How front brake pads work

Front Brake Pad Replacement Image

Brake pads are designed to work with a car’s brake discs to slow it down. They are installed in the brake calipers and are pushed against the discs by pistons, which are in turn moved by brake fluid that is pressurised via the master cylinder.

Some cars have brake pad wear indicators, which activate a light on the dashboard when the pads have worn down to a set limit. Most pads don’t, though, so the only way of telling how worn a pad is is to examine the level of fluid in the brake fluid reservoir (which drops as the pad wears) or to take the wheel off and inspect the pad.

This task requires some experience, but uses basic tools, and will take up to an hour per wheel, depending on your model.

What is the lifespan of brake pads?

You use the brakes a lot, because if you didn’t, driving would be a wholly more ‘exciting’ affair. Sadly though, your brakes are not an infinite resource. They wear out over time and need to be replaced.

Every modern car has disc brakes, and in this setup the disc part is actually quite hardy and can last a long time – 100,000 miles on small, light cars.

The pads, however, are less hardy and generally last only a fraction of the time. There is no hard and fast number though, so instead read the following examples and see which best represents you.

  • The small car

If you drive a small car, a Fiesta, 500, Panda or similar, the pads are going to last longer. The reason is simple – they’re responsible for controlling a smaller weight. If you own a small car and rarely carry passengers, you could easily expect to get 50,000 miles from a set of pads, as long as they’re good quality. That said, 50k is the best-case scenario – the reality will be somewhere around 30,000 miles.

  • The medium family car

More metal, more weight, more load in the boot, more work for the pads. For average-sized family cars such as a Focus or Astra, doing the average 12,000 miles per year, you can expect to get 20 to 25,000 miles out of a set of pads.

  • The executive car

Bigger car, more mass and almost certainly greater than average annual mileage mean you might only get 18 months out of a set of pads, or about 20,000 miles.

  • The commercial vehicle

As per the trend, we’re going up in weight here. Vans and pick-ups tend to be driven harder and with more weight on board, meaning the brakes have to do a lot more work. As such, it’s not uncommon to go through a set of pads once a year, or every 10-15,000 miles.

These are just guides, of course. There are things you can do to prolong the life of your pads. Look at your driving, are you braking too early or perhaps dabbing them when you don’t need to? Are you driving around with a load of stuff in the boot? Travel light and change your driving habits and of course the pads will last longer.

When to change your brake pads

“Take a look at the brake fluid level in the reservoir, which drops as the pads wear”

It’s important that your front brake pads are examined whenever the car is serviced and replaced when necessary. Your pads may have a sensor that activates a dashboard warning light when the pad has worn down, but not all models have sensors, so take a look at the brake fluid level in the reservoir, which drops as the pads wear. Or jack up the car, remove a front wheel and examine the pads directly.

Always check the rest of the brake system when replacing the pads - if the discs/rotors are in a poor condition consider replacing them. All cars are slightly different, so if it is time to change your thermostat, use our before you begin checklist, and find your car for specific instructions.

How to change your brake pads

Here's an example of how it's done. Find the full step-by-step task for your model.

A very brief summary of the task:

  1. Support the car on jackstands and remove the wheel
  2. Clean the brakes and remove the caliper
  3. Remove the pads from the caliper and examine the disc and brake line(s)
  4. Insert the new pads and replace the caliper and any necessary clips. Check the brake fluid


Why you should change your brake pads

Rear Brake Pads Change

Brake pads are critical components for the safe operation of your car, and should be maintained correctly to avoid a potential disaster. If the pads wear down completely you’ll not only be unable to stop the car in time but you’ll damage the discs, which will need to be replaced.

Each wheel has at least two pads and it’s important to change the pads on both front wheels at the same time, to ensure an even brake force. At the same time you should examine the discs and skim or replace them if needed.

Tools you will need

Only basic tools are required for this job, although you’ll also need a G-clamp or piston retraction tool and you’ll need to raise the car to work on one wheel at a time.

  • Brake system cleaner aerosol
  • Floor jack (if necessary). Not your car’s emergency jack
  • Flat-bladed screwdriver
  • Allen key set
  • G-clamp or piston retraction tool
  • Wire brush
  • Ruler to measure pad thickness
  • Ratchet and socket set
  • Torque wrench
  • Pliers

Parts you may need

  • Brake pads
  • Pad clips/springs
  • Copper grease
  • New caliper (only if faulty)

How much do new brake pads cost?

Pads £10-£150
Pad clips/springs £5-£20
Copper grease £3-£10
New caliper £50-£200
Garage fee savings £50-£200