If you're starting to worry about how your brakes are performing, you need to ask, ‘How long do brakes last?’
When I was a kid, my parents would put a mark on the wall once a year to show me how much I had grown. It gave me a chance to benchmark a constant and effectively invisible process and see how I had changed over time. The brakes in a car work much the same way; you don’t feel them wearing down, and you aren’t aware of needing to brake a little bit harder to stop.
Until you almost don’t stop before the intersection.
So, how long do brakes last? A simple rule of thumb is 50,000 miles, but unlike some other parts of a car, this isn’t a straightforward answer. You can check your owner’s manual for a more accurate number, but even that is still just an estimate.
Understanding the factors that determine how long your brakes last
When you press the brake pedal in your car, hydraulic pressure is applied to the brake calipers, causing them to clamp the brake pads around the rotor, which is a solid metal disc attached to the wheel. This pressure creates the friction that stops the vehicle. This friction generates heat and causes wear on the pads and rotor.
There are several factors that can change the rate of wear to the brake system, including:
- Driving patterns: Depending on how you drive, you may use your brakes more aggressively and shorten their lifespan. While the necessities of driving may require the occasional hard stop, the more you can brake smoothly and gradually, the longer your brakes will last.
- Location: If you live in a mountainous area, you'll probably need to use your brakes more heavily than someone living in a more level region. Stop-and-go traffic patterns, like you find in the suburbs, will keep you using your brakes frequently. Depending on the environment you normally drive in, you'll get different results from your brakes.
- Hardness of brake pads: Depending upon the type of driving experience you're looking for, there are different brake pads with different hardness ratings. The harder the brake pads, the longer they'll last, but the less responsive they are at slower speeds. The longest lasting brake pads are typically used on performance vehicles.
- Brake type: While most vehicles use steel brakes, there are modern materials such as carbon ceramic brakes that offer different performance characteristics, including life cycle. These kinds of brake systems are expensive, though, and are typically only found on performance vehicles.
So, despite the 50-thousand-mile guideline, your actual experience can vary greatly depending upon how you use your vehicle.
Recognizing the signs of worn brakes
So, how long do brakes last? It really depends on how you’re using them! Since wear can vary so greatly when it comes to brakes, you're better off learning to recognize the indicators that your brakes need to be changed. These include:
- Poor stopping power: As your brakes wear down, you'll find yourself having to brake harder to stop.
- Noisy braking: If you hear a scraping or squeaking sound when you brake, it’s a sign that your pads are worn down and you need to replace them.
- Uneven or shaky braking: This is the result of a warping rotor, resulting in an uneven brake grip. While you can get the rotor ground smooth, you're effectively speeding up the wear, so it's often better just to replace the rotor.
If you wear through your brake pads, wear is done directly to the calipers and rotors. As a result, waiting to change your pads ultimately just makes the repair more expensive. It’s never a good idea to ride out a brake problem and see what happens!
Maintaining your brakes for the best life cycle
As with any other part of your vehicle, regular maintenance is the secret to maximizing the effectiveness of your brake system. In order to know when to replace brake pads, you should:
- Check thickness: When you’re having your tires rotated or your oil changed, the mechanic can inspect your brake pads, and let you know if they're getting thin. You should have your pads inspected every 12,000 miles.
- Replace worn pads: If an inspection reveals that your brake pads are less than 1/8 inch thick, you should have them replaced.
- Check brake fluid: Each time you change your oil, check your brake fluid and see if it needs to be topped up. Replace the brake fluid if it seems dirty.
Most of us take our brakes for granted until they don’t work as expected. Knowing when to replace brakes is an important part of your general automotive maintenance schedule, and could mean the difference between a cheap replacement and a large repair bill – or even a deadly accident.
For assistance with automotive questions such as "How long do brakes last?", you can turn to the qualified Experts on JustAnswer. In less time than it will take to schedule a visit with your local shop, you can be talking with a mechanic and getting your problem resolved. With the advice they provide, you'll be ready to save money by taking a swing at the repair yourself, or armed with knowledge if you do have to take it to your local shop.
Do you have a brakes-related story that brings conversations to a screeching halt? Share it in the comments!