Feature image for brake pads and rotors article

Everything You Wanted To Know About Brake Pads and Rotors

We’ve all heard the terms “brake pads” and “brake rotors.” To the non-mechanic brake pads and rotors seem to play a pretty important role in stopping your vehicle, but what exactly do they do?

Our shop, Highline Car Care, places a high value on customers having the opportunity to learn about their vehicle as well as what we actually do when they trust us with a repair or service. It’s in this spirit that we want to share the basic function, role and purpose of brake pads and rotors.

To understand brake pads and rotors we need to start with the basic theory of a brake system operation. Don’t worry, we’ll keep it nice and easy to understand.

You’re cruising down the US60 here in Mesa, Arizona, headed to Highline Car Care for a quick oil change and safety inspection. As you’re belting out the chorus to whatever’s on the radio (we’ll assume completely on key), you realize you’re about to miss your Mesa Drive exit. You hit the brakes to exit the freeway (in a safety conscious manner, of course), and move over to the South exit ramp.

Let’s take a look at what is actually going on inside your car and what the brake pads and rotors are ACTUALLY doing.

“I Hit The Brake Pedal, Now What?”

The Geeky Mechanic Version: As you hit the brake pedal, hydraulic brake fluid (see super soaker anecdote in our Automatic Transmission Fluid article) is pressurized and sent to each of your four wheels. As this fluid reaches each wheel, it forces your brake caliper to squeeze the brake pads together. The applied pressure onto your brake rotor and begins to slow your vehicle.

caliper highlighted for brake pads and rotors

The caliper (circled part) has the responsibility of applying pressure to the brake pads and rotors.

This all sounds a little geeky, so let’s break it down a bit for us normal folks.

The Normal Person Version: Let’s picture for a minute that we have a metal disc, maybe a pizza pan, that is magically suspended in mid air and it is spinning really fast. This pizza pan is your brake rotor. We want this pan to stop spinning, so we take our thumb and pointer finger (brake caliper) and squeeze together on both sides to slow it down. As friction is created by our fingers, and your fingerprints (brake pads) begin to disappear, the pizza pan also slows down.

“Why Do My Brakes Wear Out?”

Much like your fingertips would not be happy continuously trying to slow down a magical spinning pizza pan, brake pads become unhappy over time while trying to slow down your brake rotors. Brake pads are made to wear down, they have a friction material that is softer than your brake rotor. This softer material wears down ultimately needing to be replaced. Thus having your brake pads replaced.

The difference between good brakes and brakes that need replacement.

The difference between good brake pads and brake pads that need replacement.

What Are Some Other Symptoms For Needing Brake Pad and Rotor work?

As your brake pads and rotors work hard, we can eventually run into other symptoms that may necessitate brake maintenance. While driving, your brake rotors are exposed to very hot temperatures and when you park your car, they begin to cool down. Over time, the constant heating and cooling of your brake rotors cause them to become warped.

Picture a cookie tray that has had years of use – it becomes wavy and deformed. The same thing can happen to your brake rotors. The result of wavy and deformed rotors will be a vibration or pulsation in your brake pedal when you apply your brakes. Even though you might have sufficient life in your brake pads, your brakes still need attention. Warped brake rotors can substantially increase your required stopping distance.

Brakes from Mercedes Benz.

Brake rotor and caliper from a Mercedes Benz.

“Why Do My Brakes Squeak?”

You’re sitting at a red light and the car next to pulls up beside you, coming to a stop and the brakes sound like nails on a chalk board. In this case, the brake rotor has become so smooth and shiny (almost mirror like) that the brake dust created by the brake pads is causing a squeak when braking.

You know the expression “squeaky clean”?

Similar concept here – the surfaces are so smooth that they squeak when they come in contact. Squeaky brakes may not require immediate attention, although they could be a sign that your brake system is wearing out.

When in doubt about squeaky brakes, call Highline.

“Do My Rotors Really Need Replacement?”

Usually, brake rotors can be machined  rather than replaced (I’ll save sharing what ‘machined’ means for another article). This is assuming that you have not driven your car with bad brakes so long that your rotors have become damaged as well. It is important to remember, brake replacement only gets more expensive if you ignore the signs for too long!

The only exceptions to this are European vehicles. European brake rotors are designed to wear out along with the brake pads. We will always replace brake rotors when performing a brake pad replacement on European vehicles. This is the only way to ensure proper braking performance.

“Can’t You Just Put New Brake Pads On?”

This is a simple answer – no. We will never replace your brake pads without first machining or replacing your rotors. This is the only way we can offer a two-year nationwide warranty on our services, and also assure that you will not have brake pulsation or squeaking. Brake shop staff don’t think about your vehicle long term. Many of their staffers are younger kids who won’t see your vehicle for two, five, ten, twenty years. We look at the long term viability of your brakes and our customers appreciate that we do what’s best – not what’s minimum.

You’ll pay a little bit more and we guarantee it will be worth it and you will be happy.

“Why Is Your Brake Replacement So Much More Expensive Than Other Brake Shops?”

This is a question we receive all the time, and the answer is simple. We are not more expensive when comparing apples to apples.

When you have your brakes replaced at Highline Car Care, you will get a complete and accurate fix. We will replace your brake pads and hardware (shims and anti-rattle clips) with premium ceramic brake pads. We will lube your brake calipers, machine your brake rotors and most importantly ONLY replace what is really needed.

Many shops will lure you in with a cheap price and once your tires are off, you are hit with a massive estimate. These shops will sell you brake components you don’t need, install sub par brake pads that will destroy your brake rotors over time and SQUEAK!

At Highline, you will receive an accurate price to fix your brakes the correct way. No bait and switch, we simply do not operate that way.

Brake pad replacement services at Highline.

Brake pad replacement services at Highline.

“When Should I Have My Brake Pads Checked?”

The short answer – RIGHT NOW! The long answer is that it depends on your vehicle and your specific driving habits. At Highline, we have seen brake systems wear out as early as 30,000 miles and as late as 100,000 miles. Any sign of squeaking, pulsation or increased braking distance is a good reason to book an appointment now.

At Highline Car Care, we feel it is our duty to offer each and every customer a free brake inspection. After all, you ride those breaks a lot!

Our shop, Highline Car Care, is the best option to replace your brake pads and rotors. We have been in business since 2000 and in that time we have cared for and serviced many vehicles. We’re located west of Mesa Drive just south of US60. You can learn more about us here and get directions to our Mesa auto shop here.