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How Long Do Brake Pads Last?

Know What to Look For

Article by City Lifestyle

Photography by Shutterstock

The braking system is one of the most important components of any vehicle. It’s essential for your car’s health as well as you and your passengers’ safety.

But it’s not just a safety issue; it’s also about being confident when you’re on the road. Not knowing whether you can safely bring your car to a stop is simply unnerving. You don’t want to drive with that level of uncertainty hanging over your head.

How do brake pads work? How long do brake pads last? Which brake pads are ideal for your vehicle? In short, how do you ensure your brakes will always work so that your vehicle doesn’t end up as a gory image in the newspaper?

Here is all you need to know about brake pads and your car’s braking system.

How Long Do Brake Pads Last?

The average life of brake pads is between 30,000 to 70,000 miles. Their longevity, however, is hinged on use, environmental factors and your driving style.

Budget brake pads offer affordability at the expense of durability. Performance brake pads offer the sturdiness needed to take repeated abuse and enthusiastic driving at the expense of durability.

Vehicle manufactures indicate how long the brake pads will serve you on the car owner's manual or their site. Makers of aftermarket brakes pads also denote their brake pads life expectancy on the box.

How Long Do Front Brake Pads Last?

The front wheels’ pair of brakes usually wears out faster compared to the rear brake pads. This is because when you press on the brake pedal, the vehicle’s center of gravity shifts to the fore, putting more momentum and weight on your front tires. Because of that, the front tires gain more traction and thus it takes a greater stopping force to bring them to a stop.

Up to 75 percent of a vehicle’s stopping force is generated by the front brakes; therefore, they produce more heat and the pads wear out faster.  

How Long Do Rear Brake Pads Last?

On average, rear brakes generate about 40 percent of the stopping force. They, therefore, take less heat and thus wear out at a slower pace compared to the front brake pads.

How Brakes Work

Most of the pre-1880s cars used a wooden block as a brake pad. To slow or bring them to a stop, the driver needed to touch a lever which in turn rubbed the wooden block against the vehicle’s wheels and thus caused enough friction to slow or stop the vehicle.

With time, increasingly faster vehicles were built and wheels became more sophisticated, which created a need for a more efficient braking system. In 1898, Elmer Ambrose Sperry designed the precursor of the modern braking system: front-wheel disc brakes coupled with brake pads. To stop the vehicle, the pads "pinched" the disk/rotor—similar to how bicycle brakes work.

How Do Modern Brakes Pads Work?

Brake pads slow or stop a car by causing resistance through rubbing your rotors. But, the pads are just one part of an interconnected system whose effective and safe functioning is hinged on each part working in tandem with the others. Here is how it works.

  • You start the braking process by pressing down on the brake pedal, which triggers a cylinder, which channels brake fluid through hoses to the calibers.
  • Consequently, calibers "squeeze" the brake pads against the rotors/brake disks that are connected to all wheels.
  • The pressure created by clamping of the rotors creates friction, which slows or stops your vehicle. When rotors slow, the wheels slow too.
  • When you take off your brake pedal, the process is reversed. The brake pads unclamp the rotors, the brake fluid shifts back up, and the wheels get moving.

Why Do Brake Pads Deteriorate?

The brake pads stop your car by converting the kinetic energy into thermal energy through friction. The friction slows or stops your car, but it also wears down your brake pads; you can oft see residue (black dusk) from the pad material on the wheels.

Brake pads are thus a vital part of your car's braking system. For you to drive safely, you should always ensure that they're always in great condition.

How to Determine If Your Brakes Pads Need to Be Replaced

How can you determine if your brake pads need replacement? If your car is equipped with a brake scraper or a brake-wear sensor, the noise emanating from the rotors will signal you that it’s time for brake pad replacement. When your brake pads have worn out to the point where you need to replace them, the slight metal strip embedded in the pads will generate a squeal or screeching noise whenever you press your brake pedal.

You can hear the noise even when your windows are up; however, environmental noise like loud music may prevent you from hearing this key warning sign.

Conversely, if you hear a deep grinding or scraping noise, your brake pads have likely worn out down to the metal backing plates. The grinding noise is a result of the plates rubbing against the steel rotors.

Driving around with worn-out brake pads is dangerous. Your stopping power is diminished significantly and thus you won't be able to slow your car adequately or even at all if you don't fix the issue in time. Besides, your brake disks will be destroyed and the entire brake system may fail. If you hear grinding or squealing noises, check your brake pads immediately.

Conduct a Visual Evaluation

You shouldn’t wait for warning signs to figure out your brake pads have worn out. Instead, you should regularly conduct a visual evaluation so that you know how much life is left in your brake pads. In most cars, you can see the brake pads through the wheel. If they are less than a quarter-inch thick, you should have them checked.

If the pads are not visible through the wheel spokes, you can hoist or jack up your vehicle, remove the front wheel, and inspect the pad wear. Do the same on the rear wheel. To conduct a thorough inspection; you should inspect the pads on all four wheels.

If you find out that your pads are worn out and you ignore the situation, you’ll be setting up yourself for a more complex and costlier brake job—replacing tattered brake disks, or even an entire braking system overhaul.

Other Signals of Brake Issues

There other indicators that don’t necessarily inform you that your brake pads are worn but signal brake trouble. If applying brakes doesn’t slow or stop your car as readily as before, or if your pedal is mushy instead of firm, your brakes likely have a problem.

This symptom could mean that there is air or water in your brake fluid, the brake master cylinder is not working as it should, or the fluid is leaking. If you notice these issues or if your vehicle leaves a puddle of fluid wherever you park it, you need to visit a reputable dealer or repair shop.

If your vehicle swerves to one side whenever you apply the brake, the pads may be unevenly worn out, your brake lines may be leaking, or it could be front suspension and steering issues that are unrelated to the braking system.

If your brake pedal pulsates or vibrates whenever you apply brakes, this indicates that your brake disks are warped and so you need to either smooth them or replace them.

Types of Brake Pads

There are three types of brake pads: semi-metallic (metallic), ceramic, and non-metallic (organic). Each type of pad has pros and cons depending on the type of vehicle and the driver’s needs.

Organic Brake Pads

The earlier organic brake pads were made of asbestos, a highly carcinogenic material that was well suited for the heat and wear that brake pads take. But manufacturers no longer use the material due to its toxic nature.

The "modern" NAO (non-asbestos organic) brake pads, which are standard in over 60 percent of vehicles sold in the U.S., are made using a blend of materials and fibers like carbon compounds, Kevlar, glass or fiberglass, rubber, and more. They are attached using resin.

Organic brake pads are usually reasonably priced and produce less dust compared to some variants of brake pads like the metallic ones. Besides, organic brake pads only create a moderate level of friction with little heat, unlike the heavy-duty high-performance pads that high-performance and heavy vehicles rely on. This makes them ideal for the standard car that is for commuting and normal driving.

Organic brake pads are also quieter and don’t put too much pressure on the brake disks, which is great because repairing or replacing rotors is costly.

But because of their composite nature, organic pads wear out faster compared to other variants. And, they function in a much more limited range of temperatures. They won't work optimally in extreme weather or when being pushed to the point of overheating. You also will have to press your brake pedal harder because they have higher compressibility. 

Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

Also referred to as metallic brake pads, these pads have a 30% to 70% metal composition that includes steel, iron, copper, or other blends of alloys. The metals are mixed with fillers as well as a graphite lubricant.

There are various types of metallic brake pads made of varying compounds. Each variant offers certain advantages in given situations, from track racing to daily commutes.

For a high-performance driver, choosing between metallic and ceramic pads is easy. Metallic pads are ideal for high-performance conditions because they offer great braking performance in a wider range of conditions and temperatures.

Metals are great conductors of heat, therefore, metallic brakes tend to withstand higher temperatures as well as enable the braking system to cool down faster. Besides, they don’t compress much. So you need less pressure when engaging the brake pedal.

There is, however, a downside to the metallic brake pads. They are usually noisier than the organic or ceramic brake pads, which means a louder ride. The metallic pads also put stress on the braking system; this causes more wear on the other brake components. Besides, the pads generate more brake dust compared to the other variants.

When it comes to pricing, metallic pads’ prices fall between that of the organic and ceramic pads.

Ceramic Brake Pads

Ceramic pads are essentially made of a more durable and denser version of the ceramic that’s used in plates and pottery. The pads are also embedded with fine copper fibers, which improve heat conductivity and friction.

Since the mid-1980s, when they were developed, ceramic pads have become increasingly popular due to these reasons.

  • Less dust: Compared to metallic and organic brake pads, ceramic brake pads produce less wear and tear residue.
  • Lower noise: Ceramic pads are super-quiet; they generate almost no sound when the brakes are engaged.
  • Driving conditions and temperature: Compared to the other brake pad variants, ceramic brake pads remain reliable in a wide spectrum of driving conditions and temperatures.

Conversely, even with all these positive characteristics, ceramic brake pads come with some limitations. The primary con of ceramic pads is their cost, which is higher due to the higher cost of manufacturing.

Because both copper and ceramic can’t absorb much heat, the heat generated during braking passes into the other braking system components. This can lead to the other brake parts wearing out faster. Ceramic pads are not ideal for extreme temperatures as well as extreme driving conditions.

Which Type Braking Pad is Ideal for Your Car?

It comes down to your driving style and the conditions in which you’ll be driving. If you drive a high-performance vehicle or if you drive your car as it is one, you’ll be better off with the metallic brake pads.

Conversely, if for the most part, you do urban commuting, ceramic brake pads may be ideal. If you don't do high speeds, long distances, or extreme weather conditions, organic brake pads may be most suitable for your car.

Is It Hard to Replace Your Brake Pads on Your Own?

No. If you have tools and a bit of know-how, you can certainly replace your brake pads at home. If it’s your first time doing it, consult guides and set aside enough time to get the job done. Being able to bring your car to a stop safely is not something to toy with, so ensure you do it right.

On average, replacing brake pads will take from two to five hours depending on the kind of tools you have and the complexity of your vehicle’s brake system.

You should, however, note that replacing brake pads is not just about swapping the hardware. You may also need to replace the rotors entirely or smooth them. And, you may need to bleed your brakes.

How Much Does It Cost to Replace Brake Pads?

How Often Should You Schedule Brake Jobs?

As we discussed above, brake pad replacement oft doesn't get done in isolation. Other brake components like rotors and calibers also need to be checked. How often you need to get brake jobs done comes down to the quality of your brake components, the conditions in which your drive, how often you drive, and how you maintain your brake system.

The average brake pad life expectance ranges from 30,000 to 70,000 miles. Calibers and brake rotors that are pricier and pose more complexity during replacement usually last three times longer compared to brake pads.

However, the frequency which you should replace these components depend on the following factors:

  • Driving Habits: If you routinely stop abruptly or ride brakes, your brakes, especially the pads, will likely wear out prematurely. However, if you habitually engage the brakes gradually, your brakes may serve you for longer.
  • Environment: The stop-and-go style of driving that's necessary for in-city driving can exacerbate the wear and tear in your vehicle's braking system. And, if you often drive in mountainous environments where you need to control downhill speeds by riding the brakes, your brakes likely get worn prematurely.
  • Materials: Calibers, rotors, and brake pads are made of various materials, all of which affect their durability. You need to find a balance between value and durability. 

Factors that Determine the Cost of Your Brake Components

To get the best deal, ask for quotes from different mechanics, and then do a comparison. Here are some of the factors that will determine the cost of your brake job:

  • The kind of vehicle your drive: If you drive a bigger and heavier vehicle, say, a Chevy Silverado, you will pay way more than, for instance, than a Honda Jazz driver. The weight and size influence the kind of materials used in a brake system and the complexity of the repair job.
  • Brand of vehicle: Usually, the spare parts for European brands of cars like Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar are costlier than those of Japanese or domestic cars. And because your mechanic has to shift from the American vehicle system to the European system, the cost of labor may be higher.  
  • The kind of driving you do: If you do the standard highway driving, your costs will likely be pretty standard too. But if you drive a performance vehicle or push your car to the max, you'll need a pricier performance-level brake system
  • The kind of material you want: We’ve already discussed various brake pad materials, their pricing, and their suitability to various conditions.

What’s the Actual Cost of Replacing Brake Components?

For those who may be asking about the actual cost of replacing brake components, there is no precise answer to this question, unfortunately. Each mechanic demands a singular hourly rate and manufacturers price their parts differently.

However, on average, the price for brake pads for your four wheels ranges from $35 to $150. Labor costs, per axle, go from $80 to $120. So in total, brake replacement costs range from $115 to $270.  

When replacing brake pads, you should also consider replacing your rotors or at least evaluating them for warping and any other kind of wear and tear. Replacing pads without replacing worn-out brake disks can cause issues with your new pads, lead to vibration, and make your braking system less effective.

The price of new brake disks ranges between $30 and $75, per piece. The cost of labor of replacing both brake pads and rotors, per axle, ranges between $150 and $200. So on average, the total cost of repairing both the brake pads and the rotor ranges between $250 and $500.

Calibers are the priciest component of a vehicle's brake system. One caliber costs up to $130. On average, the cost of a complete brake job—that entails repairing or replacing the brake pad, brake disk, and caliber—comes to $300 to $800. But, depending on the vehicle's model and make, the cost can go up to $1,000.

Frequently Asked Questions About Brake Pads

How Long Do Ceramic Pads Last?

Of all brake pads, ceramic pads offer the most longevity. On average, they can last up 75,000 miles. But as we discussed above, the longevity of your brake pads is hinged on your driving style and the environment in which you drive your car.

How Long Do Motorcycle Brake Pads Last?

Your bike’s brake pad life expectancy depends on your riding style. Aggressive riding leads to aggressive braking. Consequently, your pads will likely wear prematurely.

But because bikes have separate controls for the front and rear brakes, riders tend to predominantly rely on one of the brakes. As a result, the most used brakes, whether the front or rear brakes, tend to wear out faster.

That said, motorcycle brake pads can last for thousands of miles, or even tens of thousands of miles if the bike owner doesn’t ride too aggressively. But to decide whether your bike brake pad needs to be replaced or not, you should rely on the physical indictors like the pad’s wear indicator grooves, or pad thickness, and not the arbitrary number of miles.

How Many Brake Pads Do Vehicles Have Per Wheel?

The typical car model comes with four pads, two pads on the front, and two pads at the rear. However, some cars are equipped with two pads per single wheel, which means eight pads for the vehicle. So the number of brake pads depends on the type of vehicle.

How to Bed In Your Brake Pads?

Most drivers allow their new brake pads and brake disks to "wear-in" gradually through natural driving. But if you want high-performing pads right from the start, and if you want to limit brake issues, "bedding-in" can be very useful.

The bedding-in process is also a fantastic and safe way to stress-test the braking system. Importantly, it gets you to understand how your brakes work.

So what does the process of bedding-in entail? Well, when your look at long-used rotors, you notice a glaze (a glossy, smooth gray-blue) that covers the surface where the pad and rotor meet. This material is referred to as "pad transfer." It's made of pad material which through friction and heat, has been "transferred" to the steel rotor.

When brake pads press on bare metal, they don’t get a very good grip. But they do very well when they rub against rotors that have some "pad transfer." However, when you change your rotors and pads, your new rotors don't have pad transfer material. The bedding-in procedure is all about creating a nice layer of pad transfer material, which will make will makes braking much more effective.

When you push your car too hard and brake too aggressively, the pads can heavily transfer into the rotors. This will lead to your brake disks having patches of uneven material. When you drive again, new material will be deposited on the uneven surface, creating a rotor friction surface that’s even more uneven.

In most cases, this unevenness is what is assumed to be "warped rotor," when new brake disks quickly develop some kind of pulsation. You can avoid this situation by bedding-in your brakes pads and rotors properly.

How do you bed-in your pads and rotors? First, you need a safe road, with little traffic—because this is also a good way to test the effectiveness of your brakes after a brake job. You’ll need to stop frequently, so you need a flat road where you easily achieve a 50 MPH speed.

The process entails you instigating a cycle of heating and cooling of your brakes. While doing so, a thin layer of pad transfer will be deposited on your new brake disks. The temperature should rise slowly up to max use; this will create an even and smooth pad transfer. So pick your stretch of road and then accelerate to 35 MPH. Then gently engage your brake so that you reduce the speed to about 5 MPH. Repeat this process two to three times.

Next, push the speed to 50 MPH, and then engage your brakes strongly; reduce the speed to 5 MPH. Don’t be too aggressive to the extent of locking up tires or activating the ABS. Repeat this process about five times and then drive for about two miles with very gently braking to cool down your brakes. With that, you'd have not only figured out whether your got value for money for the brake job, but you'll also have "broken-in" your pads and rotors so that they serve better.

Visit Your Local Dealership for More Information

The best place to ask about the brake pads in your car is a dealership that specializes in your make and model. If you have an Audi, you can visit Audi-Shawnee Mission and talk to them to learn more about your car's brakes.

If you ever need your brake pads replaced or any other parts, they'll have everything you need for your car there, and they can quickly order anything that's not already on-site.

Plus, if it's not just the brakes that are wearing down, you can always shop around for a brand-new or slightly used Audi and trade in your current ride.

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