Three Ways To Know It's Time To Change Your Brakes

Your brakes are perhaps the most important safety feature on your car. While airbags, crumple zones, seatbelts, and other systems are vitally important, your brakes help you to avoid accidents, in the first place. Unfortunately, many people wait too long to change their brakes. This is not only dangerous, but it can ultimately be costlier as well. Brake pads that are allowed to wear too far can damage your rotors, forcing you to replace both. Even worse, severely worn brake pads can cause your caliper pistons to overextend and possibly result in the need for a replacement or rebuild.

Of course, it isn't always obvious when it's time to change your brakes. Here are three methods that you can use to determine if a brake change is in your immediate future.

Method #1: Use Your Ears

This is the simplest method and the one that most people are familiar with. If your brakes are squealing, it may mean that they need to be replaced. This isn't a fool-proof method, however. Sometimes, poorly lubricated metal parts, such as your caliper brackets, can cause a deceptive squeaking or squealing. Also keep in mind that the squeal you hear is produced by a special wear strip within the brake pad that is designed to alert you to the condition of the pads. If this strip is damaged or bent, the pads may not produce an audible noise.

Note that you should never ignore a grinding noise from your brakes. This usually indicates that the pads are completely worn and the metal backing on the pad is grinding against your rotors. This will severely reduce your braking power and may result in damage to the discs.

Method #2: Watch for Lights

Most modern cars are equipped with brake pad wear sensors. In most cases, these are sacrificial sensors, which are destroyed once the brake pad thickness falls below a certain level. The head of the sensor makes contact with the rotor and its destruction illuminates a light on your dash. Most cars are equipped with one sensor on a rear wheel and one sensor on a front wheel, although not all cars will have separate lights for the front and rear pads. If you see this light come on, your brake pads will usually need to be changed, within a few thousand miles.

If you are trying to be cost conscious, however, it can pay to replace your pads before the light comes on. Each sensor usually costs between $10-15, but if the pads are replaced before the sensor is destroyed, then the sensor can be reused.

Method #3: Visual Inspection

The best and most reliable method of determining the condition of your brake pads is simply to look at them. This usually needs to be performed with the car in the air and the wheel removed. If you aren't comfortable performing this yourself, be sure to have your mechanic inspect your brakes any time your car is in the shop for other service. This is a trivially easy job to perform, while performing an oil change, for example, so it shouldn't add much to your labor cost to have the brakes inspected. Any professional shop can even measure their exact thickness, providing you an accurate estimate of how much life they have left.

In the end, it doesn't matter which method you choose to use. The important thing is that you monitor the condition of your pads and never ignore the signs of pads that have reached the end of their useful lives.