An electric brake controller is a device that sends a signal from your vehicle’s brakes through the 7-pin hook-up on your hitch, to your trailer. Your trailer has brakes already, but they won’t work unless you install a brake controller who can interpret the signal. Think of the controller as the heart of your trailer braking system. All the brake lines (veins and arteries) can flow power from your tow vehicle, but are useless without the heart/controller to actually pump/control that power.
The power for braking your trailer originates from your car or tow vehicle. With a brake controller the power goes from your vehicle to your trailer’s brakes, reducing the wear and tear on your vehicle brakes and making for safer stops. Without a brake controller the brakes and tires on your trailer simply lock up when you apply the brakes in your vehicle, leading to all sorts of problems, accidents and trailer flips.
Many brake controllers also come with a manual override provided in the controller. This means you can tap the manual controller pad with your hand for increased braking power on the trailer, or to brake the trailer without applying your vehicle brakes – something you might want to do to reduce or stop swaying or fishtailing, or when a larger rig (tractor trailer truck) is passing you, or in gusty, windy conditions.
In many Provinces and States brake controllers are required by law based on trailer weight and size – usually anything over 1,500 pounds. And, in addition to a brake controller, most States and Provinces also require a “Breakaway kit.” A breakaway kit is designed to apply the brakes to the trailer’s electric brakes in the event that the trailer becomes disconnected from the hitch while in motion.
The heavier the trailer, the more powerful the controller needs to be. If you purchase a “tow package” you may have the brake wiring installed, but will still need a controller to activate the brakes.
There are a lot of different brands, models and sizes but essentially only three types, or kinds of brake controllers – Time Delayed, Proportional, or Inertia Activated Brake Controller.
Proportional Brake Controller
A Proportional (also called a pendulum) brake controller sense how quickly your vehicle is stopping, and then transfers or applies that same amount of force to your trailer’s brakes. In other words, Proportional Brake Controls delivers the level of braking power to the trailer brakes in direct relationship to the actual physical deceleration of the tow vehicle.
The advantage of this type of controller is that your trailer stops or decreases in velocity at the same rate as your vehicle. If you must slam on the brakes to avoid a collision, the control also slams on the trailer brakes as well. This is the smoothest, quickest type of controller to have, and also more expensive. When properly adjusted, installed and used, this provides the least amount of wear and tear on your vehicle brakes.
Timed or Time Delayed Controller
A Time Delayed (also referred to as a solid state) brake controller applies a set or predetermined amount of braking power to the trailer when you step on your vehicle brakes. There’s a brief delay (thus the name), as the unit ramps up to full braking power.
When you step on your brake pedal when using a Time Delayed brake controller, a pre-determined amount of power is sent back to the trailer brakes. This set amount is controlled or set by you, based on your trailer’s weight.
A delay always exists from when the brake pedal is pushed to when the unit reaches the user set, maximum power output. You can shorten or lengthen the delay based on your needs, the trailer’s weight and other factors, but the controller will react the same for every stop – whether it’s gradual, slow or fast.
Set the sync switch too low, and your vehicle will do most of the initial braking. This will not only put extra strain on your vehicle’s brakes, but will result in more wear and tear on the vehicle brakes overall. If the sync switch is set too high, the trailer will brake harder, resulting in a jerkier stopping motion. Either way, one or the other vehicle will be doing the majority of the braking, resulting in uneven brake wear.
Time Delayed controllers are the most popular kind of controller and are often recommended for the occasional, casual or infrequent RVer. They’re less expensive, easier to use and more user friendly. They can be mounted at any angle, and has a low profile. The amount of power you send back to the brakes is also adjustable.
Since the controller sends the same amount of power for every stop, regardless of the kind of stop, the user gets used to the braking feel faster. In a Proportional Brake Controller the amount of power varies with each stop, making it a little harder to get used to – especially if you don’t use it frequently.
Inertia Activated Controller
The Inertia Activated Controller is a lot like the time-delayed controller, but has an automatic override device that features an extra power supply for unexpected or surprise high-speed stops – like deer or elk in the highway. When this feature is adjusted correctly the trailer stops or decelerates at the same speed as your tow vehicle, much like a Proportional Brake Control.
It’s possible to install a brake controller yourself if you’re good at following directions and are basically mechanical, but don’t be shy about asking your dealer to install it for you.
Spend as much time as possible watching your RV dealer show you how to set it up correctly, and then practice doing it yourself as many times as it takes to feel comfortable and confident you are doing it right. It’s easier than you think.
However, do make a checklist as you do this so you don’t forget any step of the set-up. Once you are in camp and trying to break camp, hitch up trailer, get everyone packed and into the car and leave, chances are very good you will forget a critical step in the process – something like turning it on, or a safety chain. So have a checklist and use it, even after you think you can do it in your sleep. Better safe than sorry, or dead.