Your brakes are one of the most important safety systems on your vehicle. Making sure your brakes and brake pads are in good condition is critical.
Fortunately, not all brake maintenance needs a mechanic. You can check your brake pads at home, without removing the wheel first.
You don’t even need a lot of tools for this important maintenance.
We’ll cover everything you need to know to start checking your brake pads without removing the wheel. Of course, if you’re ever concerned that your brakes need maintenance, or if you’re uncomfortable performing maintenance yourself, you should contact a mechanic.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- Why you should check brake pad thickness
- How often you should check your brake pads
- A simple way to check your brake pads
- And more!
Why You Need To Check Brake Pad Thickness?
This might seem a little simple, but mechanics see damage from stripped brake pads all the time. A lot of people don’t know how important their brake pads are, or how important it is to get replacement pads when they’re worn out.
Don’t feel bad if you’re in that camp. That’s why we’re writing this guide.
Brake pads, like the rest of your brake system, are responsible for stopping your car. More specifically: brake pads provide friction to stop your wheels while also preventing damage to your car’s brake rotors and distributing and controlling the heat created by that friction.
This is critical because metal rubbing on metal at driving speeds can cause a lot of damage and wear and tear very quickly. Your brake pads are specially formulated to handle this stress without damaging your vehicle or wheels.
Here’s a more detailed look at what your mechanic is looking for when they check your brake pads. This is a good guide for what you should be looking for on your own.
Why Do Brake Pads Wear Out?
Brake pads wear out and need to be replaced, usually about every 50,000 miles.
Why aren’t brake pads more durable?
Since brake pads need to handle a high level of friction and heat without causing damage, they also need to slightly soft. That means that your brake pads will naturally break down over time, and is actually a sign that your brake pads are working as intended. If your brake pads were too hard and durable they would cause damage the rest of your car every time you use the brakes.
Some brake pad materials, like ceramic brake pads, are more durable than others.
That being said, there is no known material that provides good braking performance without wearing out over time that doesn’t also damage your wheel and rotors.
Read More >> When to Replace Brake Pads?
How Often Should You Check Your Brake Pads’ Thickness?
While most brake pads will wear out in about 50,000 miles, that rule of thumb isn’t 100% reliable. The wear and tear on your brake pads depends on a wide variety of factors including your driving style, what surfaces you’re driving on, and the weight of your vehicle.
That means that you need to check your brake pads to make sure your brake pads aren’t wearing out early. Checking your brake pads can also work to your advantage, since you may realize your brake pads aren’t wearing out as quickly as you expected.
Checking your brake pads regularly can also clue you in to other possible problems with your car. Uneven wear and tear can indicate that your car needs an alignment. Rapidly degrading brake pads might be a sign of more serious issues, and is a sign that you should get your brakes to the mechanic.
We recommend checking your brake pads about every 15,000 miles, at minimum. You should also check your brake pads if you notice any changes in your vehicle’s braking performance. Squealing, shuddering, or vibrating brakes are also all signs that you should check your brake pads right away.
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How To Check Your Brake Pads Without Removing The Wheel
Checking your brake pads without removing the wheel is a lot easier than taking the tire off, but you won’t be able to be as precise. That’s okay the vast majority of the time, but we do recommend taking your tire off and checking the brake pad more closely if you notice anything off in your original inspection.
Fortunately, this process is relatively simple. Here’s what you need to check your brake pads without removing the wheel:
- A flashlight
- Your car’s jack (recommended)
- A straw, popsicle stick, or another markable measure (optional)
- A marker or sharpie (optional)
- A ruler or measuring tape (optional)
Step 1: Visual Inspection
On most cars, if you want to check the brake pads without removing the wheel, you’ll be able to see the pads through the holes in the wheel. Frequently you don’t even have to lift the car to be able to see the brake pad.
We still recommend lifting your vehicle on a jack since you’ll get a better angle with the wheel lifted. It also helps you see more of the pad when there isn’t pressure on the wheel.
Use your flashlight to inspect the brake pad. If it’s starting to look thin, you might be looking at a replacement soon. As a rule of thumb, your brake pads should be thicker than 1/4 inch. If you think your brake pads are 1/4 inch or thinner, it’s time for new ones.
Keep an eye out for any other irregularities with the pad while you look. We’ll go into more detail in the next two sections.
Read More >> Top Best Brake Pads for Chevy Tahoe
Step 2: Check Pad Thickness
If you’re anything like us, you know that precision is important when it comes to your brakes. Sometimes, a visual inspection just doesn’t cut it. In those cases you’ll want to grab a straw or a similar soft, flexible tool you can mark on to measure the width of your brake pads.
As a note: this method isn’t 100% accurate. You’ll be able to get a better idea how thick your brake pads are than a visual inspection alone, but it’s not as precise as removing the wheel and directly measuring the brake pads.
To get your measurement, slide the straw along the side of the brake pad until you feel the end contact the brakes themselves. It’s important to use a relatively soft material for this so that you don’t accidentally scratch the brake pads.
Once the straw has touched the brake, use your marker to mark the straw. It’s important to mark as close to the brake as possible to try and get a more accurate measurement. Again, this likely isn’t perfect because of the angles involved.
Next, you’ll cut the straw where it’s been marked. This little piece isn’t the width of your brake pads though, there’s one more step.
Measure 5mm from the end of your straw with a ruler, and mark that spot. Now move the straw over 5mm so the mark is at 0 on your ruler. You can do this without cutting the straw, or whatever you used to measure, just make sure you don’t get the two marks confused.
The remaining width of the straw, after subtracting 5mm, is the thickness of your brake pad. If it’s less than 1/4 inch or 4mm, it’s time for new ones.
Step 3: Check for Uneven Wear and Tear
The previous two steps describe how you can check a single brake pad’s thickness without removing the wheel. However, you’ll need to check all of your brake pads to get an accurate idea of how your brakes are doing. Uneven wear and tear can mean that one brake pad is thinner than the others, and they should all be replaced as soon as any of your brake pads need it.
Even if all of your brakes are the same thickness at first glace, there are other problems you should look for.
One form of uneven wear and tear might mean that the front of your brake pad is fine, but the back is worn down. Look along the entire visible length of the brake pad, it should appear the same thickness throughout. If you notice small variations, you may need a closer inspection.
You should also compare the thickness of your brake pads on the left side vs the right side of the car. If there is a difference between the thickness you might have uneven wear and could need an alignment.
Similarly, you should compare the thickness of your front and rear brakes. Relatively minor differences in thickness can indicate a wide variety of issues. Like most car maintenance, the sooner you realize you need to fix something the less expensive the repair is likely to be.
Signs of Brake Problems
Beyond checking your brake pads occasionally to make sure they’re in good condition, you should watch for these signs that your brakes might need some maintenance.
Common Signs Your Brake Pads Need Attention
A loud metallic squeal is one of the most common signs that you need new brake pads. This squeal is an intentional feature of your brake pads, and is meant as a warning that your pads are getting low.
Grinding that you hear or feel in the pedal is also a good indication that something is wrong with your brake pads. In fact, this can be an urgent issue so it’s best to avoid driving until you can check your brake pads and replace them.
A burning scent when you’re braking can also be a sign that your brakes are getting too warm. Excessive use can cause this even when your brake pads are in good condition, but your brakes will wear out much faster once they’ve overheated this much. Stop as soon as you safely can and give your brake pads a chance to cool down before you continue.
Try not to brake as much in the future to avoid overheating. Hills and mountain driving can make that more difficult, so try to have a plan for how to handle slopes without constant braking.
Signs Your Brakes Need Maintenance
Sometimes your brake pads are fine, but other parts of the brake assembly are starting to have trouble. You’ll still want to check your brake pads and possibly even replace them, but that won’t solve some problems until the rest of the brake assembly is also repaired.
Here are some things to look for:
Your brake light is on. Your brake light is there for a reason, and it’s important to get your brakes checked, or check them yourself, before driving much further.
Brake vibration can sometimes involve more than the brake pads. Especially if you’ve already checked your brake pads and are still getting vibration, it’s time to take a closer look or take your vehicle to a mechanic.
Braking feels soft. If your braking starts to feel soft that can be a sign that your vehicle is leaking brake fluid, a serious problem that can eventually lead to brake failure when there isn’t enough pressure in your brake lines. This is an urgent issue and should be dealt with before you drive your vehicle further.
Our Final Thoughts on How To Check Brake Pad Thickness Without Removing The Wheel:
It’s incredibly easy to check your brake pads at home. Removing your wheel first will give you a more precise result, but you’ll still get a good estimate without removing the wheel. We recommend checking your brakes anytime you think there might be an issue, and as you remember to do it.
Of course, you can also set a mileage schedule for yourself, but we know that a lot of people don’t track their mileage closely enough to use that as a gauge.
This is one of those things where checking more often than necessary is much better than not checking often enough. So, if you think you’re due for a check it’s probably time.