How to Know When It’s Time to Replace Your Brake Pads

an in depth guide to finding out if it's time to replace your brake pads How to Know When It’s Time to Replace Your Brake Pads

From a certain point of view, there is no part of your car that is more vital than your brake pads. Sure, it can’t go anywhere without an engine or wheels, but it also probably can’t kill you without those things, either. When an engine fails, there’s a lot of cursing, smoke, and a potentially hefty fee to fix it. When brakes fail, it can be fatal. Our society has made it commonplace to hurtle along asphalt at speeds that would have bewildered people living only a couple generations ago, but really, the only thing that makes all that speed practical is the ability to slowly decelerate. Therefore, you should never take any risks when it comes to the health of your brakes. Always be as vigilant as possible when it comes to any potential issues, and deal with them as quickly as you possibly can. Failing to do so could be the last mistake you ever make.

What Are Brake Pads?

extend-brakepad-life2To understand why brake pads are so important to get fixed, you have to have a clear idea of what brake pads are. Brake pads sit between the brake shoe and the brake drum. The shoe is the part of the brake that clamps down on tires, slowing their rotation. Brake drums apply pressure to the shoes to create that effect. The purpose of the brake pads is to reduce the load of friction on the other, more delicate parts of the brake. Stopping a metal wheel spinning at fantastic speeds is something that causes absurd amounts of heat and friction. If it weren’t for brake pads, then the brakes themselves would wear away in no time. Instead, the brakes, made from several potential materials but all hardy ones take the brunt of the friction instead. Over time, those brake pads will wear away, as essentially nothing is immune to the forces of friction and time. If brake pads are too thin or wear away entirely, then they are not able to effectively work as an intermediary in the brakes, and the whole brake system will break down.

What Determines How Fast Brake Pads Wear Down?

There is no set time limit for brake pads, nor a specific expected lifetime. That is because the actual life span of brake pads varies widely, depending on many important factors. These factors will determine whether you can use the same set of brake pads for much longer, or whether you’ll need to have them replaced sooner.

Brake Pad Material

Because different brake pads are made from different materials, these different brake pads generally will have different life spans. Of course, if there was one particular material that was universally better, then there would be no reason not to use that one in every brake pad. What it generally comes down to is hard compounds vs. soft compounds. Hard compound brake pads will last longer than their soft counterparts, but need to warm up a bit to work effectively. Those harder compounds are usually used on race cars and other performance cars. For city driving, however, it’s usually better to use soft compound brake pads. They won’t last as long, but they do function better under low speed conditions, and they aren’t as finicky as hard compound brake pads.

Regular Driving Conditions

Perhaps the biggest individual factor on how long brake pads last is simply where the car has been driving. Specifically, does that particular type of driving require significant braking. If you’re in the city, where there is a lot of stop-and-go traffic, you are forced to apply the brakes a great deal more than someone who lives in a low-residency, more rural setting. Similarly, if you’re in a mountainous region that requires you to use your brakes extensively every time you’re going down hill, then your brake pads will wear out faster than someone who lives in flat lands and doesn’t have that concern.

Driver Habits

replace-brake-padsThis factor somewhat connects to the last one, in that both amount to how much a brake is applied. The driving conditions in a particular region will sometimes require a great deal of braking, but also, some people use their brakes differently than others. If you want to preserve the life of your brake pads, you should aim at smooth, slow deceleration instead of abrupt stops. Each will put some amount of friction and strain on brake pads, but an easy slow down to a resting stop is much easier on the brake pads than slamming on the brakes. Of course, there are some situations where slamming on the brakes is a necessity, so never allow yourself to accidentally rear-end someone because you were trying to preserve the life of your brake pads just that much more.

What Signs Indicate That Brake Pads are Dying?

Now that we’ve explored the purpose of brake pads and what causes them to go quicker, it’s vital to know the signs that indicate there is some problem with the brake pads. If you encounter any of these issues, know that you need to get into a shop as soon as you can to have your brake pads looked at. Brake pad deterioration is a gradual issue, so none of these indicators mean the brakes are going to stop working immediately, but you should still make fixing them a priority. Not only are poor brake pads a safety hazard, but if you allow the issue to go on too long, it’s possible to do damage to other parts of the car that will end up costing a great deal more in repairs than simply replacing the brake pad.

Visual Check

If you suspect your brake pads might be too far gone, or you’re simply responsible and want to be on top of the game before there’s any other indicators, then you can actually check yourself to see if the brake pads need replacing. Look between the spokes of your tires, usually at the front end. You should see a pad pressed up against the metal. If that pad is a quarter inch thick or more, then you should be fine. Once that pad has gotten to less than a quarter inch, though it is time to get the pads replaced. Most of us won’t be meticulously checking in between our tires all the time, however, so you should familiarize yourself with some other indicators that will generally happen while you’re driving.

Screeching Noises

replace-brake-pads2This is usually the most common indicator that there’s something wrong with the brake pads and needs to be replaced. Or at least, it’s the most commonly acted upon. And it makes sense; hearing a loud, metallic screeching when you come to a halt just screams “brake issue”. That screeching sounds like the pads are gone already, and the metal is scraping up against metal in the brakes. However, it’s actually annoyance by design; likely, the brakes haven’t gone completely, they’ve just gone enough that a small metal shim, known as an indicator, makes noise by rubbing against the metal. If you hear screeching, then that’s probably the indicator, indicating you need new brake pads. There is one exception, however: if the car has been in the rain recently, or otherwise has been allowed to get wet, then that screeching might just be rust. It doesn’t sound great, but it isn’t a brake pad issue, and it should clear itself up as the rust gets rubbed off of the brake.

Metallic Grinding

The grinding noises really mean that you’ve gone off the deep end. That screeching might just be an indicator being loud, but the grinding or rumbling noises from the brake means the brake pads have straight up failed, and the metal of the shoe is now in contact with the metal of the drum. If you’ve allowed the brakes to get to this point, then you absolutely need to deal with it as soon as possible. Likely, you’ve already done some damage to the brakes, and you don’t want to do any more.

Indicator Lights

Some cars are convenient enough that they actually tell you when the brake pads have had enough. Much like a check engine light, these lights will come on and say you need to get new brake pads, taking all of the guesswork out of the equation. Not all cars are equipped with this, though, and even if a car is equipped, it isn’t guaranteed to catch the issue, so don’t use the existence of the indicator light to let you abdicate your duty to look for the other signs.

Having strong and effective brake pads is, ultimately, the only thing that stops any of us from possible fatalities every time that we get on the road. Be vigilant about your brake pads, and replace them as soon as you notice that there’s an issue. It’s paramount for your safety, as well as the safety of everyone that you share a road with.


  1. Bridgestone Tire – When to Replace Brake Pads
  2. JD Power – Warning Signs You Need New Brakes
  3. Your Mechanic – How Often should Brakes be Replaced