Ceramic vs Semi Metallic Brake Pads: What’s the Difference?

Ceramic vs Semi Metallic Brake Pads: What’s the Difference?

You rely on your vehicle to take you safely from point A to B. One of the most crucial parts of your vehicle is your brake pads. They determine the effectiveness of your braking system. There are ceramic and semi-metallic brake pads you can choose from. So how do you know the best for your specific needs?

You need to start by understanding what brake pads are and what they do. This way, you will be in a better position to know if you need semi-metallic or ceramic brake pads. Read on to know everything about brake pads and the differences between ceramic and semi-metallic brake pads. 

Main Differences Between Ceramic vs Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

The main differences between ceramic vs semi-metallic brake pads are:

  • Ceramic brake pads are best for everyday driving, whereas Semi-metallic brake pads are better for towing, truck driving, and performance vehicles
  • Ceramic brake pads are silent, whereas Semi-metallic brake pads are noisy
  • Ceramic brake pads leave a lot of dust, whereas Semi-metallic brake pads create fine dust on the rotors (brake discs)
  • Ceramic brake ads are not compatible with all vehicles, whereas Semi-metallic brake pads are compatible with all vehicles

What are Brake Pads?

Brake pads are part of a vehicle’s braking system that offers friction that allows you to stop securely and smoothly. There are two types of braking systems namely drum and disc. Brake pads are specifically used on brake discs. A braking system that uses brake discs is compromised of components like disc brake calipers, rotors (brake disks), hubs, and brake pads. 

These components work in harmony when you brake to slow or stop your car. The pads contact the disc and apply pressure/friction based on your pedal input. The pressure/friction applied reduces the rotational speed of the disc. This in turn reduces the speed of the vehicle. 

Materials Used to Make Brake Pads

Break Pads

In the past, these products were made using asbestos. It is a highly effective braking material, but it’s a toxic heat-absorbing material. Currently, these products are manufactured using various materials. This is why they are classified as:

  • Ceramic
  • Metallic (semi-metallic)
  • Organic

Ceramic

Ceramic brake pads are manufactured using a durable ceramic compound. These products are usually manufactured with fortification using other materials to assist with heat management and friction. Before 2015, ceramic brakes used copper threads or heat management, which in turn increased friction performance characteristics. 

Afterward, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) called for the minimization of copper materials in brake pads. This move mandated a reduction of copper content to 0.05% by weight, by 2025. Although ceramic brake pads cost more, they produce less dust as they wear and they are quieter. Additionally, they perform consistently at a wider range of driving and weather conditions.  

Metallic (Semi-Metallic)

Metallic or semi-metallic brake pads contain about 30% to 70% metals. The metals used include steel, iron, copper, and other components. To complete the manufacturing process, a durable filler material and graphite lubricant is used. Metallic brake pads serve a variety of applications from track performance and every day driving. 

Organic Material

Common materials such as fiberglass, glass, carbon, and rubber are used to make organic brake pads. All these materials are secured together using resin. They are designed to handle everyday driving when you don’t use performance cars. They also don’t produce a lot of heat when you slow or stop your vehicle. The common term for these products is NAO (Non-Asbestos Organic). 

Overview of Ceramic Brake Pads

Ceramic Brake Pads The main use of an efficient braking system is a reliable and smooth stopping power over a wider temperature range. Ceramic brake pads meet and surpass the mentioned requirements. This is why they are gaining popularity across the globe. 

One of the reasons they are becoming popular is their ability to offer consistent braking action. Other reasons include being quieter, lighter, and cleaner. Take note these products cost more than their organic or semi-metallic counterparts. However, they are worth the investment when you consider their wide range of benefits. 

The substantial progress in the development of brake pads over the years has seen this specific part see essential progress from harmful asbestos pads. Progress in development has seen the rise of semi-metallic and ceramic brake pads. This is why these two options should be your first choice. Now let’s take a look at the features of ceramic brake pads.

Features of Ceramic Brake Pads 

There are some features of ceramic brake pads that you need to know about before you make an informed purchasing decision. They are:

Braking Action

The braking action does not change irrespective of the brake pads you choose. Braking hydraulics are set into motion when you step on your brake pedal. Pads on each side of the brake disc are pushed towards the disc. 

Braking action is the same irrespective of the brake pads you choose. Braking hydraulics are set into motion when the brake pedal is pushed. The pads on each side of the rotors are pushed towards the rotors. Friction between the discs and brake pads slow or stop the vehicle. 

Cleanliness

Ceramic brake pads are classified as a “cleaner” option. They produce limited or little brake dust. This feature ensures the wheels are tidy and neat. With this in mind, you don’t need to use abrasive cleaners or degrease to clean the dust and other sediments left by brake pad residue.

Noise Factor

The noise from ceramic brake pads is substantially lower than other types of brake pads. Ceramic brake pads don’t eliminate noise completely. Instead, they resonate at frequencies beyond the hearing range of humans. Such a feature makes them seem quieter than pads made from other materials.  

Weight

The difference in weight between ceramic and semi-metallic brake pads is marginal. Such an advantage is an added benefit, especially in competitive racing events. The weight difference also impacts the gas mileage of a domestic car. With time the benefits can add up to the vehicle owner’s advantage over time. 

Materials Used

A variety of materials is used to design and develop ceramic brake pads. The materials selected give these pads a sturdy and robust structure while ensuring brake pad life is increased by up to 30%. Such unique construction parameters help in quicker heat dissipation. 

This doesn’t only decrease the possibility of a warping rotor due to excessive heat but also helps decrease pad fading resulting from frequent braking. It’s beneficial to large-scale commercial vehicles like trucks. Such vehicles tend to generate more heat during a braking event compared to smaller user vehicles. 

That said, if you are looking for a comfortable and safe ride, go for ceramic brake pads. Take a look at the pros and cons to help you better understand ceramic brake pads. 

Pros

  • More durable
  • Cleaner tires
  • Have less noise 

Cons

  • Pricier
  • Increased wear and tear on brake rotors
  • Incompatible with all vehicle makes and models

Overview of Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

Semi-metallic brake discs are typically designed for high-temperature and hardworking brake applications. They are used as the front brakes on many heavy-duty pickup trucks and SUVs.

The same case applies to “severe-use” applications such as emergency vehicles, taxis, and police cars. Semi-metallic brake pads are also used on performance cars and heavier trucks such as semis.

Identifying the Pads

Appearance is one of the ways you can easily identify semi-metallic brake pads. Normally, the chopped steel fibers are visibly clear and they are usually silver in color. Some of them have magnetic properties. Some have an outer coating of a “kind of transfer material” that aids in suppressing noise and break-in.

Generally considered premium-grade brake pads, they have features such as insulator shins, slots, and chamfers to reduce noise and vibrations. Other metal fibers including the chopped steel in the pads ensure semi-metallic brake linings can handle temperatures associated with high braking power.

Heat Conduction

Steel is considered to be a good heat conductor. As such, it helps pull heat away from the brake discs. This ensures the pads handle high brake temperatures without minimal fade.

Ceramic and NAO (non-asbestos organic) brake pads, by comparison, don’t conduct heat as well as semi-metallic brake pads. This means ceramic pads can’t withstand the kind of heat semi-metallic pads can handle.

When temperatures are above 500°F the hot friction coefficient of most ceramic and NAO pads drops dramatically. This in turn leads to a substantial increase in pad wear. By comparison, the majority of semi-metallic pads remain relatively stable at temperatures upwards of 500°F.

Additionally, they don’t exhibit the same rate of wear as ceramic or NAO pads. It is the reason why semi-metallic pads are preferred for high-temperature environments and vehicle applications where brake pad heat resistance is crucial.

Metal Content

The amount of steel in a semi-metallic pad ranges from 20% to 60%. It may be more or less depending on the application and friction formula. For instance, low semi-metallic or “low-met” pads have a steel content of about 20%.

However, how the steel fibers are combined with the other materials used to make the pad is more important than the total metallic content in the material. The importance of the total package is based on determining the cold and hot characteristics.

It also determines the wear, noise, fade resistance, and stopping power attributes of the final product. At the end of the day, semi-metallic pads with a high steel content tend to be hard. This means they are more prone to squeals and vibrations when braking compared to ceramic or NAO pads.

Cause of Noise

Missing insulator shims, worn calipers, or a rough surface or other hardware are usually the cause of brake pad noise. With semi-metallic pads, it is crucial to ensure the rotor finish:

  • Meets specifications given by OEM
  • Has pads that are installed properly
  • Uses calipers that are not worn out to minimize noise issues

How About High Steel Content?

Pads with high steel content can last a long time because they have good wear characteristics. It is more so when brake temperatures are elevated. Take note the pads may also be rough on the rotors.

For example, rubbing softer friction materials against the rotor produces less wear than rubbing steel pads against cast iron rotors. With this in mind, the rotors often require to be replaced or resurfaced by the time you wear out semi-metallic brake pads.

Additionally, these pads need more pedal effort when they are applied or when it is cold. They work best when the pads are hot or warm.

Vehicles that were manufactured with semi-metallic pads need to be relined with semi-metallic replacement pads. It is crucial for larger pickup trucks and SUVs where brakes have a higher probability of running hotter. Substituting with a different type of pad increases the risks of brake fade and pad wear.

Keep in mind these pads can be a great upgrade from ordinary ceramic or NAO pads as long as it is for performance applications. They are also a good upgrade for vehicles that may be subjected to driving that is harder than normal.

The best advice is to follow your vehicle manufacturer’s or brake supplier’s application guidelines and recommendations.

Brakes

Features of Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

The majority of these pads are made using metals such as iron, graphite, and copper. Some also have composite fillers and alloys to complete the manufacturing process. These are pads that are typically popular among race drivers.

Their features include:

  • Great if you use them in different environments every day
  • Pedals are firmer
  • Require a bedding-in period
  • Work well in heavy-duty or light usage
  • Brake dust causes them to glaze
  • Function well in cold conditions
  • Don’t have the same wear and tear found on sintered pads
  • Have lower noise levels compared to sintered pads
  • Different brands use different metal ratios and mixtures
  • They are durable
  • They are affordable
  • Have great grip and high friction levels
  • Tolerate high temperatures

Brake Pad Buying Guide

Buying the right brake pad is crucial to your safety and your finances. There are features of a great pad you need to know before you choose between ceramic vs. semi-metallic brake pads. The buying guide below will let you know how to select the right brake pad.

Price

For starters, high-quality brake pads don’t have to cost an arm and a leg. The majority of vehicle parts use the rule “the higher the price tag, the better the quality.” Brake pads are different.

You can get better quality pads at a lower price point as long as you know what you are looking for. Determine your budget before you start shopping for these products. 

Quality

Once you know your budget, you need to search for the highest quality brake pads for your car. When it comes to brake pads, quality is considered using the following features:

  • Stopping power
  • Durability
  • Noise reduction
  • Brake system erosion
  • Weather resistance
  • Brake dust-prevention

Applicability

Applicability in brake pads is determined by how many different makes and models the products can be installed on. Most vehicle manufacturers make brake pads for their makes and models with their benchmarks for quality.

This means aftermarket manufacturers develop their pads to either outperform or match specific OEM pads. Others opt to design pads compatible with a wide range of vehicles. 

A balance between compatibility with a wide range of vehicles and a high-quality benchmark are characteristics of the best brake pad brands. Take note it’s almost impossible to develop pads that fit any make or model. Make sure the product you choose is compatible with your vehicle’s make and model. 

Ease of Installation

How easy it is to install a brake pad is the final factor you should consider when you are purchasing the products. The majority of OEM pads are not easy to install despite them being easy to install.

The reason is they are usually installed during the manufacturing process. Therefore, the assumption is replacements will be installed by a technician certified by the said manufacturer.  

The ease of installation varies in aftermarket pads. Those trying to cater to a plethora of makes and models tend to have an easier installation process. After all, if the installation process is complicated, the products won’t fit the majority of vehicles.

Aftermarkets that prefer sticking with a few makes and their models can be a challenge to install. A good example is Brembo brake pads.

Checking Brake Pad Wear

You can only know if your brake pads need replacement or how much they are worn off by feeling, listening, and looking at the signs. Use the following information to help you determine if your pads need replacement. 

Feeling Signs

This is the best way to detect signs of wear on brake pads. Such signs get worse the more your pads wear out. The first thing you notice is a difference in time when you brake to stop or slow. If you notice a longer stopping distance, it means your brakes are wearing off.

Sometimes you need to apply more pressure for the vehicle to slow or stop. Lastly, there may be a slight vibration in the brake pedal and/or steering wheel. This may turn into a tremor over time. These are the feel signs that tell you it is time to change your brake pads.

Visual Signs

Check two things for this scenario. Start by checking your road and actual tire for signs of brake dust. If you notice some build-up of brake dust and it suddenly gets cleaner by itself, you are in trouble. 

It means the wear on your pads has reached the point where there isn’t enough material for it to function properly. Additionally, check the pads for signs of wear and tear. Change them if you have significant chunks torn off or you have less than a quarter-inch of pad left.

Audio Signs

Listen for a screech, usually high-pitched, that sounds like metal scraping metal. If you hear this sound even when your windows are up, change your pads immediately. Keep in mind such noises can’t be heard over the sound of a loud stereo or A/C system.

Other Factors for Choosing the Correct Brake Pad

Brake pads

Determine the environment you live in. You need specific types of pads if you live in extremely cold or hot environments.

For instance, getting pads designed for hot environments and using them in cold environments will mean replacing the same frequently. Furthermore, determine the terrain where you use your vehicle the most to ensure you get the right pads.

Secondly, you should analyze your driving habits. Do you just commute to work or take plenty of long road trips? Do you slowly decelerate and tap your brake at the last possible minute, or do you drive fast and brake often?

Once you have answered the above questions, choose between organic, ceramic, or semi-metallic brake pads. Make sure you check the product’s manufacturer data to ensure the pads you purchase match the year, make, and model of your vehicle. 

Gauging Your Driving Persona

As mentioned above, you need to gauge how you drive. This isn’t scientific, but it’s the best way to gauge your driving persona to make the right brake pad buying decision.

  1. 9 – 5 commuter: You mostly use your car to and from work over short distances i.e. 5 – 15 miles. Organic or ceramic pads are your best option. 
  2. Traveling businessman: You spend a lot of time on the road and only drive fast when you are late. You rarely encounter extreme temperatures and rough terrain. You need ceramic or semi-metallic pads. 
  3. Extreme road warrior: You have to navigate a lot of hills, drive fast, and live in extremely cold or hot environments. Sometimes racing is your hobby. You need metallic or semi-metallic brake pads. 

Brake Pad FAQs

Question: When Should I Replace Brake Pads?

Some factors determine the amount of time that determines how long it takes before you replace a brake pad. They include driving habits, driving conditions, frequency of driving, driving distance, and the type of brake pads used.

For instance, if you hard brake (braking at the last minute) often, you will replace them faster than a person who slows down by applying their brakes lightly. To sum it up, high-quality pads last approximately 70k miles while low-quality pads last about 30,000 miles.

Take note these figures are for normal driving. Driving fast and braking hard is usually more or less 30% of these figures irrespective of the quality of the pads.

Question: Does it Take Long to Change Brake Pads?

Answer: There are three things involved when you change your brake pads:

  • Make and model of the vehicle
  • Type of pads
  • Your D-I-Y/technical skills

That said, if you are doing this for the first time, expect an hour or more. If you’re a “hands-on” type of person, you may take about half an hour. Take note professionals can change one brake pad in about 15 – 20 minutes tops.

Question: How Much Does it Cost to Change a Brake Pad?

Answer: It all depends on your starting point. Do you have the necessary tools or do you have to hire them? Where did you buy your pads? Which pads do you want to buy? What is the make and model of your vehicle? If you use our buyer’s guide and brake pad installation guide, it will cut your cost by at least 50%.

Question: Are Semi-Metallic Brake Pads Better than their Ceramic Counterparts?

Answer: Typically, semi-metallic brake pads don’t last as long as their ceramic counterparts. Ceramic pads offer better noise control, last longer, and minimize the wear and tear to rotors.

Semi-metallic brake pads are better at handling high temperatures and heavy braking needs. Your needs will determine which is better as they both have merits and demerits depending on the application.

Question: Do Rotors Wear Fast when Ceramic Brake Pads are Used?

Answer: The main material used in these pads is mainly ceramic. However, there are other materials included known as filler materials. Even though these pads are pricier, they produce lower noise levels and are cleaner. Additionally, they don’t cause a lot of wear on the rotors and provide for excellent braking.

Question: Is There a Difference between Semi-Metallic and Ceramic Brake Pads?

Answer: Ceramic pads were developed to reduce the brake dust, heat, and noise associated with semi-metallic pads. The main difference is ceramic pads are cleaner and quieter when compared to semi-metallic or organic brake pads. They also last longer and are less abrasive.

Bottom Line

While semi-metallic and ceramic brake pads are the most popular brake pads, they are not the only ones available in the market. However, since they are the most popular and common, you should consider the above information before you make a purchasing decision.

Ideally, go for ceramic pads if you are a casual or home-to-work driver. Use semi-metallic brake pads if you drive high-performance vehicles or you need strong braking power.