss disc brake systems as these are fitted to most modern vehicles. If you have an older vehicle with a drum braking system, just keep in mind that the concepts are mostly the same, but there will be some differences.

What’s The Difference In Brake Pads?

Brake pads are made of a material that maximizes friction. To maximize the grip that brake pads assert on the rotors, different materials are used that can withstand higher temperature and friction demands.

Brake pads have a specific temperature range for optimal braking efficiency – in modern braking systems, this is around 670 degrees Fahrenheit on average. If this is too low for your situation (for example, putting ordinary brake pads in a dedicated race car), the brake pads won’t be able to dissipate all of the heat caused by braking, leading to brake fade.

For most people, the manufacturer’s or your mechanic’s recommendation will suit your situation most of the time – but keep in mind that if you do any performance modifications to your vehicle, or attend weekend track days, you will need to consider upgrading your brake pads.

Non-metallic/Organic

These are the softest brake pads available. They wear quickly and are known to generate large amounts of brake dust.

Semi-metallic

These brake pads are fitted to most new cars sold today. The metal element makes them more heat resistant, but also, slightly less efficient at lower temperatures. These can be used in certain performance applications, as well as daily driving.

Ceramic

These are a higher-performance pad than semi-metallic, but also, significantly more expensive. They are only suitable for high-performance applications and must be warmed up properly making them undesirable for daily use.

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to each type of brake pad. For most people’s needs, a semi-metallic pad will be ideal.

Generally, How Often Should Brake Pads Be Changed?

Your owner’s manual will tell you how often you should change your brake pads, but make a habit of asking your mechanic to check them every time you have the wheels off (for changing a tire or getting a tire rotation, for example). They can tell if your brake pads need to be changed by inspecting the condition and thickness of the brake pads.

How quickly your brake pads wear out depends almost entirely on your driving habits. As a ‘general rule’, you should be getting somewhere between 25,000 – 65,000 miles from a new set.

What Are Some Signs It’s Time For New Brake Pads?

Brake pads incorporate wear indicators. This is a soft piece of metal that rubs against the brake rotor when the friction material of the brake pad is getting low. When the wear indication makes contact with the brake rotor, you will hear a high-pitched screech or squeal, indicating that the brake pads require replacement.

We must point out that you should not ignore any of these signs. If you do, your car will soon develop a grinding noise like metal rubbing against metal. This indicates that the friction material on your brake pads has completely worn away and the remaining metal is now grinding against the brake rotors. This will damage the rotors and require them to be replaced which is usually several hundred dollars above the cost to replace a set of brake pads.

What Should You Do If You Need New Brake Pads?

If you suspect your brakes may need some attention, the first step is to call your trusted mechanic and arrange an inspection. RepairSmith can change your brake pads in your driveway as part of our mobile service.

What Else Is Checked During A Brake Job?

The thickness of the brake rotors is measured and checked for signs of uneven wear, abrasion, or any scoring. The condition of the brake disc is checked for cracks, scratches, and damage. The level of brake fluid is checked in the reservoir.

Your mechanic will likely inspect the condition of your brake lines, give the suspension system a quick once over, and check underneath the vehicle for any leaks. They may also check the condition of your steering system and wheel bearings, while they have the opportunity, as these can be accessed more easily when a wheel has been removed.

The health of your vehicle’s braking system is easy to check visually, and mechanics won’t replace a braking component unless it’s nearing the end of its lifespan. If you want to see the parts that were replaced and how they’ve worn, just ask the technician. They will be happy to show you the worn parts and explain why they needed to be replaced.

How Much Does It Cost To Replace Brake Pads?

Estimating the cost of a brake pad replacement depends on what type of car you have and if any other work is required. If you’ve allowed your brake pads to wear past the indicator, and the rotors need replacing, or if your brake calipers are seized, it doesn’t take long for the bill to add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Our data shows us that our customers typically spend between $180 – $350 when we replace a set of brake pads for them. This is inclusive of parts and labor.

If you have the right tools and some mechanical know-how, you might even consider replacing your own brake pads. But for most of our customers, it’s much more convenient to let our professional technicians do the heavy lifting and making sure your brakes are working optimally to keep you safe when you’re out on the road.

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