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What to look for when buying brake pads

  Thursday, 27 April 2017

Exposed brake pad on wheel disc

Brake pads are one of the most commonly replaced parts in the car world.  In providing the friction needed to slow the car down, they are used every single day a car is on the road.  As such, they wear out much faster than more or less every single other cap part.  If you’re looking for replacement brake pads for your vehicle here are some key things to consider:

Know your types of brake pads

There are four main types of brake pad available and it’s important to know in advance which type your vehicle is fitted with, so you can find suitable replacements.  Remember to consult with a specialist if you’re not sure what you’re looking at.

  • Semi-metallic. Containing 35-65% metal, semi-metallic brake pads are very durable, offering exceptional heat transfer.  However, they can also be noisy, cause rotor damage, and they tend to be less effective in cold weather.
  • Organic, non-asbestos organic or NAO. Made up of fibrous materials – such as rubber, carbon or glass – these pads are quieter than semi-metallic alternatives.  Because they are softer, though, they tend to wear out more quickly and create more dust.
  • Low-metallic NAO. These are generally made of an organic formula with a small mix of metal – such as steel or copper – to assist with heat transfer and braking speeds.  These pads function effectively, but the more metal in the formula means they more noise and dust generated.
  • Ceramic. Probably the most effective brake pads, composed mostly of ceramic fibres.  Generally they are quiet and clean while doing minimal damage to the rotors.  The downside, inevitably, is that they’re more expensive.

On some occasions, it may be possible to have a higher quality of brake pad installed.  However, definitely consult with an expert to ensure that’s the case with your car.

What brake pads do I need?

Knowing the different common types of brake pads is a step in the right direction.  Next, identifying the most suitable pad for your vehicle type is important, as choosing the wrong type could have disastrous consequences.

The type of vehicle driven is one of the biggest influences on your choice of brake pad characteristics:

  • Light or compact cars. A small or compact vehicle doesn’t require as much force to bring it to a stop.  Organic brake pads should provide the stopping power you need, producing little noise and for very slight expense.  The only downside is a potential for build-up of brake dust demanding a ceramic pad replacement down the line.
  • Medium-sized cars. With increased size, more stopping power is required.  A low-metallic NAO would be recommended, at the potential cost of more noise.  Ceramic pads – although more expensive – would also make a good fit.
  • High acceleration or sports cars. Any car with rapid acceleration needs to be able to decelerate at an equally impressive rate.  As a result, we recommend a semi-metallic or high-performance ceramic set of brake pads to provide the necessary stopping power.
  • Heavy duty vehicles - lorries, vans, SUVs. The significantly increased weight of large vehicles requires a boost in braking power.  Brake pads with more metal content are recommended – the more metal in the formula, the more effective braking should be.  Upgraded or severe-duty pads may be noisy, but they will keep you safe on the road.

What brake pads to buy?

While you should use the above suggestions for each vehicle type to guide your decision, there are some other things to consider.

Choosing a brake pad is often a question of choosing priorities and compromising accordingly.  The pad which offers the best braking performance may be the noisiest and dustiest.  You may desire pads that reduce the amount of noise generated, but the softer material will likely lead to more frequent replacements as rotors are worn down.  Ultimately, no single brake pad can be all things to all cars.

Manufacturers often keep their brake pad formulas a trade secret, instead providing a range of pads for each vehicle application.  However, you shouldn’t be fooled into believing the choice is a simple case of good vs. better vs. best.  The most expensive brake pads on the market may not make your car any safer if they don’t meet the right standards for the driving you engage in.  Consider the routes your car takes and the weight your car routinely carries before committing, and seek expert advice where you can.

Getting what you paid for

One of the main reasons for buying second-hand car parts is that it can be a real money-saver.  However, even within the second-hand market there are different price points.  Purchasing parts from the original manufacturer, for instance, is always going to be more expensive than buying them from a third party.  As a general rule, we’d recommend you buy the very best you can afford.  With a part as important as brake pads, it’s simply not worth compromising your safety or that of your passengers and other road users.

How long do brake pads last?

The lifespan of your brake pads will depend upon many variable factors.  These can range from your personal habits at the wheel, to the physical demands placed on your car.  A loose set of guidelines exists for manufacturers in the 30,000 to 70,000 mile range.  However, it’s not unheard of for pads to last an amazing 100,000 to a measly 100 miles, which might be attributed to choice of pad, rotor wear, friction or heat applied in casual usage.

Remember the rule of compromise.  Organic pads provide great braking power, but consequently more of the pad material is worn away during stoppage.  As a rule, organic pads last the least amount of time.  Semi-metallic pads – generally the standard found on most cars – are hard and last longer than organic varieties.  The trade-off is a reduction in overall braking power.

The weight, or mass, of your vehicle will also affect the overall lifespan of the brake pads you choose.  Given the amount of factors at play, it’s a good idea to have your brake pads checked during routine inspections, purchase brake pad gauges, or opt for regular visits to the garage.  A good mechanic should be able to indicate how much friction material is left and how much time you might have left on your brake pads.

How to check if brake pads need to be replaced

A sure-fire indicator that your pads are worn down is whether or not they squeal when used.  This persistent high-pitched squealing is actually a mechanism included as part of the design to alert the driver of the need for a replacement.

Other possible symptoms can include: *The car lists to the side when braking *Brake pedals feel softer and less resistant to pressing *Brakes vibrating or grabbing

If the squealing has been replaced by a grinding metallic sound, then your replacement is overdue and your rotors are likely being damaged.  Brakes are critical to a car’s safety and you should act fast.

Changing brake pads or installing brake pads yourself

While changing brake pads is technically a task that can be carried out at home, you should definitely consider whether it’s really worth it.  Brakes are, after all, one of the most important safety devices on the car.

A good way to look at it is this: if you’re at all worried about whether or not you should make the repair yourself, it’s probably best not to.  Furthermore, getting brake pads replaced should normally cost very little.  Making a poor attempt to fix them yourself could lead to a dangerous conclusion – for you and other road users.

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