Check Your Brakes

Brakes. Not very sexy. But when it comes to safety, you depend on your vehicle's brakes to slow down and stop. In fact, you need consistent, reliable deceleration to stay on the road. In this article, we'll review how often you should check your brakes and when you need to change them. Plus, we'll take you through the process of how to check brake pads, rotors, and fluids…to save you time and money.

  • So, what needs to be done?
  • Let's start with some basics.
  • When to Replace the Brakes?
  • It takes time to wear down your brakes. But inevitably, the pads will begin to wear thin. This means that your brakes become less effective at slowing and stopping your car. Additionally, brake rotors (also called brake discs) should be replaced before their thickness has reached the prescribed "Worn Rotor Minimum Thickness" limit. Finally, the habit of checking your brain fluid can help identify and repair leaks before they become a major problem.

    General signs of a problem with your brakes include:

  • The brake light appears on your car's dashboard.
  • The vehicle takes longer distances to stop than it should.
  • The vehicle pulls right or left on its own or when you brake.
  • Pulsation or vibrations in the brake pedal.
  • Your foot goes down further than normal when you apply the brakes.
  • A high-pitched squeal that you can hear as you brake (even with windows rolled up).
  • A harsh grinding sound from the brakes.
  • How to Check Brake Pads Quickly

    Brake pads should be at least one-quarter of an inch thick, or 3 to 4 mm. If they're any thinner, it's a good idea to get them changed. Here are some quick ways that you can measure brake pad thickness.

    Checking Brake Pads Using a Vernier Calipers Tool

    This all-purpose mechanic's tool can be used to measure almost anything. Slide the front measuring prong past the brake pad until it comes into contact with the brake disc. Gently push the tool in to be sure it's touching the brake pads and is as straight as possible. Record the measurement and then subtract 5 mm to account for the brake pad backing. This is an accurate reading of the thickness of your brake pad.

    Checking Brake Pads with a Straw and Pen

    Slide the straw past the brake pad until it comes into contact with the brake disc. Mark the straw. Measure the length of the straw, subtract 5 mm to account for brake pad backing and you have a fairly accurate measurement of the thickness of your brake pad.

    A Visual Check of the Brake Pad

    Usually, the brake pad can be seen through the wheel. Look between the spokes of your wheel to spot the shiny metal rotor inside. When you find it, look around the outer edge where you'll see the metal caliper. Between the caliper and rotor, you'll see the pad. Then, look at the brake pad to determine its thickness. Give the pad a visual estimation. If it seems less than ¼ inch thin, it probably needs to be replaced.

    A Visual Check of the Wear Indicator

    Some brake pads have a slot in the center that serves as a wear indicator. If that slot is almost gone, the pad probably needs replacement.

    The Auditory Brake Pad Check Method

    Listen to your brakes. The pads are designed to make a noise as an early warning signal that they need to be changed. This noise will usually sound like a high-pitched squeal that can be heard through closed windows. When the pads wear down more, it will sound like metal scraping in the wheels when the car is moving. The sound caused by these wear indicators will typically get louder the more the brakes are used.

    How Often Should You Change Your Brakes?

    The lifespan of your braking system will depend on how and where you drive. Here are some factors that'll define how often you'll need to change your brakes:

    Your Driving Habits.

    How hard or often you push down on the brakes greatly affects how long the brake pads last. Smooth, gradual braking will increase pad lifespan. So, if you typically ride the brakes instead of coasting to a stop…you may need more frequent brake maintenance.

    Driving Environment

    Less frequent braking will also increase brake pad lifespan. Stop-and-go traffic or long strings of traffic lights wear down brakes quicker than driving on long straight roads. Also, driving in mountainous areas with steep up-and-down changes can wear down brakes quicker.

    Type of Brakes

    The materials your brakes are made of can increase brake lifespan. For example, carbon-ceramic brakes typically last longer (and are more expensive) than standard metal brakes. Likewise, hard compound brake pads tend to last longer than soft compound brake pads.

    Front Brakes vs. Back Brakes

    Front brakes normally wear out before rear brakes because they handle a higher percentage of the braking load, especially on front-wheel-drive cars.

    Some good rules of thumb?

    It is best to get in the habit of inspecting your vehicle's brakes every 10,000 miles.

    If your annual mileage is around 8,000 miles per year or more, get a professional brake check at least twice a year. You can combine this check with other service updates. For example, each time you have your tires rotated about every six months, ask the shop to check your brakes, too. Generally, brake pads need to be replaced after about 50,000 miles. However, some brakes will need to be replaced after 25,000 miles, especially if you're a city driver. Other brakes can last for 70,000 miles.

    Finally, you should check disc brakes every 10,000 miles — more often if your brakes suddenly start to squeal or pull to one side, or if your brake pedal flutters when you step on it.