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How Often Should You Replace Your Brakes?

in Ownership
An exposed brake.

Photo by Benjamin Brunner on Unsplash

You need your car to have brakes. This may be an eye-rollingly obvious statement, but it’s true! Brakes are arguably the most important part of any road-safe vehicle (besides maybe the wheels) and they work very hard every time we drive to keep us safe – our brakes deserve to be treated with care and respect.

But unless you’re a mechanic or super-dedicated car enthusiast, you might not know much about the brakes on your car, and you may wonder - how do you know if your brakes need to be replaced? How do you make your brakes last?​ How often should you replace your brakes​? Whatever questions you may have, CoPilot has the answer.

Some Things to Think About: ​How Often Should You Replace Your Brakes

First off, we need to clarify what we mean when we use the word “brakes.” There are three major components which make up the braking system, including the ​brake caliper, brake pads, and brake rotor​/disc. Any one of these components can wear out before the other two, and will then need to be individually replaced.

But in this article, we’re going to focus on the braking system as a whole, including all three components.

It’s also important to understand which brakes we’re talking about. There are two braking systems in every road-safe car: there’s the emergency brake, which keeps your vehicle from moving when it’s parked; and the service brakes, or the ones you operate with your foot.

For this post, we’re talking about the latter. There are also three different kinds of service brakes which can be found on different kinds of cars and trucks.

  • Disc brakes are the most common on older cars. When you hit the brake medal, the caliper makes two ceramic brake pads squeeze the disc, or rotor, which helps stop the vehicle you’re in. They are designed to last anywhere ​between 25,000 and 70,000 miles​.
  • Drum brakes can be found on larger, heavier vehicles like big trucks or busses. When you brake in a vehicle with drums, two brake “shoes”, or curved brake pads, clamp on the drum and slow you down. Because drum brakes were made for heavy-duty vehicles, they can last​ up to 200,000 miles.
  • Anti-lock brakes keep newer cars from skidding out, especially in rainy weather or other slippery road conditions. Remember in driver’s ed when they told you to “pump the brakes”? ​That’s what an ABS does​. It automatically and very rapidly pumps the brakes for you so that you can slow down faster and avoid a crash. Anti-lock brakes are set up similarly to normal disc brakes, and need to be replaced about as often.

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Whatever braking setup your vehicle has, there are a number of different factors which will affect the longevity of your braking system.

  • Brake pad material. ​The stuff that your pads are made out of determines how often you need to replace them. Harder materials are loud and tend to be heavier so​ they can take a toll on your MPG​ - but they last a lot longer than their softer, lighter, more fuel-efficient counterparts.
  • City vs. highway driving. ​If your daily commute takes you through lots of stop signs and traffic lights, you probably (hopefully) do a lot of braking. This means that your brakes are getting used more than they would if your usual drive had you cruising down an open highway.​ More use means your brakes will wear down faster​, and need to be replaced more often.
  • Manual vs. automatic transmission. ​A stick shift takes some of the pressure off of the brakes by allowing the driver to ​down-shift, or “engine brake” ​which allows you to slow down by manually putting the car into a lower gear. An automatic vehicle doesn’t have this ability, and will only slow or stop though braking. The brakes in a manual car or truck tend to last a lot longer than in an automatic.

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How To Tell if Your Brakes Need to be Replaced

The answer to the question “​how often should you replace your brakes”​ isn’t the same for every driver.

But there are a few hard-to-miss tell-tale signs that will let you know when it’s time.

  1. A ​squeaking or scraping sound​ every time you brake means that your brake pads are worn completely out, and now your bare calipers are clamping down on the metal of your disc. If you go too long without addressing the squeak, you run the risk of doing even more damage to these components. When the squeaking starts, replace your brakes!
  2. If you need to s​lam or push the brakes down excessively far​ in order to slow or stop, it’s a sign that something’s worn out, broken, or loose. Your brakes should be optimally functional at all times in order to keep you and other drivers safe.
  3. A s​huddering or vibrating sensation​ when you brake means that the rotors are warped, and the braking mechanism can’t get a proper grip on the discs. You might be able to get away with just replacing the rotors, but if you put that off you will eventually need to replace the entire system.
  4. You can always stay on top of it by having your mechanic do a visual inspection every time you get a tune-up. And just like an oil change, once you do get them replaced, you can have your favorite car service professional give you an estimate for when your next brake swap date will be.

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How To Extend the Life of Your Brakes

How often should you replace your brakes​? Well, that’s up to you. Here are a few things you can do to help your brakes get to maximum mileage.

  • Observe the speed limit. ​We’re serious. ​Braking at high speeds​ gives your brakes more work to do, and will wear them out faster. But going slow and steady can help your brakes to reach their full potential.
  • Coasting is your friend. ​Don’t wait to brake until the last minute. If you know there’s a stop coming up, ​give your vehicle time to decelerate naturally before brakin​g. And if you’re driving in traffic, always allow plenty of room for the vehicle in front of you. Not only is it safer, but it will be easier on your brakes if you do have to slow down quickly.
  • Stay light on your feet. ​This means two things: don’t ride the brakes when you’re coming up to a stop, and ​keep your car as light as possible​. Heavier loads mean a harder time for your brakes, and can lead to premature wear.
  • Keep up with maintenance. ​You should flush and replace your brake fluid at least every two years to keep brakes in good working order. Like every other component of a car, brakes need a little TLC from time to time. And proper maintenance can keep them functioning well for many miles to come.

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