Everything you need to know about brake pads

Everything you need to know about brake pads
We all know what brakes on a car do. They slow the vehicle down, allowing it to stop safely - and brake pads perform a crucial role in this process.

In urgent situations, brakes can halt a vehicle abruptly, avoiding collisions with other vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. The importance of an effective braking system cannot, therefore, be underestimated.

To help you get the most out of your brakes and ensure they stay in tip-top condition, keeping you as safe as possible at all times, we have created a master guide on the topic.

Guide contents

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What are brake pads and how do they work?

Stopping a car at speed needs friction, and brake pads create that. In the braking system, brake pads are the component that applies pressure and creates friction to the brake rotors, and this stops the wheels.

Think of the number of times this action takes place on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis - and it's no surprise that brake pads suffer wear and tear, and usually need replacing regularly.

How long do brake pads last?

There are no hard and fast rules on this. It can differ with every vehicle and also depend on the way it is driven, where it is driven and, of course, how often it is driven.

The average lifespan for a set of brake pads is around 50,000 miles, but some can last longer.

The frequency of which you will need to replace your vehicle's brake pads will be be unique to the car and your driving and is affected by a number of factors.

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What factors can affect how long your brake pads last?

It's worth taking into account the following factors to give you an idea of how long your break pads might last.

Where do you drive?

If you do a lot of your driving on the motorway you may find that your brake pads last longer than if you do more driving around inner cities and on shorter journeys.

The reason? You're more likely to be stopping and starting - at traffic lights, roundabouts and junctions - and therefore working the brakes more often than if you were cruising along on a motorway and using them less.

How many passengers?

Another factor in brake pad wear is the number of passengers in a vehicle. Driving solo, the car is lighter to stop.

A vehicle used by a family with perhaps four or five people within in it, is obviously heavier and stopping it puts more strain on brake pads. Stopping it in the same time requires a greater amount of pressure.

Type of brake pads

The type of pads you have in your vehicle can affect how long your brake pads will last:

  • Organic car brake pads are generally the cheapest and won't last too long.
  • Low metallic brake pads can be noisy but have a slightly longer life expectancy than organic.
  • Semi-metallic brake pads have a long expectancy.
  • Ceramic brake pads last longer than other materials and are more resistant to wear. The drawback is that these are also more expensive than others.

Usually, front brake pads will wear out faster than those at the rear because the front handles more of the braking load.

How many miles do you do?

The more miles you do, the more you use your brakes and the faster your brake pads wear out, it's as simple as that.

How can I tell my brake pads need replacing?

Never ignore brake pads that need replacing. Some newer models of cars are fitted with wear sensors to detect when front or rear brake pads are getting worn down, however, there are plenty of other signs to look out for too.

Warning signs to change your brake pads

Warning light

The most obvious indication is typically, a brake pad wear warning light will show on the car's display board, indicating that at least one set of pads is almost worn out and a replacement needed to be fitted. However, not all cars are equipped with brake pad sensors.

If your car doesn't have sensors, you must make sure the brake pads are inspected and checked regularly.

Services will assess the condition of brake pads but at other times, listen and look for possible flaws.

A loud screeching

If you can hear a loud screeching sound when braking it's a real warning sign that new brake pads are needed. If hear a grinding noise, it's likely the brake pads have been worn down completely.

Visual check

It's possible to look at brake pads too and identify wear and tear. Pads should be visible by looking through the spokes of the car's wheel - the outside pad is pressed against a metal rotor.

There should be at least three millimetres of the pad visible. If you see anything less, get the brake pads inspected.

Pulling to one side

While driving, if the vehicle feels as if it's pulling to one side or the other, then it's also likely that the brake pads need to be changed.

Bad vibrations

If the brake pedal vibrates when you push your foot down on it, they could be warped due to heat.

How to make brake pads last longer

There are ways of making brake pads last longer. Helpful tips include looking at driver behaviour:

  • Try to refrain from driving at high speeds and, in turn, needing to brake heavily and quickly - sudden braking puts brake pads under pressure.
  • Being aware of traffic ahead, and anticipating potential braking situations, also helps a driver to apply brakes steadily and gradually instead of suddenly slamming a foot down.
  • A method called coasting can be beneficial. If you can see a junction, turning or roundabout approaching in the distance, taking a foot off the accelerator and allowing the speed of the car to reduce from 60mph to 40mph, before braking, is worth it.
  • It means the brake pads aren't working as hard. Ultimately, rapid acceleration and frantic braking does more wear and tear to brake pads so driving responsibly can help to lessen any damage and contribute to a longer life span.
  • Driving light is also recommended. If you have several passengers in the car there is not much you can do about that but you can unload anything in the vehicle that isn't required for a particular journey. If you have heavy items in the boot that aren't needed, take them out.
  • Driving around with unnecessary weight in the car certainly won't make brake pads last longer.

Can I replace my own brake pads?

Motorists can certainly save money by replacing their own brake pads but before you even contemplate doing this yourself instead of taking your car to a qualified mechanic and approved garage, think it over carefully.

Replacing brake pads yourself requires a good level of mechanical knowledge - it's not like checking tyre pressure or topping up oil levels.

This is work that must be carried out by someone who is competent and confident - remember that brake pads are a critical part of the brake system of a car and if fitted incorrectly, could lead to brake failure. And that could have severe consequences.

When new brake pads have been fitted, drive carefully for the next 200-300 miles so that they can 'bed in'.

Excessive and sudden braking can cause damage to new brake pads so take it easy and drive responsibly, trying not to put too much pressure on them.

If you're unsure about the quality of your car's brake pads, or think they may need replacing, why not make an appointment at an RAC Approved Garage near you?

How long do brake discs last?

As with brake pads, life expectancy of brake discs will differ from vehicle to vehicle.

Sometimes, both pads and discs will need changing and replacing at the same time though generally discs will outlast the life expectancy of pads.

Front brake discs will eventually get too thin, which could result in overheating and losing efficiency. The required thickness of a brake disc is dictated by manufacturer, and the minimum should be stamped on each disc.

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