The Difference Between Ceramic and Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

Source | William Clifford/Flickr

Brake pads are the unsung hero of modern motoring, able to stop your heavy vehicle by converting kinetic (motion) energy into heat. It’s simple, yet brilliant technology. The pads contact the brake rotor and create enough friction to slow down even a Dodge Demon.

Back in the 1950s, when discs started to replace drums, brake pads were made out of asbestos. The material was cheap, quiet, and worked well at dissipating heat, but the brake dust was linked to lung cancer. Fortunately for us all, there are now a lot of excellent affordable brakes that don’t have health implications. Here’s how to narrow down your options when shopping for new brake pads.

Going organic

Organic pads were the first to replace asbestos. Made of various organic compounds like carbon, glass, rubber, and even Kevlar, organic pads are quiet even when cold and quickly heat up to their ideal operating temperature. Still, they have several shortcomings (see below) and have been largely replaced.

Strengths:

  • Organic pads are inexpensive. Everyone likes saving money.
  • Silence. The compounds are soft, translating to a quiet contact with the rotor.
  • Fine for everyday driving.

Weaknesses:

  • Again, organic pads are soft, so they are quick to wear out. While they’re inexpensive, you will have to replace them more often, so organics might not actually save you money.
  • Soft compound translates to a squishy pedal feel.
  • Easily overheated, so these aren’t for performance driving or towing.

With all the drawbacks, you might be wondering why organic pads are still made. The truth is, they are similar to why we have brake drums on modern cars. Organic pads and brake drums are totally outclassed and a bit rare these days, but they still work well enough. The tooling was paid for long ago, making them incredibly cheap to manufacture and sell, with pad sets often priced under $20. If you need basic brakes for your commute in your Toyota Corolla, organic pads will work.

Heavy metal

Wearever semi-metallic brake pads

While organics will generally stop a car, their weaknesses are serious enough that engineers keep looking for better brakes. Semi-metallic pads were the answer, first appearing with the larger and more powerful cars of the ’60s. With iron, steel, copper, and graphite in the friction material, semi-metallic pads have more bite and can stand up to a wide range of temperatures.

Strengths:

  • Semi-metallic pads offer improved brake performance compared to organics.
  • The harder material gives firmer pedal feel.
  • A wider operating range means a more heat tolerant pad that can stand up to heavy-duty work.

Weaknesses:

  • Semi-metallic pads need a proper break-in process for best performance.
  • They are more expensive than organic pads.
  • The metal-on-metal contact means some unavoidable brake dust, and more noise versus organic.

Semi-metallic pads are a great all-around choice if you live in the mountains, regularly tow, see any kind of racing, or just want a solid pad for everyday driving. Yes, there is a very slight price increase over organics, but “you get what you pay for” certainly applies here.

Definitely not fine china

Wearever ceramic brake pads

Just because these pads are ceramic, don’t assume they are like your aunt’s delicate tea sets. First appearing in the 1980s, these pads are more of a hardcore ceramic, like the heat shields on the space shuttles. The inorganic, earthen elements offer some improvements over the semi-metallic design, but they aren’t for everyone.

Strengths:

  • Ceramic pads are the longest-lasting pads you can buy.
  • They’re quieter than semi-metallic pads and offer better heat rejection.
  • Less brake dust than semi-metallic or organic, and the dust doesn’t stick to wheels.

Weaknesses:

  • The most expensive pad.
  • Some noise when cold, not the best choice for cold climates.
  • Not as heavy duty as semi-metallic, so not the choice for racing or towing.

Ceramic pads have become the standard OEM pad for modern cars, and it’s easy to see why. While they are typically the most expensive pad, drivers like the long life and lack of brake dust.

What to buy

When choosing between semi-metallic or ceramic, it’s best to stick with what the manufacturer put in the caliper. If it was semi-metallic in your Ford F-250, go with that option again. If your Honda Accord had ceramics from the factory, buy new ceramic pads.

When replacing organic pads, feel free to upgrade to either semi-metallic or ceramic, as they are both noticeable improvements in every measurable way.

Have a favorite type of brake pad? Let us know what stops you in your tracks in the comments below.

5 Things You Need to Do Before Modifying Your Ride

Did you pick up a classic project car? Or did you simply decide that it’s time to start modifying your current vehicle? Before you kick off the projects, there are a few things you should take care of—especially if you’re planning on adding extra power. Whether you’re working on a 1965 Falcon or 2015 F-150, here’s what to do before modifying your ride.

Don’t be Fred Flintstone

You can’t go if you can’t stop. Adding more power for a faster ride is a wonderful thing, but having the power to stop all that power is even more important. Most factory braking systems are acceptable with factory power levels but become inadequate after modifications.

Look into pad and rotor upgrades at a minimum. Ceramic pads are a great all-around street option, and certainly better than those asbestos pads on your ’50s Plymouth. Modern vehicles mostly come with organic pads offering less health hazards and a cheap price, but opt for composite pads for the best braking possible on the street. While swapping pads, be sure to flush your brake fluid for easy and cheap insurance. If you want to go the extra mile, drilled and slotted rotors look awesome and provide extra cooling for repeated stops.

Stay cool

Speaking of cooling, don’t forget that more horsepower almost always means more heat. On a classic, you’ll want to upgrade the cooling system. An upgraded radiator isn’t cheap, but the price includes peace of mind. Another way to look at it: a better radiator is cheaper than a new engine block.

If you have a heavy belt-driven engine fan, look into upgrading to electric fans. They’re lighter, reducing parasitic power loss, and can increase power and gas mileage. Don’t forget to keep the rest of the vehicle cool. If you’re working with an automatic transmission, you’ll want to look at a transmission cooler. It’s cheap and helps prevent the number one cause of early transmission failure: heat. You can even run a differential cooler, if you like overkill. If your ride is newer, its cooling capacity is probably improved over a classic, but it may be time to flush the radiator with some fresh coolant.

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Get charged up

Electrical systems from back in the day just aren’t up for modern performance. While performing repairs on a classic, go for upgrades in the electrical system. Swap out the old school points distributor for a higher performance and more reliable HEI unit. It’s the same price, easier to find in stores, and will support your higher horsepower goals. For a classic or modern ride, pick up some thicker spark plug wires with low internal resistance. They’ll deliver more bang to the spark plug. Also, just about every electrical part can be affordably upgraded here, so go for the best spark plugs, coil, cap, and rotor that your budget allows.

Tackle those corners

Ignore the suspension, and your street warrior might be a sudden and unfortunate off-roader. Adding power without suspension improvements makes a 1966 GTO just spin the tires and a 2006 GTO have excessive wheel hop. Either way, you aren’t going anywhere quickly.

Controlling all those forces on curvy roads and under hard throttle takes a good suspension. Upgrade your shocks, struts, and springs with more sport-oriented options. Add sway bars for better cornering, or upsize with thicker diameter bars if your current bars are lacking. If your classic is over 25 years old, look underneath at the suspension bushings—you’ll want to replace those crumbling rubber things right away. Performance versions are cheap, but even new factory equipment rubber bushings will be a dramatic improvement.

Under pressure

Tires have improved more in the last 50 years than perhaps any other area of the automobile. If your Packard project came with tubes and re-treads, or your Mustang is running Gatorbacks, it’s time to get some new tires. You can go for a period-correct look, while still increasing grip and hydroplane resistance and decreasing stopping distance. Hagerty recommends new tires if yours reach eight years old, regardless of mileage or tread life. It seems obvious, but these are the only four contact points your vehicle has with the road. Inspect them carefully and budget for a good set of tires.

While this seems like a large checklist, remember that this isn’t a side track distracting from your performance goals. This is about making your ride a better, safer, more reliable, and faster vehicle.

Anything we missed here? Let us know in the comments.

Braking Fundamentals: Brake Pads, Rotors and Fluid

 

Wearever gold brake pads

You know something’s wrong with your brakes. Maybe it’s a grinding or scraping noise, pulling to one side when you slow down, or even a spongy brake pedal. The first step in diagnosing the source of the problem is understanding the main parts of a brake system and how they work together.

Brake pads and shims

When you push on the pedal for your car brakes, calipers clamp the brake pads onto the rotors to reduce speed and then stop the vehicle. Brake pads get the glory as the main component in stopping, but equally important are the rotors. Helping to reduce noise and vibration are the brake pad shims. Shims are made of metal or rubber and found on the back of brake pads, in between the pads and the calipers. In addition to reducing noise and vibration, shims manufactured from titanium also protect calipers and fluids from damage caused by excessive heat.

Troubleshooting brake pads

To do their job effectively, the pads must be able to absorb enough energy and heat. When there is too much wear or heat, brake pad efficiency is reduced, along with your stopping power. Car brake pad indicators are designed to emit a scraping sound when the pads are worn out. If you hear this or a grinding sound when you apply your brakes, the pads need replacing. Brake pads should be replaced in pairs.

Learn how to choose the right brake pads for your vehicle and how to replace brake pads yourself.

Brake rotors

Car brakesWhen you press the brake pedal, the calipers cause the brake pads to clamp down on the rotors (also called brake discs). When pressure is applied to the brake rotors, it prevents the wheel from spinning, which means that your brake rotors are as important as the pads when it comes to safety.

Most rotors are made from cast iron—more specifically, gray iron—because it disperses heat well, which is important to avoid overheating and brake fade. High performance vehicles use ceramic rotors, which are lighter and more stable at high speeds and all temperatures. They are, however, more expensive. Some rotors also come ‘painted‘ with a special, rust-inhibiting coating. This ensures that the rotors look good and last longer.

Troubleshooting brake rotors

Rotors will need to be replaced by 70,000 miles on most vehicles, but it depends on use. Rotors, like brake pads, should be replaced in pairs for even stopping performance. Your rotors may need to be replaced if you see or hear any of these signs:

  • Grooves worn into the rotor by the brake pads
  • Squealing, squeaking, or grinding sounds when braking
  • Vibration or wobbling when braking.

Learn how to choose rotors and how to replace rotors yourself.

Brake fluid

brake fluid designation sign

Source | Brian Snelson/Flickr

Brake fluid is “incompressible,” so that when the brake pedal is pushed, the fluid forces brake parts to work together to slow the wheel. Brake fluid also lubricates parts in the braking system. In the United States, there are four designations of brake fluid: DOT 3, DOT 4, DOT 5, and DOT 5.1. Each contains a mixture of chemicals with specified dry and wet boiling points. When your brake fluid has just been replaced, this is called the “dry” boiling point temperature. As water finds its way into the system, the “wet” boiling temperature is the benchmark you should use. To choose the best brake fluid for your vehicle, consult your owner’s manual.

Troubleshooting brake fluids

Because brake fluid is also hygroscopic (attracts water) it starts degrading the moment the bottle is opened, so it should be replaced every two years. A sure sign that your brake fluid is degrading is a ‘spongy’ brake pedal, or a pedal that continually creeps toward the floor. When this happens, it’s time to look at replacing your brake fluid, or bleeding air from the brake fluid lines.

Learn more about how to change brake fluids and how to bleed brake fluids.

For information about the brake parts offered by Advance Auto Parts, check out our buying guide. Are you diagnosing your own brake needs? Tell us about your brake project in the comments.

Towing Information: 10 Maintenance Tips Before You Tow

Recreational vehicles on the highwayEven when you have a vehicle built with towing capacity, there’s still plenty to check and double-check before you get on the road.

First, check your owner’s manual to answer these questions:

  • Is your vehicle designed to tow?
  • If so, what is the maximum amount that you can safely tow?

If the answer to the first question is “yes,” then here is our overall recommendation:

  • If your vehicle’s owner’s manual provides recommendations for severe-duty use, towing qualifies – and you should follow these guidelines carefully.
  • This will include checking vehicle components and replacing them more often than is typical.
  • Do not exceed maximum towing limits. When exceeded, it’s more likely that you’ll damage your vehicle and/or get into an accident.

If you plan to modify your towing vehicle to give it extra power or additional safety features, check your warranty. Will making these modifications void any warranties? If you’re purchasing a new vehicle to tow, ask the dealership about any towing or camping options that will be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.

Also note that, even if you increase your engine’s power, this does not increase the maximum amount that can be safely towed by a particular vehicle.

Towing checklist

Here are ten specific items to check each time you’re getting ready to tow (note: these are not being presented as the ONLY items that you should check, only some of the most important):

1. Brakes

Test your brakes thoroughly before each trip. When towing, you need more stopping distance and so having brakes that are even slightly worn could be a hazard. When you’re towing, don’t ride the brakes; if you do, then you might overheat them and/or jackknife your vehicle. When driving downhill, drive at a reduced speed, using your brakes as necessary.

If you’re towing a trailer, some come with their own braking systems that need to be connected to your vehicle. Although it takes added skill to coordinate the braking systems, this system means less stress on the towing vehicle’s brakes.

Need help with any repairs? Find:

2. Cooling system

Proactively prevent a meltdown. Your vehicle will get heated up by pulling an extra load so your cooling system needs to work optimally to safely tow. So, add the following to your checklist, replacing worn parts:

  1. Radiator, including hoses and fluids
  2. Water pump
  3. Thermostat and housing
  4. Cooling fan and its switch

Here are:

3. Hitching devices

Check the hitch ball regularly to make sure that it hasn’t loosened and is still firmly attached to the draw bar. Make sure that the coupler and hitch ball fit together snugly, and ensure that any tow bar used is parallel to the ground when the towed vehicle is attached.

Each piece of towing gear comes with towing capacity limits. Double check that the equipment you have is suitable for what you plan to tow.

Find the towing parts you need.

4. Safety chains

If your trailer becomes unhitched when you’re towing, the only thing keeping the two vehicles together will be your second line of defense: your safety chains, which are required.

Make sure that the chains you use are sufficient for whatever you’re towing. Light-duty trucks often use 5/16-inch thick chains, while medium-duty trucks often use half-inch thick chains, with heavy-duty trucks using 5/8-inch thick chains. When choosing what thickness to use, make sure that they will help keep the trailer from drifting, while still allowing it to turn easily with your towing vehicle.

Find an assortment of safety chains here.

5. Springs and shock absorbers

Consider adding heavy-duty springs and the best shock absorbers you can buy and make sure that they are in good shape before each tow. Lighter-duty shocks can cause the towing vehicle to sag in the back while heavy-duty versions will help to keep your vehicle stable and level while towing. As a side bonus, they’ll also make the ride more comfortable.

Be sure to also check your hub bearings when doing your suspension check. While small in size, they can cause major problems when not optimal. If one falls off, the wheel can flip flop around, damaging the brakes and potentially even causing the wheel to become disconnected from your vehicle.

Here are:

6. Tires

Tires with the correct load rating and proper inflation are important. A common mistake that people make is to check the tires on the truck that will be doing the towing – but not the tires on, say, a camper or trailer that is being towed. Do you have a spare tire for both your truck and for whatever you’re towing?

Blowouts are doubly dangerous when they occur during towing. If this happens, stay calm and get off the road as quickly as is safely possible. Here are tips for quick tire repairs to get you to the shop. Also find tire gauges, cleaners and more.

mechanic working on a vehicle7. Wiring

Perhaps your truck came pre-wired for trailer towing from the factory or maybe your pre-installed hitch already contains the necessary connector. Whether one of these is true or whether you needed to do your own trailer wiring, you need to make sure that nothing has short circuited before you tow.

And, even if you’ve just bought a new truck, one pre-wired for towing, you will still need to double check that the wiring is adequate enough to run both your truck lights and the trailer lights. You can’t always count on that to be true.

8. Visibility

Visibility can be a challenge when you’re towing something behind you. You can’t see the other vehicles as well, and they may not see your truck as well, either. Lights, including brake lights and turn signals, are even more crucial in these circumstances, so make sure that all are in good working order.

9. Mirrors

Consider using extended towing mirrors for increased visibility. You can choose replacement mirrors or wide-angle clip-on mirrors, so test options out to see what works best. Extended mirrors are especially valuable when towing a wide vehicle.

Note: because you’re carrying a heavier load, it will take longer to accelerate so be very aware of that if planning to pass another vehicle. Here are options for your towing mirrors.

10. Fluids

Check and replace fluids more often, including motor oil. The added weight inherent in towing adds stress to the towing vehicle, causing it to run hotter than normal.

Choose products carefully. Synthetic oil, although more expensive, has no carbon—and therefore can’t leave carbon deposits on your pistons or in the combustion chamber as regular motor oil can. It also makes sense to use synthetic transmission fluid.

Also check and change filters often for optimal performance.

 

Bonus towing information:

The most important element in safe towing is you, the driver, so make sure that you:

  • Get enough rest before starting to tow
  • Feel confident backing up while the object being towed is attached; practice before starting on the road
  • Take breaks when necessary to rest if going for a long haul
  • Take turns more slowly when towing
  • Leave enough safe distance for braking
  • Have a fully stocked emergency kit with you at all times
  • Have the right hand tools, specialty tools and work gloves that you need for unexpected repairs

What tips would you add to our list? Leave a comment below! 

How to Bleed Brakes: It’s Not as Scary as It Sounds

Motorcycle brake line dripping into a jar

Source | Flickr

Imagine if, at the worst possible moment, you discover that normal braking pressure isn’t going to stop your car in time. That’s exactly what can happen if air bubbles get into your brake fluid lines. To prevent this from occurring, learn to recognize signs that air has found its way into your braking system. And then to fix the problem—and save some money in the process—learn how to bleed the brakes.

When should you bleed brake lines?

A brake pedal that feels spongy, soft, or vague when depressed or goes all the way to the floor is a good cue to check for air in your brake lines. You should also consider bleeding your lines:

  • When replacing car brakes/brake pads
  • When a vehicle sits for months at a time
  • When your vehicle endures frequent hard braking
  • Every 24,000 miles or two years

How does air get into the braking system?

Oxidation, heat, and moisture each play a role in degrading your brake system. Damaged brake lines and seals can allow air leaks. DOT brake fluids also attract water, which lowers the fluid’s boil temperature, and introduces air into the system.

 

Difficulty

Need a little know-how—This will be tough (but doable) for a beginner

Estimated Time to Complete

1-3 hours

What You’ll Need

Bleeder wrench
Brake fluid
Black nitrile gloves
Protective eye wear

Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Ask a friend to sit at the wheel. Put on your protective eyewear and gloves to protect against accidental contact with brake fluids.

Step 2: Check the fluid level in the reservoir. Verify that it’s full.

Step 3: Place a bucket or bowl below the bleeder valve.

Step 4: Use a wrench to open the bleeder valve (size of wrench needed varies by manufacturer).

Step 5: As you open the bleeder valve, ask your buddy to press slowly down on the brake pedal. Picture a hypodermic needle clearing out the bubbles as its plunger is depressed. Some brake fluid will be lost during this process. The escaping air bubbles will pop or hiss as they come out.

Step 6: Close the bleeder valve before your helper eases off the brake pedal.

Step 7: Repeat several times until the brake fluid pours out without any hissing or bubbling sounds.

Step 8: Top off the brake fluid reservoir to the maximum fill line. Ensure the reservoir doesn’t get too low and allow air to be pulled back into the system during bleeding.

Step 9: Repeat steps 1-8 for each wheel.

Pro Tip: In bleeding brakes, there is a “corner order” to follow, which may be found in your owner’s manual. As a general rule, it states that you want to start with the brake farthest from the master cylinder.

Step 10: Test drive your vehicle to check the responsiveness of your brakes and recycle any overflow brake fluid.