If your car is screeching at you every time you pull up to a stoplight or a brake pad warning light is sending you a signal, you can be sure your suspicions are confirmed: it is time to replace your brake pads.
The brakes are the most important safety feature on your vehicle. No matter how well your car moves, at some point, it has to stop. So the brake system takes all the kinetic energy of your vehicle in motion and converts it into friction when you step on the brake pedal. In a disc brake system (found on most vehicles today), the pedal forces pressure through the brake lines to hydraulic clamping mechanisms called calipers. A pair of brake pads is fitted inside each caliper and is suspended or sandwiched along either side of a spinning metal disc (the brake rotor) attached to each wheel. When you step on the brake pedal, the calipers squeeze and the brake pads grab hold of the rotors, causing them to slow and stop your car.
The brake pads are the source of friction when pressure is applied against the rotors. The friction material on your brake pads is sacrificial; it is designed to wear away so as to cause as little damage to the brake rotors as possible. Just as your engine needs an oil change at regular intervals, so do your brake pads need to be replaced when they are no longer useful.
In the early days, brake pads were made of asbestos because of their durability, heat resistance, and low cost. But once it was discovered that asbestos also brings with it health and environmental concerns, new types of friction materials were developed, each with its own set of characteristics.
When it comes to choosing which brake pads are right for your vehicle, you have a few different options to suit your driving style and the needs of your vehicle. One option is to simply go with the same type of pads that came on your vehicle from the factory, the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) pads. You might also choose to upgrade to quality aftermarket alternatives, the most common of which are ceramic and semi-metallic brake pads.
There is no perfect brake pad to suit all conditions. Brake pad function is a trade-off between several characteristics:
- Wear on your braking system
- Amount of messy brake dust
The choice depends on your personal preferences and on the requirements of your vehicle. For instance, pulling a heavy trailer, speeding around a racetrack, or commuting around town each pose a different set of requirements – and might lead to a different choice of brake pad the next time you take your car in for brake service. Likewise, if you appreciate a smooth and quiet drive you might make a different choice than if you tend to slam on your brakes a lot.
Organic Brake Pads
A majority of new cars sold in the US are fitted with organic brake pads from the manufacturer. Also known as non-asbestos organic (or NAO), organic brake pads were developed as an alternative to asbestos pads. When people refer to OEM pads, they often mean organics (although some manufacturers include semi-metallic pads from the factory). Organic pads are made of materials such as glass, fiber, rubber, carbon, and even Kevlar, mixed with resins to hold them together.
Organic brake pads are usually the least expensive option when it comes time to replace your brakes. They are relatively soft, quiet, and easy on the brake system. Useful for daily driving. On the other hand, organic brake pads wear out quickly compared to other pads. They produce a soft-feeling brake pedal and require more pressure to be applied. They do not tolerate overheating well. They are not a good option for performance use. But they are a good option for all-around use.
Ceramic Brake Pads
By way of contrast, ceramic brake pads are usually your most expensive option for replacement pads. Made from ceramic materials mixed with copper fibers, ceramic pads were designed for driver comfort. They are the least noisy, produce very little messy brake dust, and are stable over a wide range of temperatures. And they last the longest. Ceramic pads also provide a firmer brake pedal than organic pads. They do not perform quite as well as other pads in extreme cold and are not well-suited to performance use. But ceramic brake pads are quiet, comfortable, and durable pads, excellent for daily driving.
Semi-Metallic Brake Pads
Where ceramics excel in the comfort zone, semi-metallics are made for performance. They are made with a high percentage of steel, iron, copper, and other metals that increase their stopping power. Semi-metallic brake pads are also more durable and heat-resistant than other pads and work over the widest range of temperatures of all three compared here. They do not last as long as ceramics, but they last longer than organic pads. Unfortunately, they produce quite a bit of brake dust and are far more aggressive on other brake system components, especially your brake rotors. They are also noisier, tending to squeal more than other pads. Still, semi-metallics are good all-around brake pads, especially if you need to haul a heavy load, pull a heavy trailer, slam on your brakes a lot, or race around a track.
The following chart summarizes the differences between organic, ceramic, and semi-metallic brake pads:
When it comes time to replace your brake pads, make sure that you settle for nothing less than quality components. Cheap brake services are no great bargain. Ask the professionals at a trusted repair shop whether you should go with OEM pads or opt for an upgrade to ceramic or semi-metallic brake pads.
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright January 2020
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