You may not consider changing your car’s brake pads until they start making noise or your mechanic says they’re getting thin. So, how long do they usually last? And when should you think about replacing them? Also, if you plan on changing brake pads yourself, is there anything you should know?

Inspecting for Longevity

Brake pad life-span depends on a number of factors, such as car type, individual driver habit and weather conditions. The brake pads on a commuter’s car, which sees mostly highway driving, might last 50,000 miles, while brake pads on a sports car could last fewer than 20,000 miles.

Regular inspection is the true key to determining when you should start thinking about changing brake pads. Most pads start their life with about 12 mm of friction material, and most mechanics suggest replacing them when they get to 3 or 4 mm. You should replace your car’s brake pads before the backing plate begins gouging out the brake rotors — a complication that can make the job even more expensive.

Checking your own brake pads takes just a few minutes and doesn’t require much more than a flashlight and inspection mirror. You may have to lie on your back to get a good look at the inboard brake pad on some models, though. Aside from a visual inspection, any unusual noises that you might hear, such as squealing, squeaking or rubbing, may indicate wear or malfunction. If brake pads are worn unevenly, this should also alert you to a brake system problem. Vehicle pulling or brake vibration typically isn’t related to a brake pad problem, but should definitely alert you to check your brake system.

Key DIY Tips

For many do-it-yourselfers, aside from changing engine oil, changing brake pads is one of the first things they learn. For the most part, this is a straightforward job, but there are a couple things you should keep in mind:

  • Safety first. While changing brake pads seems simple, keep in mind that brakes are a critical safety feature. The first time you do something like this, have a friend on hand who has done it before and can walk you through the job. Barring this, you can watch instructional videos online, read repair manuals or consult your local NAPA Auto Parts expert. Always double check your work — when it comes to your vehicle’s brake system, there’s no room for error.
  • Calibrating calipers. Just before installing new brake pads, you will have to compress the caliper pistons. This may require a special tool in the case of rear calipers with an integrated parking brake or multi-piston calipers. After putting in the new pads and mounting the caliper, the brakes will be exceptionally loose. Pump up the brakes before you put the car back down on the ground. Get a friend to help you make sure the wheels don’t turn when applying the brakes.