Reader Question: My front brake pads don't seem to last very long. I had them replaced about 20,000 miles ago, and now I am told they need to be replaced again. I don't think I got my monies worth out of them. How can I prolong the life of my brakes?
Thank you, Rose
Great question, and I hear this "complaint" every once in awhile in my shop as well. First of all, I would like to mention that the 20,000 mile lifespan of your last brake job might not be all too bad, depending on how well you rate on the items listed below. To help you determine how you can prolong the life and performance of your brake pads, here are a few of the factors that can affect brake pads:
Composition of the brake pad. This is probably the most important factor in brake pad life. Brake pads are classified in two different categories: semi-metallic and non-metallic or "organic".
Semi-metallic brake pads are made of a hard substance with bits of metal flake added to increase hardness and prolong pad life. Most cars and light trucks on the road require semi-metallic pads for front brake use. This metallic material does make the pad last longer, but due to the added hardness of the material, a grinding noise or high pitched squeal can occur.
Non-metallic brake pads are made of an organic material and do not contain the hard bits of metal flake. Because they are not as hard as metallic pads, organic pads typically do not last as long. The benefit of these brake pads is that they are not as prone to making the annoying high pitched brake squeal everyone hates to hear. Organic brake pads are usually found on smaller cars that are susceptible to brake noise. If your car calls for semi-metallic brake pads, they must be used; in most cases, you cannot substitute organic brake pads.
Quality of the brake pad. If you take your car to the dealer for service, you aren't going to have a choice of brake pads…you are going to get the standard factory brake pads for that make and model. However, if you take your car to a mechanic with access to after-market parts, you can choose from a variety of styles and grades of brake pads. We have high performance pads, severe duty pads, quiet (squeakless) pads, and dustless pads that don't leave that nasty black film on your wheels. Being able to choose brake pads that are designed for how you drive your car can save you wear-and-tear on your brakes and frustrations with performance.
Driving habits of the driver. Probably the second most important factor in brake pad life is the driving habits of the driver (or multiple drivers like in a delivery type business, which can sometimes be worse on the vehicle than having a regular fulltime driver). Two footed drivers can quickly go through even the toughest brake pads in a very short time. These drivers tend to wait until the final 10 feet to apply the brakes, and when they do they use both feet and all the leg pressure they can muster.
My 88 year old grandmother (yes, she is still on the road) drives this way, you do not want to be behind her when she decides it is time to stop. Everything in the back seat of the car flies to the front seat! Driving environment can also play a huge role in brake wear. If you drive mostly in the city in stop-and -go traffic, you will decrease brake life dramatically as compared to someone who drives on the highway the majority of the time.
Rear brake response. The majority of the car's stopping power is derived from the front brakes, but the rear brakes should also help take some of the burden. In my shop we remove all four wheels and check front and rear brakes to get an idea of overall brake condition. It is fairly typical for the front brake pads to wear out twice as fast as the rear brakes since the front brakes bear the majority of the load. The rear brakes are usually self adjustable and will maintain themselves fairly well, but on occasion the rear brake shoes will need to be cleaned of excess dirt and debris and adjusted manually. If the rear brakes are not properly adjusted, they will cause the front brakes to work even harder than they normally do, thus reducing front brake longevity.
NOTE: If the vehicle is equipped with rear disc brakes they will usually not require any manual adjustment or periodic cleaning.
Excess weight or cargo. This factor should be obvious, but sometimes I am surprised at what I see come into my shop. If you are carrying a trunk full of concrete or pine bark mulch your spouse bought for you to put on the flower beds six months ago-this extra weight could be a cause of premature brake wear. If your 400 pound uncle that came to stay with you is driving your vehicle, this extra weight could be a cause of premature brake wear. Adding just one additional passenger can affect handling performance and brake effectiveness.
Quality of the brake job. The last important factor is the quality of the workmanship of the previous brake job. Resurfacing the brake rotors and drums when performing a brake job will extend the life of the brake material. If you bought a "bargain" brake job and it did not include rotor resurfacing, then this bargain price probably was no real bargain after all. You'll now have to replace the brake pads sooner than you would have if you had done the job right the first time.
Austin C Davis
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