Brakes are one of the most important components on any road-safe vehicle. And brakes themselves are made up of a number of absolutely vital pieces of equipment. While each part requires periodic maintenance and servicing, the one that needs our attention the most is the brake pad.
Pads are designed to be worn down over time as you drive your car or truck, and need to be replaced in order to avoid doing damage to the other more permanent components of your braking system. But just how often should you replace your brake pads? Keep reading to find out.
Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Brake Pads
The short answer is every 50,000 miles. But of course, the question “how often should you replace your brake pads” is more complicated than it may initially seem, and the answer depends on a number of different factors.
But a solid understanding of how brake pads work and why maintenance is important is the first tool you need to help keep your brake pads up and running. In this section, we’re going to teach you everything we know about brake pads. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a test. But do take notes.)
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How They Work
Let’s start from the beginning. When you hit the brakes, a cylinder releases brake fluid to the calipers, which squeeze down on your braking rotor to assist with deceleration of your vehicle. The rotor is called either a disc or drum, depending on the car you drive.
The brake pads are “sandwiched” between the calipers and the rotor. They are made of a slightly grainy material which is designed to create friction around the rotor to help you slow down and stop. Your brake pad also works to dissipate the heat generated by this friction. Without the brake pad, your braking system would not be nearly as effective or safe.
What They’re Made Of
Brake pads are made of a variety of different materials that are designed for different kinds of cars and driving styles. And these different materials wear down at different rates - what your brake pads are made out of is a major factor in determining how often you should replace them.
- Organic brake pads are the least expensive option for your vehicle. Made of compounds like glass, rubber, or kevlar, they are extremely soft and are the easiest on your rotors. But they also wear down the fastest, and cause a lot of brake dust which can clog other components on your braking mechanism.
So while you might initially save money by buying organic brakes, you will end up replacing them more often – in as little as 25,000 miles.
- Semi-metallic brake pads are made up of between 30 - 60% metal particles such as steel or copper bound together by resin. They are great at dissipating heat, and extremely durable, lasting up to 70,000 miles.
The major downside to semi-metallic brakes is that they need to be warm in order to work well, and aren’t good everyday brakes if you live in colder climates. But as long as you don’t live in the arctic circle, these pads are an effective and affordable option.
- Ceramic brake pads are the most expensive, but also the most durable and effective pads you can hope to find. If you own a supercar or other high-performance built-for-speed vehicle, you almost definitely have ceramic pads.
But you can still get them for your family van, if you feel like shelling out for the price. They cost a lot up front, but you’ll only have to change them every 10 years, or 80,000 miles.
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Stock vs. Performance
If your car came from the dealer, and not a mod-happy gearhead, you most likely have the generic stock brakes installed on your vehicle. And that’s just fine if you spend most of your driving time on public streets going at a reasonable speed.
If you like to have all the latest innovations on your vehicle, you might be tempted to go for the high-performance brake pads at your next tune-up. But unless you like to take your car to the race track on weekends, you really don’t need them.
That said, installing premium pads on your commuter car can be a good move towards the longevity of your braking system. Higher-quality pads themselves wear down at a slower rate, and also cause less stress on other brake components. Performance brake pads on carefully-driven everyday vehicles may last as many as 100,000 miles.
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How to Tell if Your Brake Pads Need to be Replaced
Still wondering how often should you replace your brake pads? Here are a few signs you can look for to tell if it’s time:
- Squeaking. If you hear a squeak or a screech every time you brake, this means your brake pads have completely worn out, and it’s time to get them replaced.
- Grinding. A grinding sound is the next phase after squeaking. This means that your pads have been worn out for a long time, and now the rotors and calipers are starting to wear each other out. You might have to replace the whole brake if this begins to happen.
- Brake pad indicator. Most new cars will tell you if it’s time and will turn on the brake pad warning light when your pads wear down to a certain thickness.
- The brake pad looks worn. If you look between the spokes of your wheel, you can see the brake pad and will be able to tell if it looks like it’s on its last legs. Or you can ask your mechanic to perform a visual inspection whenever you get your oil changed.
How to Make Your Brake Pads Last
Anything you do to extend the life of your brake pads will also be good for the longevity of your brakes overall. Here’s how to make that happen.
- Go easy on the brakes. Coast when you can, pump them if you have to slow down quickly, and always give yourself plenty of room to slow down.
- Never ride your brake while accelerating. We know going slowly up a steep hill can be anxiety-inducing, but “two footing” your pedals wears down your brakes at an incredible rate. Don’t worry: your accelerator will keep you safe on a hill.
- Perform regular maintenance. If you’re rotating your tires or getting an alignment, ask your mechanic to flush your brakes or clean out dust, dirt, or other particulates from the brake chamber while they’re at it. Your brake pads will thank you.
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