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Performing A Brake Pad Change: The When and How

Have you thought about a brake pad change lately?

You may not consider changing your car’s brake pads until they start making noise or your mechanic says they’re getting thin. So, how long do they usually last? And when should you think about replacing them? Also, if you plan on performing a brake pad change yourself, is there anything you should know? Here’s a few thoughts on brake pad life span.

What Affects Brake Pad Life?Brake pads

Brake pad life-span depends on a number of factors, such as car type, individual driver habit and weather conditions. The brake pads on a commuter’s car, which sees mostly highway driving, might last 50,000 miles, while brake pads on a sports car could last fewer than 20,000 miles. A gig delivery driver or rideshare driver in a busy city could possibly wear out a set of brake pads in as little as 10,000 miles!

Driving habits make a big difference in brake pad life-span. If you are easy on the brakes taking care to brake early then you can expect longer pad life. If you are constantly slamming on the brakes or making drastic high speed stops, then pad life is drastically reduced. Vehicle load can also make a difference. A fully loaded vehicle with cargo will be harder on brake pads than an empty or lightly loaded one.

Inspecting for Longevity

Regular inspection is the true key to determining when you should start thinking about changing brake pads. Most pads start their life with about 12 mm of friction material, and most mechanics suggest replacing them when they get to 3 or 4 mm. You should replace your car’s brake pads before the backing plate begins gouging out the brake rotors — a complication that can make the job even more expensive. Brake pad backing plates are made of steel and so are brake rotors. If they contact each other it is almost certain that the rotor itself will be ruined and require replacement.

Checking your own brake pads takes just a few minutes and doesn’t require much more than a flashlight and inspection mirror. You may have to lie on your back to get a good look at the inboard brake pad on some models, though. Aside from a visual inspection, any unusual noises that you might hear, such as squealing, squeaking or rubbing, may indicate wear or malfunction. If brake pads are worn unevenly, this should also alert you to a brake system problem. Vehicle pulling or brake vibration typically isn’t related to a brake pad problem, but should definitely alert you to check your brake system.

Key DIY Tips

For many do-it-yourselfers, aside from changing engine oil, changing brake pads is one of the first things they learn. For the most part, this is a straightforward job, but there are a couple things you should keep in mind:

  • Safety first – While changing brake pads seems simple, keep in mind that brakes are a critical safety feature. The first time you do something like this, have a friend on hand who has done it before and can walk you through the job. Barring this, you can watch instructional videos online, read repair manuals or consult your local NAPA Auto Parts expert. Always double check your work — when it comes to your vehicle’s brake system, there’s no room for error.
  • Be prepared – Collect all your parts, supplies and tools ahead of time. You don’t want to get into this project and realize you don’t have the special tool to compress the caliper or that you are out of brake parts cleaner. If your vehicle is equipped with brake pad sensors you will likely need to replace them at the same time as the brake pads to keep the brake service notification system functioning properly.
  • Clean start – Make sure your work area is clean and clear of any obstructions. A quick sweep or pass with a leaf blower makes a big difference as most brake jobs are done with the DIYer sitting on the ground.
  • Solid foundation – Never work on a vehicle that is only supported by a jack. Always place the vehicle on a pair of jack stands for service. For extra measure when you remove the wheel slide it under the rocker panel. This is a good habit as it not only gets the tire and wheel out of the way, it also gives an extra level of protection if the vehicle were to fall.
  • Calibrating calipers – Just before installing new brake pads, you will have to compress the caliper pistons. This may require a special tool in the case of rear calipers with an integrated parking brake or multi-piston calipers. After putting in the new pads and mounting the caliper, the brakes will be exceptionally loose. Pump up the brakes before you put the car back down on the ground. Get a friend to help you make sure the wheels don’t turn when applying the brakes.
  • Smooth movement – While your brakes may look solidly mounted to the suspension, there is actually a certain amount of movement necessary to allow the disc brakes to function. The brake calipers bolts are usually smooth to allow the caliper to float in place. Take the time to clean the bolts and apply a thin layer of high-temperature grease to the smooth area (not the bolt threads). This helps prevent the caliper from binding and promotes even brake pad wear.

You can also choose to let the experts at your local NAPA AutoCare do the job for you. Whether you choose to DIY or let an expert change your brake pads, the most important point is to get it done. Putting off brake service can be dangerous not only to you but others on the road. Being proactive and aware of your brake pad life can help you take control of the service experience rather than being faced with an unexpected emergency repair.

Check out all the brake system products available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on performing a brake pad change, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Benjamin Jerew View All

Ben has been taking things apart since he was 5, and putting them back together again since he was 8. After dabbling in DIY repairs at home and on the farm, he found his calling in the CGCC Automobile Repair program. After he held his ASE CMAT for 10 years, Ben decided he needed a change. Now, he writes on automotive topics across the web and around the world, including new automotive technology, transportation legislation, emissions, fuel economy and auto repair.

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