How To Check Brake Pads? A Step-by-Step Guide

Everyone who drives a vehicle should try to have enough knowledge and ability to check brake pads by themselves. Checking brakes is not a difficult task. Being able to monitor your car’s brake pads is not only important for your car’s maintenance but also important for your safety as a driver, as well as any passengers.

Brake pads are not quite visible in most vehicles. Much like certain other components, they are consumable and get worn out after time, so you must ensure they are in good working condition so you can properly stop your car.

Checking your brake pads periodically will let you know if they are working fine, or not. By keeping an eye on them, you can also estimate when they’ll be reaching their end-of-life and plan for the replacement cost. Once they reach the point where they need to be changed, you can either take the car to a qualified mechanic or learn how to replace the brake pads yourself. You can definitely save a few bucks by doing it yourself.

There are different methods one can employ to determine how your brake pads are doing. You can use your sight, feeling, and/or sound. Depending on the model of your vehicle, and your wheel type, you may be able to check your pads with the wheels on, or you might have to to remove the wheels to allow proper inspection.

Brake components and your wheels can get very hot during use. Make sure your brake pads are cool before attempting to touch them. You don’t want to get your hands burnt. Even a few minutes of driving can make them hot. If you have driven the car shortly before you check the pads, it is wise you leave it to cool for about one (1) hour. Exercise caution and good judgement.

Visual Wheel Inspection

As you drive your vehicle and the brake pads work to stop the vehicle, brake dust is generated from the friction between the pads and the rotors and accumulates on the wheels. Wheel dust indicates functioning brake pads. You will need to periodically clean the fine organic and metallic particles on the wheels. Excessive dust could indicate that your brake pads, or rotors, or both are very worn. If you cannot assess the brakes yourself, take the car to a mechanic for proper examination and get the pads and rotors replaced if necessary.

Here is you can check your car’s brake pad with two ways:

  • Visually Check Brake Pads with wheels on
  • Visually Check Brake Pads with wheels off
  • Check Brake Pads While Driving

We will discuss each method in detail step-by-step.

Visually Check Brake Pads

First we have how to visually inspect brake pads:

Checking The Rotors and Brake Pads Without Removing Wheels

Some vehicles have a warning indicator light on their dashboard. This makes monitoring your brake wear super easy. if a light on your dash is illuminated, or blinking, then the brake pad is worn to a maximum level.

Yes, you can check your car’s brake pads without removing the wheel. The brake pads can sometimes be seen through the holes on the wheels in some vehicles. To check the pads, point a flashlight through the wheel holes and look for a view of the pads in the caliper. In some vehicles, you will see a slot in the middle of the brake pads. The slot can serve a different purpose but also serves as a wear indicator. If the friction material is so thin that the slot is no longer visible, it’s time for replacement pads.

Brake Pad Wear Slot

Check for adequate thickness of the pads and rotors both. A side-view works best.

If If the pads appear thin, say less than ¼, then you may need to replace them as the the pads may have worn out due to your history of use.

If you cannot get a good view of the brake pads during the inspection, you should remove the wheels, You can then use other, more accurate, methods to check the brake pads and rotor condition. However, you may need tools such as a flashlight and/or measurement instruments, such as this digital micrometer, to do this properly.

Removing The Wheels To Check The Brake Pads

You will have to remove the wheel in the cases where you can’t clearly see the brake pad thickness from the outside. To remove the wheel park your car on a level surface, place the jack in the appropriate location on the vehicles frame next to the tire you want to remove and lift the vehicle. Be sure to use jack stands for safety, and check the wheel temperature and wait if it is hot. Then when cooled, loosen the lug nuts on the wheels and remove the tires.

Removing the wheel to Check the brake pad
Removing the wheel to check the brake pad

It is usually a better option to inspect the brake pad thickness with the wheel removed. You will have a better view of not only the brake pad but also of the caliper, rotor and brake lines. You will also be able to examine an entire section of the braking system in this way.

Check Brake Pad Wear

With the tires removed, you should be able to see the brake pads properly, if not, loosen the lower caliper bolt and pry the caliper up to allow brake pad inspection. Check for adequate thickness, as mentioned before, if it’s less than ¼, then you need to see a mechanic, or start a DIY project to replace them. Another advantage of removing the wheels is that you can also see how your rotors, calipers and brake lines are doing.

How To Check Brake Pads While Driving

Here we’ll mention some ways to check brake pads while driving.

Listening To The Noise

If you are hearing a screeching metallic sound when you step on the brake, it can be a sign of pad wear coming from the wear indicator. The wear indicator is a small metallic tab. It is built to touch the rotors once the pads are wearing out. The screeching noise comes when the wear indicator comes in contact with the rotor. This gives you an audio level warning that you have to change your brake pads.

Any grinding or growling you may feel whenever you hit the brake pedals is an indication that the pads are seriously worn out and are grinding into the rotors. Or the grinding noise could be a result of an trapped materials (rocks, stones etc.) between the pads and rotors. One exception is if you are driving your car after it has been sitting through adverse weather, such as from snow, rain, or after washing it. The moisture can cause a thin layer of rust to develop on the brake rotors which will make some noise as the surface rust is cleared off.

Responsiveness and “Feel” of the Brakes

There is something going wrong in your braking system if you apply the brake but the brakes are not responsive and not stopping your vehicle smoothly and immediately.

Another indicator of brake wear is if you feel your steering wheel shaking or vibrating when the brakes are applied, it’s an indication that there are one or more warped rotors. Warped rotors are usually a sign the excessive heat is being generated, that has affected the pads and rotors.

You can also feel vibrations or pulsing through the brake pedal if there are any issues arising.

Regardless of how you inspect or monitor your brake system, be sure to take it seriously and take the entire brake system into account.

FAQs

What can damage the brake pads?

Frequent driving, and the use of your brake pads will usually just cause normal wear and tear. Aggressive driving, towing, mountain driving, etc. can reduce brake life, or even cause damage. Faulty components in the brake system can adversely affect the brake pads, and lead to dangerous brake failure. Remember, all brake components are a system and are connected and work together collectively.

If you suspect brake system damage, first inspect the pads and rotors. Normally, as your pads wear down, they grind away at the rotors which are also consumable items, which should be machined or replaced during maintenance. You can feel a rotor with your finger tips, or nails; and it should be as smooth as glass. If the rotors have grooves, they may require “turning” to restore a good surface for engaging the pads. Replacing the pads without turning them, and leaving grooved rotors, can prematurely destroy the new pads.

How long do brake pads last?
Brake pads can last between 20,000 to 70,000 miles or more. But this range would depend on several factors. Like the kind of brake pads you use, your driving habits, and how well you maintain your brake system. Remember other brake components are connected to the brake pads. Neglecting another faulty brake component could also damage the pads.

Do all brake pads wear at once?

All the brake pads in your car, can wear equally, but commonly do not wear at the same rate. Typically the front brake pads wear more quickly. This is because most car manufacturers have the dominant braking pressure placed on the front wheels. So most of the power needed to stop the car comes from the front wheels. Anytime you hit the brake pedal, all weight is transferred to the front wheels to stop the car causing the front pads to wear faster.

Can you drive with faulty brake pads?

You can drive with worn brake pads. But you usually won’t get the same and proper stopping power you need to bring your car to a halt. Without proper stopping power, you could have a brake failure, or the faulty brakes could cause you to lose control of the car and crash. It’s not advisable to drive with your pads worn out. Again, driving with faulty brake pads will usually lead to damaging your rotors (brake discs), and cost you more money.

How much does it cost to replace brake pads?

While costs are always relative to the type of car and brake components selected, brake pad replacement costs can be around $70 for front or back wheels. With upgraded components it could even rise to the range of $150 – $250. However, these amounts depend on the whether you DIY (estimates shown), or have a mechanic perform the work (usually several hundred dollars). Note that, normally, brake pads made with organic materials are usually cheaper than brake pads made with semi-metallic or ceramic materials.

Final Thoughts

This article has highlighted how to check and monitor brake pads and rotors. You can check yourself or have a mechanic do it. Whenever you remove the wheels, its a good idea to take note of the thickness of your pads. As mentioned before, anything below ¼ is a call to change your pads. In addition to the pad’s thickness, also pay attention to weird sounds as you are braking. If you hear squealing or grinding noises, or feel vibrations when you step on the brake pedals, check the pads. They might be worn out. Also, do not forget to check other components connected to the brake pads. If they are faulty and you fail to address them, it might result in uneven pad wears.

How To Check Brake Pads
Noting Brake Pad Thickness With the Wheel Off

Wrapping Up

If you have any questions regarding “How To Check Brake Pads” do feel free to ask via the contact form, or in the comment section. For more information, watch the video below:

How to Check Brake Pads

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