Vehicle Maintenance: Replacing Rotors and Brake Pads

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So, you’re hearing a rubbing or grinding noise in your brakes? You know what that means, even if you are not accustomed to fixing your own car: It’s time to change the brake pads.

You could rely on repair shop for the fix. Replacing the brake pads will cost you around $150 (more or less, depending on your car). Not bad, but not ideal. It gets worse when the mechanic adds that dreaded word “rotors.” That could run you a couple hundred more dollars.

The good news: You can make these repairs yourself, even if you’re a novice at automobile maintenance. All you need are the right tools and a little instruction.

Here is how to complete this repair:

1. Have the right tools.

To change your brakes, you’ll need:

  • a lug wrench to remove the tires
  • a bottle jack or floor jack
  • jack stands
  • an Allen wrench for the caliper bolts (car dependent)
  • a torque wrench
  • a C-clamp to compress the caliper pistons
  • a block of wood to place over the caliper boot during compression
  • wire to support the caliper assembly during brake pad and rotor replacement

2. Before lifting your car with a jack, chock all wheels that will not be worked on.
Before you start, make sure your car is parked on flat ground with the parking/emergency brake engaged. Next, chock all of the wheels you aren’t working on. You can go out and purchase wheel chocks from your local auto parts store, but a wedge of wood or other sturdy material from the garage can also work. Once the wheels are chocked, lift the vehicle with a floor jack high enough to release a major portion of weight from the tire assembly.

3. Loosen the lug nuts with a tire iron, and support the axle with a jack stand.

Use your lug wrench to loosen the lug nuts. Once they’re loose, lift the vehicle until the tire is clear off the floor. At this point, it’s also a good idea to support the axle with a jack stand as an extra safety precaution.

4. Once you feel the car is not going to move, remove the tire, then loosen the caliper slide pins/bolts.
If the brake you’re changing is on the front of the car, it’s helpful to turn the steering wheel so the caliper is facing away from the car. This will give you easier access to the caliper bolts. Loosen the top and bottom bolts that are holding the caliper to the knuckle, making sure to not back them all the way out just yet.

5. Secure the caliper assembly, and then completely remove the bolts.
Before you completely back out the caliper bolts, be sure to support the caliper assembly with wire, rope, or something similar so the caliper doesn’t fall. If it does, you risk damaging the brake line. Once you completely back out the bolts and remove the caliper from the axle assembly, hang the caliper in the wheel well anywhere you can.

6. Pull the rotor toward you to release it from the axle assembly.

Now that the caliper is out of the way, you can remove the rotor. This is the first step that may be a challenge. If it won’t move, a torch might be required to heat the rotor, causing it to expand and break free from any rust or corrosion.To prevent this from happening again, you should use LOCTITE® LB 8070™ Heavy Duty Anti-Seize Stick on the rotor backing plate. The black anti-seize blended in well, so it may be hard to make out in the photo. You will want to work the material between all the studs and hub to alleviate rusting. This will make it much easier to remove the rotor next time around.

7. Slide the new rotor over the studs.
Once you slide the new rotor on, it’s a good idea to screw one of your lug nuts back on by hand to hold the rotor in place.

8. Reinstall the caliper bracket and torque bolts to specification per your manual.
Before you torque your bolts to specification, you should use apply some LOCTITE® 243™ Blue Threadlocker to each one. Wheels are exposed to a lot of vibration, so the threadlocker ensures that those bolts won’t back out on you.

9. Remove old pads and install the new caliper clips with a coating of grease or anti-seize.
You can now remove the old brake pads and brake pad clips from the front of the caliper. The brake pad clips are located at the highest and lowest points where the rotor comes into contact with the caliper. They should come out with the help of a flathead screwdriver or something similar. Before reinstalling the new caliper clips, you should coat the section that comes into contact with the pads with some brake grease or anti-seize.

10. Check to see if you need to compress the caliper piston.
You may find that the caliper piston needs to be compressed to accommodate the new, thicker pads. To do this, first relieve pressure in the brake cylinder reservoir by removing the cover. This will help accommodate the rising level of the fluid from the compressing of the caliper piston. Brake fluid can be harmful to components and paint, so be ready to clean it up immediately if there is any overflow. This generally isn’t an issue, but it’s good to be prepared. If you do lose some brake fluid, you should add additional fluid to the full level indicator, but not before all pistons have been compressed.

To begin compressing, place a block of wood over the caliper piston and tighten your C-clamp to push it in. Compress the caliper piston until the new pads will fit into place.

11. Install the new brake pads.
Just as with the caliper clips, you should coat the back of the brake pads with grease or anti-seize, making sure not to get any on the front of the pads. This will prevent rust and keep them looking great. You should then install a new pad on each side of the rotor.

Once this is completed, you can close the caliper and tighten the final caliper bolts to specification.

12. Reinstall the tire and torque all lug nuts to specification.
Now that the brakes are replaced, you can reinstall the tire to complete the fix.

13. Remove the jack stand, lower the car and repeat the process for the other side of the vehicle.
It’s important to remember that you always need to replace both the driver’s side and passenger side brakes at the same time. You may not need to replace both the front and the rear brakes at the same time, though.

Regular maintenance and replacement of brake pads is a very important safety measure. Depending on where you drive (city driving tends to wear pads out quicker), brake pads usually last between 30,000 – 35,000 miles. With this particular repair, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when.” Luckily, you can avoid a long day at the mechanic’s shop and a sizable repair bill by doing it yourself.

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