View Full Version : OT - Trailer brakes

08-14-2005, 01:27 PM
I've heard that electric trailer brake controllers lack much of a progressive feel to them, i.e. they're either on or off, with not much in between. Any of you agree with that?

Then, I've heard hydraulic brakes have some kind of piston that when you slow down, the trailer tries to run into the truck, depressing a piston and activating the brakes. I've been told this provides a "progressive" feel, but creates problems when you need to go in reverse.

I don't know much about either setup, but was wondering what you folks like to use. I've got a 90 chevy 3/4 ton that I anticipate hauling a BP sized mill and possibly a lathe (at the same time). I get the impression that if only hauling a mill, I could probably tow it without trailer brakes just fine, but I like the idea of being able to not even feel that its back there.

Is there any type of trailer brake controllers that use either brake pedal position, or brake fluid pressure to control the application of brakes in a progressive manner?


08-14-2005, 02:03 PM
I use electric brakes on my tandem axle car trailer with a controller in the cab. The controller is adjustable for braking force and I've found that a few short stops with a load is all it takes to get a nice feel to the brakes.

As for hydraulic brakes they are a pain when backing up a steep hill. I had that problem with a U-haul trailer once and swore off of them ever since.

-Christian D. Sokolowski

Tim Clarke
08-14-2005, 03:28 PM
Kelsey-Hayes makes one that has a pendelum in it. It worked well for my trailerhouse, tamdem axle, about 5000 lbs loaded, with 4 brakes. There is a adjustment for leveling the pendelum, and one for overall braking effort.


Your Old Dog
08-14-2005, 04:22 PM
No experiance with electric but the hydraulic was awesum in my opinion. I never knew the trailer was back there fully loaded when I had to stop. It was truly great. As you noted, only down side was I had to get out and put a pin in the actuator to back up. I thought the inconvienance of having to do that was a small price to pay for the comfort on the other end.

If I'm ever facedd with the situation again I'll choose hydraulic and they can keep their surge levers and other adjustments!

My friend tows a travel trailer and he said the electrics were nice because you could spike the trailer brake when a semi trailer passes you on the thruway and it helps keep you on the road? I'm not familiar with the concept yet as we don't have a travel trailer YET ! http://bbs.homeshopmachinist.net//biggrin.gif

[This message has been edited by Your Old Dog (edited 08-14-2005).]

08-14-2005, 04:22 PM
Thanks guys,

I looked at a couple electronic brake controllers and I like the pendulum ones -- just seems like they would tend to work better than the time delay ones. I wonder if Uhaul rents trailers with electric brakes...


08-14-2005, 04:29 PM
i build trailers the electric breaks are the most used. you just have to adjust the controller to get a good feel and stop.

the hydraulic or surage brakes has a master cylinder and as you stop it over rides a samll shockabsor for brakes o the trailer. i have come to like the surage brakes, you hook up the lights and the safety chains and the breakaway cable. and you are on your way. on the other system you have to have a seperate battery to lock the brakes if the trailer brakes away and keep it charged.
for backing up with the surage you put a pin in the hitch so the brakes do not come on.

08-14-2005, 04:42 PM

I used to tow my racecar with a shortbed F100, I had electric brakes on that setup as well and I can tell you firsthand it is nice to be able to tap the trailer brakes when a semi blows by. I'd definately works to keep things in line so to speak.

-Christian D. Sokolowski

[This message has been edited by rsr911 (edited 08-14-2005).]

08-14-2005, 05:03 PM
Both setups work great if they are maintained properly and set up for the vehicle that is using them. I have an electric brake setup for my car trailer and it works great loaded or unloaded. I do have to make an adjustment on the force of braking needed depending on how much load is on the trailer but you quickly learn how to adjust it. It's just a slider switch and my box has ten led lights on it and depending on how much the slider is moved the more lights turn on. This works good for me because I can visually set the brakes before ever leaving the parking lot depending on the weight of the load just from prior experience. It also has a slider for the speed that the brakes are applied, so it does work progressively too. The only thing about electric brakes on a trailer is that if you aren't careful and set them too strong, you will be stopping the truck with the trailer brakes which will burn them up quickly.

I am not sure who sells them but I think they make surge brakes that you don't have to get out and lock the pin in the back to back up now. Don't know how it works but I have heard about them. The only thing I don't like about the surge brakes is the way the tongue actually shortens some to actuate the brakes. My brother rented a bobcat one time and at every redlight we had to use bulldog to get the trailer rolling. This with a 3/4 ton truck with 4.10 gears pulling it. Come to find out the trailer brakes were sticking for about 50 foot before the brake mechanism would release the brakes. Probably not maintained properly though. They should both work fine if setup properly.

08-14-2005, 05:58 PM
One more vote for electric, they are really handy to straighten out the trailer when it starts to whip - semi or no semi passing, a wind gust can come from anywhere as can a sudden evasive action.

08-14-2005, 09:56 PM
I have hydraulic surge brakes on the boat trailer and they work great as far as smooth operation without lockups. However, as mentioned, when back up a hill, you have to stop and manually lock out the trailer brakes. Some very high end ones use a solenoid connected to the back up lights to do the same automatically. The biggest problem for hydraulics is they don't give you the abilty to stop the trailer from swaying if there is a problem. So I won't run them except on the boat trailer.

The Prodigy controller (http://www.tekonsha.com/prodig.html) is better and the Brake Smart (http://www.brakesmart.net/) are the best (my opinion). The Brake Smart does use brake pressure to determine how much to apply the electric brakes. Hence why this is the factory controller on the Ford Super Duties. You did not mention what type of trailer you are towing. If your weight is constant, then you usually can get even the cheapest controller "dialed in". However, if your trailer weight varies greatly due to load, then your choice becomes more critical.

There are two more types not mentioned, electric over hydraulic (http://www.carlislebrake.com/spec_hydrastar.html) and vacuum over hydraulic (http://www.lowcosttrailersupplies.com/Trailer_Parts/l10x1.html). The electric over hydraulic can easily add an additional $700 - $1000 for the trailer. Warning, not all electric/hydraulic units are created equal, read the specs on the response time. The advantage is smoother braking and less brake part wear. Many of the 3 car trailer haulers in this area have gone to this setup. You can choose between disc or drum brakes with this system.
The vacuum over hydraulic uses a separate vacuum pump and controls in the pickup to control what looks like a normal master cylinder with a large vacuum booster on the trailer to operate the hydraulic brakes. This system can be found on some gooseneck trailers.

[This message has been edited by JPR (edited 08-14-2005).]

08-14-2005, 10:13 PM
I am using a Prodigy electric.
Very nice!

08-14-2005, 10:49 PM
Some surge brakes are built so they dont work in reverse,change in backing plate.Also they DONT work on slick pavement. Uhual & Rental Co use them so they can have brakes. Electric is the best cost wise, but vacuum over hydraulic is the best

08-14-2005, 10:54 PM
Damn! Those brake smart controllers really look like the way to go. Kind of an install-it-once-and-then-not-have-to-adjust-it-later-on type of thing. It appears to be based on the idea that when stopping a heavier load, you apply the brakes more forcefully (higher brake pressure), which in turn applies the brakes more forcefully on the trailer. Cool. Unfortunately, it looks like the company is experiencing some difficulty in switching over their manufacturing operations and currently isn't taking any orders. I'd definitely be curious to see how much the entire setup costs.

Also, It doesn't appear like they have a "kit" for my 90 chevy 3/4 ton -- only 99 and up, although I would expect something could be arranged in that department. Also sounds like it is much more of a pain to install, but in my limited experience, the harder the installation, the happier I often am with the results. Thanks for the links.

Before looking at the Brake Smart link, I looked at the prodigy controller and It looked pretty good. Glad to hear others have had good luck with it.


08-14-2005, 11:18 PM
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Bond:
Some surge brakes are built so they dont work in reverse,change in backing plate.Also they DONT work on slick pavement. Uhual & Rental Co use them so they can have brakes. Electric is the best cost wise, but vacuum over hydraulic is the best </font>

So Uhaul and other rental companies use surge brakes? I guess that makes sense so that they don't have to rely on customers having a certain type of controller installed in their vehicle.

I'll have to call around to see what's available in my area. When I bought my truck, it came wired with a trailer plug and receiver hitch from the previous owner, but I haven't used either yet and I haven't seen any kind of trailer brake controller in the cab. I presume it is just a plug for running the lights on a trailer.


08-15-2005, 10:32 AM
I have an electric brake controller for my 5th wheel trailer. It works very well. Not all electric controllers are the same though. The one I have (don't recall brand) provides a pulse width modulated signal to the brakes. This give a smooth continously adjustable amount of braking effort depending on pendulum or manual slider position. The cool thing about the pendulum is that it applies the brakes when going down a steep hill, just enough to help retard the entire rig. Using the trailer brakes I can descend a 13% hill on just the trailer brakes.

If you haven't ever driven a 5th wheel you can't appreciate just how nice they are to tow. It basically doesn't feel like you are towing anything excepting the change in performance and gas mileage. It never gets unstable. My hitch has two different towing positions. One position that brings the trailer up close to the cab for hiway driving and a second position that drops it back 6 inches for manouvering. In the rear position I can jacknife about 100 degrees either side.

This makes the rig extremely easy to manouver in tight spaces.

08-15-2005, 08:53 PM
I have a 24' 14,000 lbs. gooseneck I pull with a 78 1-Ton, I use a Voyager 9030 Inertia Activated Proportional Braking System. I had to install a diode to stop the 4-ways from backfeeding to the controller & pulseing the brakes, this is just for the older trucks, which are not restricked by the Pa. pollution laws, headers & no pullution pump is legal. The electric brakes are the way to go, with a little att. the adjusting is very easy & required for empty or heavy loads. Good luck & let us know what ya decide.

08-15-2005, 10:30 PM
Thanks for all the good responses. It sounds like an electronic controller is the cheapest way to go and entirely satisfactory from what I'm hearing. I don't actually have a trailer and don't have plans to buy one soon, as much as I would like to(wouldn't have room to park it anywhere outside).

I still need to call around and see what kind of brakes are available on rentals. If rentals had electric brakes, I wouldn't mind installing a controller for the occasional use. After all, I do intend on owning a trailer SOMEDAY.


cam m
08-16-2005, 04:56 PM

I've got two bumper hitch trailers I tow with my 2002 GM Z71 ext cab long box. A holiday trailer weighing roughly 3000# and a car hauler that tares about 2200# and has 10000# + running gear. The holiday trailer has electric brakes and the car hauler has hydraulic (surge) brakes. The electric system has the advantage of independent control via the cab mounted controller. With proper adjustment and installation, the electrics can give progressive braking. If the wiring is messed up, the brakes are fully applied when the brake lights come on. Electrics are also much cheaper to build and buy. The hydraulic system's advantage is that the tow vehicle needs only a 4 wire connection instead of the add'l 5,6,&7 connections for the brake circuit and battery charge emergency braking function or the "in light" temp connections available at U-Haul. The hydraulic system has a spring loaded "dynamite" setup activated by a third chain connected to the tow vehicle. I've moved a lot of stuff with the car hauler with no problem except when the load wasn't far enough forward. I wouldn't hesitate to haul anything properly loaded within rated loads with the car hauler. These trailers are often lower profile than other types which can be a mixed blessing. They are far easier to load from the rear via ramps etc., but are a b@#&% to load/unload from the side with a forklift etc. because the wheels stick up above the deck. Oh, and slippery footing is a carny ride in the making because the hydraulic system relies on the hitch forces to activate! Not a problem on reasonable footing, but loose gravel or ice....

Unless you're planning to do a lot of towing, I'd wait for good weather, rent a trailer with hydraulics from U haul for about 40$CDN/day rather than spend the $$ for the controller and then rent a trailer besides!


P.S. No affiliation bla, bla, bla, just been there done that.

[This message has been edited by cam m (edited 08-16-2005).]

[This message has been edited by cam m (edited 08-16-2005).]