How To Buy Brakes

Brakes: pads and rotors

Brakes are the single most important safety system in cars.  It may be annoying when an engine quits or won't start, but it's a huge deal if the brakes fail.  Fortunately, brakes very rarely fail. They operate on a simple, tried and true mechanism that slows your car down quickly and dependably.  When it's time to change your brakes, stop and consider what will work best for you.

  1. Disc Brakes vs. Drum Brakes.  Front disc brakes are standard on all cars made since the 1970s.  Disc brakes work by squeezing two brake pads against a metal rotor that is attached to the wheel.  Some high-performance cars have disc brakes on all four wheels.

    Drum brakes are usually on the back brakes of cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks.  Also, large vehicles use mostly drum brakes in lieu of disc brakes.  Drum brakes are usually more durable than disc brakes, but they are prone to squealing.  Drum brakes work by pushing a brake pad called a shoe outward against a rotating drum.

  2. Brake Squeal.  Brake squeal usually comes from one of two sources. First, brake pads come with a "chirper," which is a metal tab installed on one of the brake pads.  It alerts you that the pads are getting thin and it's time to replace them.  The other reason for brake squeal isn't quite as simple, and is due to the materials used.
  3. Materials.  Brake pads are available at any auto parts store or service center.  In the past, brake pads were made of materials containing asbestos.  Asbestos brake pads work very well, and they rarely squeal, but they have been removed from service due to health issues.  Ceramic and semi-metallic brake pads were designed to replace asbestos pads.

    If you take a look at almost any car with semi-metallic brake pads, you'll notice that the front wheels are dirtier than the rear wheels. This is because of the dust produced by semi-metallic brake pads.  Semi-metallic pads are relatively cheap, but they may be noisy in some instances, and they leave more brake dust on the wheels than other types of pads. Brake dust can be a pain if you're trying to keep the wheels shiny.  You can expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $50 for a set of semi-metallic pads.

    Generally, more expensive ceramic brake pads are quieter and produce less dust that might get on the wheels.  A set of these pads may cost as much as $70 plus labor to install.  If you're proud of your rims, buy the ceramic pads to save yourself some time cleaning the brake dust.

Are you sure that your brakes are the problem?  Before you decide to buy new brakes, you need to make sure that your brakes are actually worn out.  Here are a few common problems besides worn brake pads:

  • Warped Rotors.  When you press the brake pedal while driving, the steering wheel shakes and you can feel the car shudder.  This shudder is especially prevalent when braking at high speed.
  • Damaged Calipers.  The calipers are the devices that press the brake pads against the rotors.  Damaged calipers can cause the brakes to squeal as well as lead to uneven pad wear.


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