Can You Change Brake Pads Without Changing Rotors?

Mar. 07, 22

Car Brake Pad with E-mark

Can you change brake pads without changing rotors?

Technically, yes.

But should you?

The answer is a little more complicated.

You might think that you can save some time and money by just changing your brake pads without changing your rotors. But before you go down that road, let’s see where it might take you (and your car) in the long run.

This guide breaks down how brake pads and rotors work and when they should both be changed.

What Are Brake Pads And Brake Rotors?

Brake pads and rotors are parts of the disc brake system that work together to perform the “braking” function.

So, what is a brake rotor?

The brake rotor is a metal disc attached to each wheel that spins with the wheel. They’re sometimes called “brake discs” and are usually specific to the type of car you drive.

And what are brake pads?

They are pads with friction material that are attached to the brake caliper assembly at the wheel. The brake caliper responds to hydraulic pressure in the brake line, generated by the master cylinder and brake pedal.

When you depress the brake pedal, the brake caliper presses the brake pads onto the brake rotor — effectively squeezing the brake rotor to a stop (and generating brake dust in the process). 

What about drum brakes?

A drum brake system doesn’t employ rotors and brake pads — it uses brake shoes and a brake drum instead. Some cars use both systems, with the drum brake on the rear wheel instead of a rear rotor and rear pads.

When Are New Brakes (Pads Or Rotors) Needed?

Brake pads and rotors don’t have a standard timeline for servicing and repairs, but you will require it at some point. 

Your driving habits and the type of driving you do (city or highway) impact how long your brake pads and rotors last. The typical recommendation is to replace these braking parts every 20,000 to 60,000 miles.

So, how can you tell if your brakes need a checkup?

Here are some common signs that there’s an issue with your brake pads or brake rotor:

  • Squealing sound: The brakes make a high-pitched, squealing sound.

  • Pulsating brakes: The brakes vibrate or pulsate when you make a hard stop, and you feel it through the brake pedal.

  • Grinding noises: There’s a metallic grinding sound when you brake.

  • You need to press down harder: You need to press down harder on the brake pedal than usual.

  • Longer stopping distances: Your car takes longer to come to a stop.

  • Veering: Your car pulls to one side when the brakes are applied.

  • Vibrating steering wheel: The steering wheel vibrates or shimmies when you brake.

If any of these brake wear symptoms turn up, it’s a good idea to get your brakes inspected by an automobile technician as soon as possible. 

Vehicles Brake Pad for NISSAN

Can You Change Brake Pads Without Changing Rotors?

Yes, but it depends on the condition of your brake rotors. 

If they aren’t damaged or thinned beyond the discard thickness, you can definitely change just the worn brake pads

What’s discard thickness?

It’s the minimum thickness for rotors, as specified by the rotor or vehicle manufacturer. 

But discard thickness isn’t the only thing you need to keep in mind.

Here are a few things that you should consider before making this decision. 

As we know, brake rotors and brake pads work together. 

The brake rotor affects how the brake pads perform and wear over time, and vice versa. 

So, what happens if you don’t change the rotors?

Old rotors typically have unique wear patterns and brake dust from the old brake pad set. 

As a result, the new brake pads might not fit the old rotor perfectly. This mismatch creates brake noise and vibration and can cause uneven wear on the new brake pads (which will lead to premature brake pad replacement). 

You also need to consider that an older, worn rotor may need replacing in the near future anyway. So you might not be saving as much time and money as you initially thought. 

But here’s the thing, you don’t necessarily need to replace your brake rotor. 

You could always resurface it.

What’s resurfacing?

Resurfacing involves removing a thin, microscopic layer off of the front and rear face of the brake disc or rotors. 

This process eliminates any grooves, pits, and residual friction material from worn brake pads and creates a smooth surface for the new brake pads to grip onto — allowing the brake pads to wear down evenly. 

With that in mind, when should rotors be replaced or resurfaced?

Should You Resurface Or Replace The Brake Rotor?

Whether you replace or resurface the rotor depends on a few factors:

1. Rotor Thickness

This is probably the first thing that’ll drive your decision to replace or resurface.

Rotors wear down just like brake pads from regular use.    

Some things can increase rotor wear, like excessive runout because of incorrectly tightened lug nuts. Extreme rotor wear can mean that brake pads need to “reach” further to clamp on them. This may overextend the caliper piston and create a whole new set of problems. 

A hyperextended caliper piston can leak brake fluid or even have trouble returning to its original position in the caliper assembly. 

When the rotor is or below this minimum thickness, you should replace it, as it can’t properly dissipate the heat generated by braking anymore. A very thin, worn rotor will expose your brakes to more brake fade as the brakes can’t cool down fast enough. 

Also, if your rotors are close to the discard limit, consider replacing them if your vehicle undergoes plenty of heavy use — like lots of towing or driving in the mountains.

2. Glazing Level

The brake rotor will develop a “glaze” (a hardened surface) over time, just like your brake pads. 

 If your rotor is just glazed, it doesn’t necessarily need resurfacing but should be deglazed. 

3. The Extent Of Damage Or Gouging

Damaged rotors can have gouging or rust pitting. 

A lightly gouged or grooved rotor can be resurfaced with a brake lathe if it hasn’t reached discard thickness. Just be aware that turning rotors on a brake lathe could cost as much as buying a brand new rotor under warranty. 

Deeply grooved or gouged rotors can act like a shredder and damage the brake pad friction material as it presses against the rotor. 

A severely gouged rotor should be replaced as resurfacing won’t be enough to remove the problem. Severely gouged rotors are usually the result of an old brake pad that wore completely through, scratching the rotor surface. The scratching is one of the culprits behind brake noise.

If there’s excessive rust and pitting on the rotor, the rotor should be replaced as this type of damage would wear down the new brake pads prematurely and unevenly.

4. Whether There’s Warping 

The brake disc can warp from extreme use — typically, this happens if the discs are overheated and then cool down too fast, like driving through puddles on a scorching day.

A warped rotor or brake disc can cause vibrations felt through the brake pedal when braking.

5. The Brake Pad Friction Material 

Rotor resurfacing is usually required if the new brake pad friction material is different from the previous one. For example, when you shift from using an old pad set that was organic to ceramic brake pads. 

6. Manufacturer Instructions

Some rotors shouldn’t be resurfaced, according to the manufacturer. 

These could be composites that have a different material on the inside compared to the surface. Alternatively, they’re made of a softer metal designed to wear down together with the brake pads — so your mechanic should change them simultaneously.

Clearly, there’s a lot to consider when dealing with brake wear and the health of your braking system. So, whenever you’re unsure, it’s much easier and safer to consult your mechanic.

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