When should I change my brakes?

When should I change my brakes?

brakes1You are coming up to a stop and you feel a roughness in the car or steering wheel or you are hear a grinding or squealing. You have been noticing all this black dust around your wheels lately.

Your car just doesn’t seem to be stopping as well as it did and you are smelling a burning smell when you get out of the car. You are thinking, “When should I change my brakes?” Well it may be time and again it might not. A lot of shops will tell you “yes, put brakes on it” sometime when they don’t need it. Would you like a little insight?

So When should I change my brakes on my car or truck for proper maintenance? Brakes are simple, yet complex and as cars and trucks have progressed over time, man the technology behind them can blow your mind. But in some ways the saying, “ignorance is bliss” might apply here.

There are many flavors of brakes, “Basic Hydraulic Brakes – Manual or Power”, “Anti-Lock Brakes”, “Hydrostatic Brakes”, “Pneumatic Brakes” and even “Computer Controlled Electronic Brakes”.

In the beginning cars with “Anti-Lock-Brakes” started off with a more manual type controller to now completely controlled by a computer. And the days of getting your buddy to pump the brake pedal while you bleed the brakes won’t work like it did. A lot of vehicles have to be power bled, basically a machine that either pushes the fluid through the master cylinder or vacuums the fluid, depending on the type of braking system you have.


So How Do You Know?

So when should you change your brakes, how do you know when your brakes are getting to the point of not working? Well a lot of people are not going to pull off the wheel and inspect their own brakes. Not everyone knows how and not everyone has it in their budget to have their brakes looked at regularly.

Visual inspection is the very best way but most of us are too busy to run down to a shop and pay the ridiculous inspection fee all the time to monitor your brakes. We live in a fast pace busy world and it’s not a bad idea to incorporate mental markers for maintenance checks.

First thing you need to know about how fast your brakes wear is all on you. How do you drive, are you hard on the brakes, you like to go fast and stop even faster? Are you one of those that lets off the gas half a mile away and coast up to the light? Do you drive in bumper to bumper traffic everyday or is your commute cruisin down an open highway?

These things really matter and then you have to figure what kind of quality brake pad or shoe you have on your car. If you are driving a vehicle that still has the factory OEM brakes on it, you have top quality material and can get up to 60,000 miles or more on them, depending on your driving habits that is.


When to start looking at your brakes

So based on your driving habits and that you are not going to be doing any yanking off of the wheels for a visual inspection, you can kind of go by the following scenarios:

  • If you are starting from factory brakes and you are either in an area where it is stop and go traffic or you like to hit those brakes hard, start looking to have the brakes changed around 25,000 to 35,000 miles, at least pay for an inspection at that point.
  • If you do a lot of highway driving and or you’re just real easy on the brakes and take your time to stop, then consider doing or getting a visual inspection around 45,000 miles. Of course if you are hearing a grinding noise or squealing when applying the brakes, get that visual inspection done right away.
  • If you are noticing heavy brake dust, (black powder on and around the wheels), do a visual inspection to see how much of the pad is gone.
  • If you can see your brake rotors through your wheels, look at the rotors for heavy grooving, rainbow colors or dark patch discoloration on them. Also brake pads have a squealer indicator on them. This is a tab of metal that when the pad gets thin enough, the tab will run against the rotor thus causing a squealing. A lot of times you can see this tab of metal when looking through your wheels if the openings are big enough.

If you are starting from an aftermarket brake product such as a parts store home brand, then you can figure on changing out your brakes much sooner than factory ones. So based on the above driving habits and conditions, reduce the 25,000 miles down to about 15,000 for a brake check and the 45,000 miles down to about 30,000.

Now if you are a Do-It-Yourselfer or know someone or a garage that will install the brand you like, then I would suggest five brands that are easy to get at your parts stores. Wagner, Raybestos, Bendix, AC Delco or Bosch. All of these are offered in a ceramic construction and ceramics are longer lasting, less brake dust and less noise, because even new pads can squeal, especially semi-metallic pads.

There better brake brands to look at, they are a little pricier but well worth it. Akebono which is a lot of what car manufacturers’ use; Hawk which is the leader in ceramics; Centric and Powerstop. To learn more about these brake pads, check out this article: AutoMotoAdvisor


Don’t Forget About The Back Brakes

“What about my back brakes?” Well the back brakes wear at a different rate. Vehicles have what is known as a proportioning valve made into the braking system. This valve allows a certain percentage of your brake pressure to be applied to the rear brakes.

On average your vehicle only gets 30% to the rear, meaning that your front brakes do around 70% of the stopping. Now that may seem crazy to you but most vehicle’s engines are up front, so most of your weight is up front. Also since your front brakes are up front and going that direction, you want your stopping power there.

If your brakes were set even to 50/50, you would see a lot of rear wheel sliding when you tried to stop or chattering away with the anti-lock systems. This is why you can go through two front brakes jobs to the one in the rear.

So keep that in mind for the rear brakes, usually start worrying about changing them when you are about half way through your first front brake job to being on the start of your second one.

brake-padVisual inspections are not always revealing either, especially if you are not really experienced with many types of braking systems or fully knowing what to look for.

Unfortunately some pads are made thin from the start and can be misleading. Looking at them on the car, you may think your brakes are half gone already when they may be still like new. If in doubt, run down to the parts store and ask to see some new pads, that will give you an idea of how thick they should be.

Or if you are at a shop and they are showing you how thin your pad is, ask them to show you how thick a new one is before committing to a brake job. Often rear disc brake pads are thin from factory, actually if you have drum brakes in the rear, the shoes are often thin to start with as well.

Then you have all the hardware that can be having issues that just looking will not tell you anything. So it is always best to have someone experienced or certified to work on your brakes. After crashing into the back of someone isn’t the time to find out you didn’t do it right…


So, When Should I Change My Brakes?

I thought it would be best to show you images of what I have talked about so far plus make a list of signs you need to watch for:

As I mentioned, visual aid is your best tool for deciding if you should change your brakes or at least take it somewhere to be professional inspected or if you do it yourself, take it apart for a deeper inspection.

heavy brake dust on wheelSo for the front brakes, you can look at your wheel for brake dust. A little is normal but if you never wash your car, then this may not help but if your wheel is really covered heavily, you need to check if not replace the brake pads.

Now if you have an old car or a heavy truck with front drum brakes, none of this information will apply. I will go over drum brakes down below.






grooved front brake rotorIf you are lucky and have a sport wheel that is spoked to where you can see the brake rotor, this will make it easy to inspect for signs of worn out brakes. A brake pad that has worn down too far will groove the rotor.

The grooves are easily noticeable, it will look like something metal gouged the smooth surface of the rotor. If there are signs of grooves or grinding, then it is time to change your brake pads and most likely rotors too.

Here is another shot of what a grooved out rotor looks like. This type of groove makes it easier to determine worn out pads.grooved out front brake rotor







crack in a brake rotorNow no matter if you spot this through the wheel or with the wheel off, if you find a crack or cracks in the rotor, then you have to change out the brake pads and rotor.

Cracks in a rotor are usually caused by the rotor getting too hot. Rotors can get hot for several reasons, one being the driver brakes to fast and hard. The other is that your caliper is sticking either the piston or the slides the caliper rides on.



overheated brake rotorAnother sign you need front brakes and or a full inspection of pads and caliper is over heating rotors.

Now again, if you are heavy on the brake, like someone that tries to make it go from 70 to 0 in a couple of seconds, you will get this coloring but if you are braking normal and getting this discoloration then you are looking at more than just worn brake pads.

A caliper sticking either by the piston or the caliper hardware that allows the caliper to slide will not let the full pressure off the rotora blued and overheated brake rotor keeping the pads in contact with the rotor full time causing the pads to eat up and the rotor to heat up.

So if you see your rotor looking like this, you are looking at pads, rotors, calipers or caliper hardware or all of it.






normal front brake wearSo in case you were wondering what the rotor should look like for a frame of reference, this is what on average a normal wear and tear on a brake rotor looks like.

As long as you’re not seeing spotty discolorations, dark patches, what looks like grinding or grooves in the disc surface, you should be good.




Now Let’s Take A Look At Drum Brakes

normal wear on a brake drumNow this time I will start you off with what a normal wear on a drum looks like. Drum brakes can pretty much only be inspected by pulling the drum off. There are signs that can indicate drum brake issues and I will get to them shortly.

Drum brakes are actually more complicated than disc brakes. You have a set of shoes, two shoes per drum. They are pushed away from each other into the drum to create the friction to stop the drum from turning. rear drum brakes

What gets complicated is how the two shoes are tied together with springs, how the the self adjuster works and how on occasions have to be manually adjusted.






slightly worn brake shoeIf you pull the brakes drum off to inspect your shoes or have a garage do it, this is what a normal wear can look like on what is called the “brake lining”. Brake lining is the the padding on the metal shoe, this lining can be glued on or glued with rivets.

Drum brakes are bad about keeping the brake dust trapped inside the drum, thus this dust causing grooves to be cut into the lining.

If the grooves are no worse than this image, you just need to empty the drum of the brake dust and blow the shoes off. You can also run a piece of sandpaper over the lining to freshen it up.



good brake lining vs bad brake liningHere is a comparison of new brake shoe compared to completely worn out shoe. Even though your rear brakes only do roughly 30% of the stopping, when they start wearing out, it requires that your front brakes to do more work.

Also your rear brakes regardless if they are drum or disc, are usually your emergency or parking brake.

If you notice the car isn’t holding with the parking brake on or that you are either pulling the handle up further or pushing the parking brake pedal down further, these are good indicators that your rear brakes need either adjusted or replaced.



crack brake show liningIf your brake shoe lining is crack like in this image, you have to replace them. Brake shoes are common to break and get cracks in them from all the heat that builds up inside the drum.

When the shoe lining starts to crack, eventually the lining will start breaking off in chunks and has been know to lock a wheel up from turning.

Also the metal structure of the shoe if the lining breaks way will groove out the drum and will cause you to have to replace it. So if you have cracked lining, replace it immediately.



what a bad drum looks likeIf you are not completely sure if your brake shoes are worn down enough to replace, look at how the drum is wearing inside.

If the inside of the drum looks heavily grooved, rain-bowed colored, dark and light patches or has what looks like a metal cut grind, the brakes need to be replaced and the drums either need turned (new surface cut) or replaced.


Signs Your Brakes Need Attention

Now outside all the visual inspections, I had mentioned those mental markers. Well one marker is kind of knowing the last time you had a brake job or how long you have been driving your new car and this is a good way to keep up with it but I am going to make you a list of things you need to watch for.

  • Heavy brake dust on and around the wheels (disc brakes)
  • Pay attention to the rotors through the wheel if possible to look for coloration’s and or grooves (disc brakes)
  • Pay attention after getting out of your car if you smell anything that smells burnt (disc or drum brakes)
  • When putting on your brakes, notice if the steering wheel seems to mildly go left to right (front disc brakes) (can occur with front drum brakes)
  • When putting on the brakes, notice if the car vibrates or shakes (front disc brakes) (can occur with drum brakes)
  • When putting on the brakes, notice if you hear grinding, growling or squealing noises (front disc brakes) (can occur with drum brakes)
  • When putting on the brakes, notice if the car feels like the stopping power is pulsed or is surging (front disc brakes) (can occur with drum brakes)
  • When putting on the brakes, notice if the brake pedal feels like it is pulsing up and down (drum brakes)
  • When using the parking brake, notice if the lever has to be pulled up further than usual or more than you think it should or if the parking brake pedal has to be pushed down further (rear disc or drum brakes)
  • When the parking brake is applied but it will not hold the car in place (rear disc or drum brakes)
  • Brake indicator light coming on (check fluid level first, this can be a multitude of issues)


These are some warning signs your brakes need attention and or replaced. One side note, most parking brake levers are connected to the rear brakes with a cable and this cable stretches over time. The fix is to just adjust it, so keep that in mind if a garage is telling you need rear brakes.

These are the most common things to look for, there are many things that can go wrong with brakes. I am not getting into the issues you can have with “Anti-Lock-Brakes”, that would have to be a whole other post.

Pay attention to the signs I have listed above but hopefully you have your car routinely maintained so your brakes will not get to any of these points.










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One thought on “When should I change my brakes?

  1. I did not realize that back brakes wear at different rates than the front brakes. It is interesting to learn about the proportioning valve. My uncle says it is best to change brake pads before they are completely worn out to maintain the overall quality of your car.

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