Whether you are a new driver or you have been motoring for many years, you learn pretty quickly that your car needs routine maintenance. Your tires only last so long. Your engine oil needs to be replaced regularly. And your brake pads need to be changed out every so often. Brake pads are an essential element of your vehicle’s braking system – and they are key to your safety.
Every time you press on the brake pedal, a hydraulic clamp called a brake caliper squeezes a pair of brake pads against a spinning metal disc (the brake rotor) attached to each wheel. It works similarly to the hand brakes on a bicycle that squeeze the rim when you pull the lever. When the brakes engage, friction is created between the brake pads and the sides of the rotors. The friction produces energy in the form of heat, and that energy is used to slow and stop your car.
As you might imagine, the contact between the pads and the brake rotors is going to cause something to wear away. On a bike, the rubber pads wear out over time. On your car, it is the brake pads that give themselves up in the process.
Brake pads contain a sacrificial friction material bonded to a metal backing plate. Every time you use your brakes, a bit of that material wears away. How much wear depends on a few factors. For instance, aggressive braking, frequent sudden stops, and “riding the brakes” all cause your brake pads to wear faster. So does driving on dirt roads or other harsh conditions. The composition of the friction material on your brake pads also plays a role in how quickly they wear out.
The type of brake pad you use depends, in part, on what type of vehicle you drive. Are you driving the kids around in a minivan or crossover SUV? Or are you hauling heavy loads in a three-quarter-ton truck? Maybe your car sits a lot lower to the ground and is capable of nearly Nascar performance. Each vehicle has a different need.
Your driving habits also factor into the decision about the type of pads you use. Are you looking for high performance or comfort? Are you an aggressive driver or out for pleasure? Do you regularly pull a trailer, frequent gravel roads, drive through the mountains? These factors point toward one type of pad or another.
Brake pads are most often made with one of three different types of material: organic, ceramic, and semi-metallic, each with unique characteristics and each with its pros and cons.
Organic Brake Pads
Most new cars sold in the US are fitted with organic brake pads from the manufacturer. These pads are also known as non-asbestos organic (or NAO) pads. They were developed as an alternative to the asbestos pads used years ago. Although some vehicles come from the factory with other types of pads, when someone refers to OEM brake pads, they usually mean organic pads. Organic brake pads are made of materials such as glass, fiber, rubber, carbon, and even Kevlar mixed with resins to bond them together.
Organic brake pads are usually the least expensive choice when it is time for a brake job. They are relatively “soft”, quiet, and gentle on your brake system, and they are a good choice for daily driving. But they wear out quicker than other types of pads and produce significant amounts of dirty brake dust. And because they are softer, they require a bit more effort against the brake pedal. They also do not tolerate overheating very well and are therefore not a good choice for performance use. For all-around use, they are just fine.
- Soft pedal
- Gentle on brake system components
- Require more effort when braking
- Wear quickly and require more frequent replacement
- Not suited for performance or heavy-duty use
Semi-metallic Brake Pads
If your car did not come with organic brake pads from the factory, it likely bore semi-metallic pads, especially if your “car” is a truck or large SUV. Semi-metallic brake pads are made up of metal shavings: copper, steel, brass (and maybe some graphite thrown in) and bonded with resin. They are best suited for heavy-duty or performance use, although they can also be applied to daily driving.
Semi-metallic brake pads have the greatest amount of stopping power. They are also heat resistant and work over the widest range of temperatures of the three types of pads described here. They last longer than organic pads, but like organics, they produce a good deal of brake dust. They are also the noisiest, tending to squeal more than other pads. And semi-metallic pads are rougher on other parts of the brake system, especially the rotors. They make for good all-around use and are well-suited to heavy-duty use where noise and wear take a backseat to performance.
- Solid stopping power for heavy-duty or performance use
- Tolerant of extreme temperatures
- Relatively long lasting
- Create more brake system wear
Ceramic Brake Pads
If you are looking for a balance of comfort and performance, then ceramic brake pads might be for you. These pads are made mostly of hard ceramic fibers, so they tend to last the longest. And yet, they are quiet and comfortable. They provide a firmer brake pedal than organics and yet do not produce a lot of brake dust, so they are cleaner. Ceramic pads are also the quietest. They handle heat very well, but that heat tends to be transferred to the rest of the brake system. So, they are less aggressive on your rotors, but they make the rotors hotter. They technically do not do as well in extreme cold, although the effects are negligible. Depending on the pad, they could be right for high-performance use, or they may be best for comfortable daily driving. The elevated abilities of ceramic brake pads do come with a cost; they are your most expensive option.
- Extremely durable and last longest
- Dissipate heat quickly
- Gentle on brake system components
- Not suited for heavy-duty use
Truth be told, brake pads are rarely one hundred percent of one type of the other. Friction materials are often blended together. But no matter which type of brake pads you choose, organic vs. ceramic vs. semi-metallic, you will eventually need to replace them again. How will you know when it is time for brake service? Well, they give you some clues.
If your car is not equipped with an electronic brake pad wear indicator on your dash, your brake pads are. A small strip of metal attached to the pads will come in contact with the rotor when a certain amount of friction material has been depleted. That contact will result in a high-pitched squeal when you press on the brake pedal. If you choose to ignore the digital indicator and the audible signal, the next sign might be a scraping noise as the metal backings on your pads grind into your rotors when the friction material is gone.
If you notice any of these signs that something has gone wrong with your brakes – or if your brake pedal is pulsing, is soft, or travels too far toward the floor – take your car in for brake repair. Better yet, have your brakes inspected regularly. Many repair shops offer a complimentary inspection with an oil change service. But remember, with the extended oil change intervals that result from the use of synthetic oil, your car might not get inspected as often as it should. Pay attention to your brakes; they are the most important safety feature on your car, truck, or SUV.
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright
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