Brake pads are the fundamental friction part of a standard set of rotor brakes on a car. You can’t stop without them, so keeping them in good condition is imperative.
Brake pads are designed to wear out. They’ll need replacing eventually. Most drivers want to know how long they last, and with good reason.
Most good-quality brake pads last about 50,000 miles. Of course, that depends on a range of factors, including your driving habits, the car’s momentum, driving conditions, and the material composition of the pads.
This guide will tell you everything you need to know.
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How Do Brake Pads Work?
It might be helpful to consider caliper brakes on bicycles to understand how brake pads work.
When you’re cycling along and want to slow down, you pull the handlebar lever. This forces two shoes (or “pads”) directly into the wheel rim, applying friction to slow the rotational movement.
Disc brakes on a car work in relatively the same way. You press a pedal with your foot instead of pulling a lever. This motion makes a piston in the caliper squeeze the inner and outer pads against the rotor face, applying friction to slow it – and, therefore, the wheel – down.
There are a few pretty significant differences, though. A car is much bigger and heavier than a bicycle. As such, a hydraulic system is used: brake fluid instead of cables. Force-amplifying components such as the servo are also needed.
You’ll also find many electronically-controlled components in today’s cars, such as ABS, to assist with braking.
However, in general, brake pads are a relatively simple concept. Force comes from the caliper, pushing them onto the rotor. Simple.
Symptoms Of Worn Brake Pads
Knowing what to listen out for regarding worn brake pads is very important. With any strange sounds coming from your car, it’s essential to get it checked out by a trained, qualified mechanic.
However, any symptoms of worn brake pads must be inspected immediately. The car might not be safe to drive.
When driving, watch out for the following symptoms of worn brake pads.
Metal-On-Metal Squealing Noise
The metal squealing or screeching noise you’re hearing from your wheels is most likely telling you your brake pads have reached their minimum safe level.
Engineers intentionally create brake pads with a layer of metal hidden deep within them. It’s known as a wear indicator.
Once the brake pad wears down to the wear indicator, the metal will directly contact the rotor face each time you press the pedal.
It serves as a teeth-gritting reminder to get your brakes changed immediately!
Electronic Wear Indicator
Some higher-end cars come with an electronic wear indicator.
This is a sensor attached directly to the brakes. When the pad thickness gets too low, the ECU converts the signal into a warning indicator on the dashboard.
A driver should see this warning and head straight to a nearby mechanic. The pads (and potentially rotors) can then be swapped out for new ones.
The wear sensor may need to be manually reset using the car’s onboard system or an OBD II reader.
Vibrating Brake Pedal
If you press the pedal and feel it vibrating, it could signify worn brake pads. While other things could be causing it, get it checked out immediately.
On relatively rare occasions, stones or other debris can get caught between the pad and the rotor face. When you press the brake, the foreign body will lead to a vibrating feeling and/or noise.
A vibrating brake pedal could also be:
- ABS activating (whether at the right time or not)
- A fault in the pedal itself or servo
These also need investigating.
Reduced Stopping Power
When brake pads wear down to the wear indicator and beyond, they stop working correctly. As a result, your stopping distance will start to increase.
This is dangerous and illegal. If you get into an accident, the investigators will find that you haven’t kept your brakes in sufficient legal condition. The blame may, therefore, rest on your shoulders.
If your car’s struggling to stop when you press the brake, you should also check for:
- Seized calipers
- Contaminated/old brake fluid
- Worn-down rotors
- Servo leak
- Brake fluid leak
Measure The Brake Pads
Although it might sound complicated, you might be able to measure the brake pads while they’re still on the wheel. Get some brake pad thickness gauges (up to $10 for a set) and peer through your wheels.
If you have alloy wheels, it should be pretty simple to reach down behind the brake pad and measure the thickness.
Experienced mechanics will be able to disassemble the brakes with no trouble. It’s then straightforward to measure the precise thickness with a measuring caliper.
Can You Just Replace Brake Pads?
Some mechanics will recommend replacing brake pads and rotors during the same job. Others might only replace the pads. So, what’s the correct answer?
Well, it’s often ultimately up to you. You can replace the brake pads and place the new ones on the old rotors. However, they might not sit in the same groove, leading to poor stopping power.
When you press the brake, the pad moves into the rotor face. Over time, this creates a groove. The pad sinks deeper into this groove every time you push the pedal.
If you fit new pads without working on the rotors, the new ones might not sit well in this gap. As a result, they can’t apply so much friction as the old parts.
That’s why many mechanics will refuse to replace solely brake pads.
They’ll probably insist on, at minimum, shaving down the rotor to remove the old groove. They might insist on new rotors altogether. It might sound like an unnecessary cost, but it’s the safest option and probably worth it.
How Much Do New Brake Pads Cost?
New brake pads cost around $50 per set, on average, depending on the brand, quality, and your car. Add labor costs of approximately 1 hour to this (likely around $100), as well as the potential cost of new rotors (another $50 or so).
All in, expect to pay between $150 and $250 for your brake pad work.
It’s a not-insignificant amount of money, yes. However, without functioning brake pads, your car simply won’t stop.
It’s worth it.
In Conclusion, How Long Are Brake Pads Supposed To Last?
You should expect to get 50,000 miles out of your brake pads without much trouble. Make them last as long as possible by driving gently, only slamming your brakes on in necessary, dangerous situations.
Where possible, avoid the use of brakes altogether. Engine braking is a louder, less economical, but safer way to gently reduce your speed on freeways, highways, and when traveling downhill.
You might not remember when you last changed your brakes. It’s worth making a note somewhere or keeping hold of your receipts. It should be several years before they need to be changed.
If you see or hear the wear indicator or notice any other symptoms leading to new brake pads, it could be a sign of a deeper issue, such as a seized caliper.
Remember: look after your car, and your car will look after you.