How to tell when you need new brakes: Common warning signs to look and listen for

January 6, 2021

How do you know when it's time for new brakes? Learn to look and listen for the common warning signs!


A man installing new brake pads and rotors on a car

Although brakes are clearly an essential part of any vehicle, they are capable of going thousands of miles without a peep, quietly working hard to bring us safely to a stop. Perhaps that's why it can be so easy to overlook them when going through our routine maintenance checklist. 

So how can you tell when you need new brakes? Fortunately, old brakes don't stay silent for long and there are a number of common warning signs you can learn to look and listen for. Today, we'll show you how to pick up on the signals your brakes are giving you - read on!

What does it mean to get new brakes?


Before we discuss how you can tell if you need new brakes, it's helpful to understand what's actually being replaced. Although there are other types of braking systems, such as drum brakes, most newer vehicles utilize disc brakes.

In principal, disc brakes are fairly simple. They consist of a caliper, pads, rotors (the disk), and a hydraulic system to control them. When you step on the brake, the hydraulic system causes the caliper to clamp down on the disc, bringing the pad and the disc into contact with one another. The friction created from this contact slows the vehicle by converting kinetic energy into heat energy. 

As you can imagine, after prolonged use, both the pads and the rotors suffer wear and tear, which can affect stopping performance and potentially create hazardous situations. 

What sounds should you listen for?


Most of the time, braking is a surprisingly quiet process. In most cases, you shouldn't hear much of anything when you step on the pedal. However, after a certain amount of use, you'll likely notice certain tell-tale sounds that serve as clear signs that it's time to get new brakes. 

Squealing or squeaking


Do you hear a high-pitch, squeak or squeal when you step on the brakes? It isn't uncommon for people to hear this and assume something is very wrong, but this is actually a feature of many brake pads. 

Built in wear indicators on brake pads are designed to make shrill, screeching noises when they have been worn down to a certain point. This is their way of letting you know that the pads are nearing the end of their lifespan, and a clear indicator that maintenance is needed at some point in the near future. 

Grinding


So what happens if you don't replace your brake pads after they've been squeaking for a while? If the pads aren't replaced and are allowed to continue to wear, you may hear a more ominous grinding or growling sound, like rough metal scraping against metal. It sounds like that because that is exactly what is happening. After a certain point, the pad will have worn away completely, and the metallic caliper itself begins to scrape against the rotor disc. 

When your brakes begin to grind and growl, it usually means service is required immediately. If allowed to continue for any length of time, the caliper will gouge and score the disc, compromising its ability to function and ruining it completely. In addition to replacing the pad, you'll likely need to have the rotors refinished, or "turned," and possibly even replaced. 

Reduced responsiveness


Of course, as your brakes begin to wear, unpleasant sounds aren't the only sign you're likely to encounter; your vehicle's ability to brake, or its braking performance, will suffer as well.

One of the most common signs of waning brake performance is an increase in stopping distance. Simply put, your vehicle can't stop within the same distance as it can during peak performance. You may notice that you have to step on the brakes sooner than you normally would, or that you have to press down harder and longer.

This is is usually a gradual process, however, and will occur naturally as the surfaces begin to degrade and their ability to generate friction diminishes. If you notice a sudden inability to stop, or if your brake pedal seems to sink to the floor before anything happens, you may be experiencing issues with the hydraulic lines or a drop in brake fluid pressure.

In that case, it's important to look for signs of leakage in the brake lines. The leak itself may be difficult to spot, but you can look for small puddles of fluid beneath your car. Some vehicles even have a place where you can manually check the brake fluid levels, similar to a dipstick for checking engine oil. 

Regardless of what may be causing the drop in braking performance, it is essential to have your vehicle inspected to determine the cause. 

Pulling to one side or another


"Pulling" is yet another performance-related sign that brake maintenance is required. This refers to a situation where the front end of your vehicle tends to pull to one side or another when you attempt to stop.

This usually means that the pads on either side of your vehicle are wearing at a different rate for one reason or another. It isn't uncommon for slight variations in the pads to cause this uneven wearing, but it could be indicative of a larger issue with the hydraulic system. 

Regardless of the source of the problem, it's something that should be investigated without delay. Not only does this make it more difficult for your to safely control your vehicle, it can have a negative impact on a variety of other components, such as your steering and suspension systems. 

Keep in mind that pulling doesn't always mean that your pads are wearing unevenly, and may not have anything to do with your brakes. Poor wheel alignment, suspension issues, and even underinflated tires can cause all sorts of issues, so don't let it go too long without inspection.

Vibrations in the pedal


Vehicles vibrate - it's an unavoidable side effect when you have a series of pistons rapidly moving up and down within the engine. That having been said, not all vibrations are the same, and not all vibrations are normal. This is especially true when it come to your brake pedal. 

If your brake pedal vibrates when you press down on it, it might just mean that your wheels are out of alignment or that your tires need to be balanced. However, it may also mean that your rotors are warped. When both the pads and rotors are even, the result is gentle, smooth braking. If either surface is uneven or deformed, the friction will be inconsistent and cause these sorts of vibrations. 

This abnormal jittering can also be caused by a process called "brake glazing." Glazing is often caused by situations where the brakes are overheated too frequently and for too long. The friction material can become crystalized and smooth, or the brake pad material can actually partially liquify and smear across the surfaces of both the pad and rotor. While some glazing can be remedied by sanding the pads, replacing them is usually the best and safest bet. 

It is also worth noting that some rhythmic vibrations in the brake pedal, or a pulsing sensation in the pedal, may actually be the vehicle's anti-lock braking system at work. However, ABS usually only activates under extreme braking conditions as the system is made to detect sudden changes in speed.  

Visual inspection


A trained eye can typically spot wear and tear on a brake pad or rotor. However, mechanics often rely on special instruments to measure the thickness in order to tell whether or not a pad is in need of replacement. 

Just as it is important to regularly check your fluid levels, checking the thickness of your brake pads can be a helpful way to stay on top of things, and can help you identify issues before the screeching and scraping begins. Although the specific width will vary based on the individual pad, they are usually 12 mm thick when new, and should be replaced when they have worn down to 3 or 4 mm.

Of course, it's not always as easy to check your brake pads as it is to check something like your oil; sometimes, you need to remove the tire in order to do so. If that's the case for your vehicle, consider taking advantage of opportunities where you're already removing the tire, like when you're rotating them. Whether you take your vehicle to a tire shop to have them rotated or do it yourself, it only takes a few extra seconds to check the brake pads, and can save you a lot of stress in the future. 

How often do you need to change your brakes?


First and foremost, it's important to understand that getting new brakes doesn't always mean buying both the pads and the rotor discs each time. Although the disks will eventually need to be replaced, you can usually extend their lifespan by properly maintaining your pads. However, if neglected and allowed to wear thin, the pads will gouge the rotors and both will need to be replaced. 

As with many facets of auto maintenance, it is difficult to determine a standard for how often you need to change your brakes or how many miles you can put on them before they're no longer adequate. Although many professionals will recommend buying new pads every 10,000-20,000 miles and rotors every 50,000-70,000 miles, there are a number of variables that can play into your specific needs. 

Your driving habits.  Even slight variations in driving habits can compound over time and have an impact on how frequently you need to service your brakes. While certain occasions clearly call for abrupt braking (such as a deer hopping across the road), smooth and gradual braking habits will help you get more out of your pads and rotors. 

The type of driving you do. While we don't always have control over the driving situations we find ourselves in, different environments can play a part in how frequently we need new brakes. For example, if you live among rolling hills and often have to ride the brakes, or if you regularly have to fight stop-and-go traffic, the life expectancy of your pads and rotors will be diminished. 

Materials. Unsurprisingly, brakes can be made out of a number of different materials - especially the pads. Some pads are designed to be harder and work well in high performance environments, while others are softer and cater to vehicles operating at lower speeds. As you might guess, some of those materials will degrade faster than others. 

Of course, the specific make and model of your vehicle will also play a role in determining your brake maintenance schedule. Fortunately, you can find general guidelines for this and other routine maintenance tasks in your owner's manual. With that estimation in mind, check your brakes every 5,000 miles or so, and make sure to record any maintenance in your auto maintenance log

A foot pressing on the brake pedal

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Read more: Important vehicle safety features that help prevent collisions and save lives

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.