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Why can't I just get brake pads replaced?

In my 30 years owning a car, I’ve never brought a car in for brake inspection and been told I just need the pads changed. I get one of two answers: you’ve got a lot of mileage left, or the pads are so far gone you’ve started to wear on the rotors or calipers, so you need to replace them. No one ever says “The pads are worn and need to be replaced”. Yet I’ve heard on Car Talk the guys say a number of times that someone just needs the pads replaced. So, what’s going on here? Is every car repair shop I’ve been to crooked, is there an extremely fine line between good pads and damaged brakes, am I just unlucky, do I need to force the issue and demand proof from the repairmen, or what?

In order to ensure that the new pad installation will have good not-warped surfaces of consistant and equal frictional coefficients, it is accepted and proper practice for shops to iether “turn” (machine) the rotor surfaces or to replace the rotors. Replacement is often no more expensive and sometime cheaper than machining.

Thos of us who do our own work often check the rotors out and just replace the pads if needed, but we also accept the responsibility should the subsequent braking be uneven. There are no dissatisfied customers and our reputation stays intact.

The shops are doing what’s right. We take our own shortcuts and accept the results if imperfect.

I concur with mountainbike. The days of just replacing the pads are long gone, although I admit I do it myself when I do my own brake jobs if the rotors are not warped. When you hire someone to do a brake job, regardless of who you hire, they will do the whole job, which now includes resurfacing or replacing the rotors.

Personally, I’ve given up on resurfacing the rotors. The thinner they are, the more prone they are to warping. If my rotors are warped, I just replace them.

Charlie, you if you are only hearing “you’ve got a lot of mileage left” and " the pads are so far gone you’ve started to wear on the rotors or calipers", you need to get your brakes inspected more often.

Replacement rotors are just one of those things. When I worked at the parts store we could buy FWD rotors for as low as $7. If rotors are cheap enough it makes more sense to replace than to turn the old ones. We would charge $7 each to turn a rotor and would ask for about an hour for the job to be done, sometimes they took less time and sometimes more.

The point is that in a shop environment time is money, especially if you have a line of people waiting for their cars to be worked on. It is much faster for the shop to throw new rotors on and button everything back up than to tie up the rack waiting for rotors to be turned.

Normally just throwing pads on a car in a shop environment isn’t done that often as there is a greater chance that the customer will have related issues that would not be present if a full job was done.

I don’t think that it is crooked shops you are running into, just shops that are trying to make sure that a job is done quickly and in a manner that will minimize comebacks.

Modern shops have an automatic lathe that properly resurfaces rotors. It is no longer a job done by hand. Therefore it so simple for a mechanic to remove the rotors and carry them to the machine that they will do so automatically. It takes them virtually no extra time.

As a result, resurfacing rotors is a routine step in brake service. It is always done whether the car needs it or not.

Problem with resurfacing is…rotors are so thin these days…that you can only do it ONCE…after that - new rotors.

Actually, Steve, it’s the shop time that’s the variable. It takes time to cut the rotors even on an automatic brake lathe, and that ties up the bay. The customer has to pay for that time. It’s a lot faster to just replace the rotors, and with many cars the price to just replace the rotors is lower than the shop tim eto cut them. Besides, then the shop doesn’t have to worry as much about the car coming back with a warped rotor. Most shops just replace the rotors on most cars these days.

Don’t you still have to wait for the parts guy to arrive with the new rotors? Which takes longer, turning the rotors or parts delivery?

True. I guess that depends on the proximity of the parts supplier.

I suppose it matters where you go. Check out this $99 special:

Now, I suppose that many folks here will scream, “Don’t ever go to one of these places!” But I can tell you that’s exactly what I did some three years ago. (Different franchise but similar service.)

They did the routine job of replacing all four sets disk brake pads and they turned all the rotors on the lathe. There was a mild attempt at upsell but I declined and got the advertised price.

I have been totally satisfied with the service and I have recommended the shop to others.

Are they making much of a profit? Who knows. That’s not my problem. I’m just letting people know it’s possible to get simple brake pad replacement without having to buy new rotors – and at reasonable prices.

If you were DIY you may choose to do as you want.
You could also advise the shop, after seeing your rotors for yorself, “just replace the pads.”

You should see the massive numbers of pads-only sales at the DIY counter at Auto Zone despite the constant inquiries of the counter sales people to buy rotors, seals, bearings, caliper slide grease, or to have them turned ( depending on the store’s ability ) etc.

If a customer comes back with a complaint the shop loses money. Soooooo, the shop insists on selling a thorough and complete job that will not return for any reason. Shops must be very thorough or go broke.

“Now, I suppose that many folks here will scream, “Don’t ever go to one of these places!” But I can tell you that’s exactly what I did some three years ago.”

This is probably the next step for the young mechanic after graduating from a quick lube place. And like any other business, it can be run well or poorly. I’m sure there are a lot if poorly run, dishonest independent shops of all types. I work with a guy that used to work at a gas station on weekends so he could use the bays and lift for his cars. The mechanics constantly lied to customers about what they needed. When my friend confronted them and suggested that they could get a customer for life by being straight with them, they said that they’d be back or that there were always suckers to take advantage of. Now, you could say it was a gas station, but a lot of garages make their money in repairs and happen to sell gas, too.

If you can do the work yourself and you’ll keep an eye on the wear of the pads/shoes and replace them prior to the pads/shoes being completely worn you’ll likely never have to replace rotors/drums. I think I’ve replace 1 rotor on my '88 Escort in 517K miles and never replaced a drum and none of them have ever been turned. The one rotor I replaced was only because it warped. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell when the brake pad/shoes are getting worn thin. The problem with most people is they drive the car until they hear a scrubbing of metal to metal, by then it’s too late.

Another problem is that with cheap metallic brake pads and brake dust, some people get used to brake noise, which used to only happen when the wear indicators hit the discs or drums. Knowing when to replace your brake pads by listening to the sound they make isn’t as easy as it used to be. You need to do a visual inspection, not just looking at them where they are mounted, but removing the pads so you can see both of them. Sometimes one side wears faster than the other, especially on FWD cars.