When replacing brake pads, there are many different kinds of friction materials from which to choose. Obviously, you want the brake pads to perform the same or better than the original linings in terms of stopping power, fade resistance and pedal feel. You also want brake pads that don't squeal or groan so there are no noise problems. And you want to install brake pads that wear reasonably well and provide good value for the money. So what are your choices? OEM brake pads? Premium aftermarket brake pads? Standard or economy grade aftermarket brake pads? Low copper or copper-free pads?
Most professional technicians tend to go with OEM brake pads or premium grade aftermarket linings. Why? Because these brake pads typically meet all of the above criteria. Most motorists want the best and are not as price-sensitive about what kind of brake linings are installed on their vehicles, even if they cost a few bucks more than standard aftermarket brake pads.
On the other hand, if you are doing a brake job on a 12-year-old car or truck, and you're working with a limited budget, price may be more of an issue. For these kinds of jobs, standard-grade aftermarket brake pads are perfectly fine and will do an adequate job. Economy grade brake pads generally do not provide the longevity or performance of standard- or premium-grade replacement brake pads.
The decisions you make regarding which kind of brake linings to use is an important one because the wrong choice can create noise and wear problems you did not have before. Don't buy the cheapest pads. Noise complaints are the number one reason for brake repair comebacks, and most noise complaints are associated with semi-metallic disc brake pads.
Noise problems are not necessarily the fault of the brake pads, though semi-metallic friction compounds are inherently noisier than other materials because of their composition. They contain chopped steel fibers in a hard resin matrix that tends to magnify noise-producing vibrations rather than dampen them. If there is play between the pads and caliper, or the caliper and knuckle, the brakes may squeal or groan every time they are applied. Some motorists do not object to this kind of noise and consider it normal - especially if their original OEM pads were always noisy. But others will not tolerate any noise from the brakes and will insist on a friction material that is quiet. So what are your options?
One way to minimize brake noise is to switch from hard semi-metallic pads to softer and quieter ceramic or non-asbestos organic pads. There are many different friction compounds in use today, so keep reading and we will bring you up to speed on what is available.
One brake supplier estimates that brake linings containing ceramic ingredients are now used on 70 to 90 percent of all new vehicles.
European automakers have mostly used low-metallic friction materials to date. Low metallic formulas offer good braking performance but tend to be noisy and wear quickly. Low metallic compounds can also leave a black grimy residue on alloy wheels that makes them look dirty. A J.D. Powers survey in Germany revealed that many European car owners are not that happy with their brakes and would prefer quieter, cleaner, longer-lasting brake linings. The same probably holds true for owners of European luxury makes here, too. That is why ceramic linings have grown in popularity. Ceramics provide good braking performance, quiet operation and low dusting. They are kinder to rotors than semi-metallic pads, too.
Ceramic fibers are a good choice for brake pads because they have stable and predictable friction characteristics, more so than most semi-metallic materials. Ceramics provide a consistent pedal feel that is the same whether the pads are hot or cold because the coefficient of friction does not drop off as quickly as semi-metallics. NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) is also less with ceramics, so the brake pads are significantly quieter.
Ceramic compounds can be very complex and may use 18 to 20 different ingredients in a formula, including various fillers and lubricants that are added to help dampen vibrations and noise. A typical semi-metallic compound, by comparison, might contain only eight or nine ingredients.
Though semi-metallic linings generally provide better wear at higher temperatures, ceramics perform just as well, if not better, at lower temperatures for the average driver. Consequently, brake pad life is often improved.
Low dust is another desirable characteristic of the material. The color of most ceramic materials is a light gray, so it is less visible on wheels (unlike some NAO pad materials that produce a dark brown or black dust that clings to wheels).
Every brake manufacturer uses their own ceramic-based or ceramic-enhanced compounds. The type of ceramic used, the particle size, distribution, hardness and other ingredients that go into a ceramic type of friction material can all vary - and even from one vehicle application to another. One supplier uses more than 20 different ceramic formulas to cover all the different vehicle applications in its product line (more than 260 SKUs currently!). Others may use only a couple of different formulas.
Some people disagree over what should and should not be called a ceramic. Ceramic materials include a variety of substances including potassium titanate fibers, as well as clay fillers. Some brake manufacturers use clay filler in certain friction linings but do not call these products ceramic linings. Others do. Consequently, the type of ceramic compounds used in a brake supplier's ceramic product line may vary significantly from those used by another brake supplier - along with the performance characteristics of their linings.
The bottom line is that the actual amount of ceramic that is used in a friction material can vary a great deal from one brake supplier to another. It is like how much pepperoni one pizza maker puts on his pizzas compared to the guy down the street. None of the brake lining manufacturers we interviewed for this article would revel the exact ceramic content of their linings. But several did make it very clear that the ceramic content can vary from a few percent to a significant percentage. What really counts, though, is braking performance and noise, which depends on the combination of ingredients in the friction material as well as the design of the pads themselves.
Most ceramic-based linings perform well in a wide variety of applications but, for some applications, other materials work just as well or better. It depends on the vehicle platform and the type of driving. That is why some brake suppliers use a "best fit" philosophy when choosing a particular friction compound for a given vehicle application.
The trend today among many brake suppliers is to closely match whatever type of friction material the OEM chose for the vehicle. If an OEM application is ceramic, the replacement pads will likely be ceramic - though you cannot always tell by looking at the box. Some brake suppliers make a big deal out of touting their ceramic linings, while others do not.
One reason why the aftermarket is following the OEMs so closely these days is because of the FMVSS135 standards that 2001 and newer cars and 2003 and newer trucks have to meet. This applies to new vehicles only. There are NO FMVSS standards for aftermarket replacement linings. Even so, aftermarket brake suppliers realize that their products should be as safe as the OEM brake linings. Consequently, their testing procedures have improved along with their products.
FMVSS135 is a minimum braking performance standard set by the National Highway Traffic & Safety Admin. (NHTSA). It is a tougher standard than the former FMVSS105 rules, which has forced automakers to upgrade the brakes on some vehicle models so they meet the new stopping requirements.
One part of the new rule requires vehicles to stop within the same distance under the old FMVSS105 rules but with 25 percent less pedal effort. To meet this specification, some manufacturers have had to switch to more aggressive brake linings. This, in turn, means the aftermarket has to offer replacement linings that equal the performance of the OEM linings.
According to one aftermarket survey, more than 90 percent of professional technicians say they prefer to install "application-specific" brake linings. In this case, "application specific" means the friction material has been carefully chosen to match the braking requirements of a particular vehicle platform. Consequently, a brake supplier's product may contain various ceramic compounds, various semi-metallic, low-metallic and non-asbestos organic compounds all under the same brand name. In this case, you do not have to decide which type of brake pad material is the best to use because the supplier's engineers have already done their homework and figured out the answer for you.
Jim Lawrence of the Brake Manufacturers Council (BMC) said their "Brake Effectiveness Evaluation Procedure" (BEEP) is one way brake suppliers are making sure that their aftermarket products meet essentially the same requirements as the OEM linings. The BEEP test uses a single-end brake dynamometer to measure the friction characteristics, fade resistance and recovery curve of brake linings or specific vehicle platforms.
Currently, the test procedure covers about 30 to 40 percent of the vehicle applications that are on the road. The goal is to develop test procedures for about 70 percent of the vehicle platforms - a process that takes a great deal of time and engineering effort to measure and calibrate specific vehicle applications.
In recent years, most aftermarket brake suppliers have also introduced new or upgraded premium or even "ultra-premium" product lines that feature their best lining materials. Some of these new lines are targeted at SUV/LT market, which can be very demanding on brakes. Many of these pads are also "low-copper" (5 percent or less copper content) or "copper-free" (less than 0.5% copper content) to comply with new brake pads regulations.
Premium friction materials typically provide the best combination of stopping power, fade resistance, noise and wear. They also command a higher price, which more consumers are willing to pay on late-model, luxury-laden cars and light trucks.
The bottom line is that premium grade pads are almost always the best choice. Premium pads usually provide the best combination of braking performance, noise control and wear, are application-engineered for specific vehicle applications and provide the best all-round value for the money. Share