Pickup Trucks 101: Trailer Brake Controllers

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By Matthew Barnes

It's imperative to have a trailer brake controller when towing a trailer that has electric or electric over hydraulic brakes. In most states, an adjustable trailer brake controller is required when trailers weight more than 3,000 pounds when loaded. But exactly what are a trailer brake controllers, and how do they work?

What They Are

Trailer brake controllers are devices that apply the trailer brakes based on driver input. They are activated once the brake pedal in the tow vehicle is pressed. Most also have a way to manually activate the trailer brakes separately from the tow vehicle. This is especially helpful for controlling trailer sway, dealing with inclement weather or loose-gravel driving. One thing all controllers have in common is that they have an adjustable voltage output; this allows the amount of gain, or braking force, to be set according to the type of trailer, weight of the trailer and weather conditions. With an empty trailer, the braking force should be low to avoid locking up the brakes and ruining the tires or losing control. With a trailer near its maximum payload capacity, the braking force should be high to keep the stopping distances as short as possible in case of emergency situations.

Related: Pickups 101

There are three common types of trailer brake systems used on light-duty vehicles: surge, electric and electric over hydraulic. Surge brakes are typically used on boat trailers and don't require the use of a trailer brake controller; all the necessary adjustments are automatic and typically sit inside the trailer. Electric trailer brakes are the most common type; they're found on most travel and work trailers. Electric over hydraulic brakes provide stronger brake pressure than electric brakes and therefore are used on larger, heavier trailers; they typically have disk brakes but can use drum brakes as well. Not all brake controllers work with electric over hydraulic brakes, so be sure the controller you choose is compatible with your brakes.

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How Do They Work?

There are a variety of trailer brake controllers on the market today, but three types are the most common: time delay, proportional and factory.

Time-delay brake controllers: These function the same every time. They ramp up from a minimum amount of voltage output (from your braking force) to the maximum set by the user. Along with being able to adjust the maximum output, many time-delay controllers have an adjustable time delay, so the time delay can be short or long depending on what you want or are most comfortable with. Sometimes, time-delay controllers have a minimum output that can be set (called boost) usually based on a percentage of the maximum setting. For example, if the maximum output is 12 volts and the minimum is set to 20 percent of that, then the braking force that is applied upon pushing the brake pedal would be 2.4 volts.

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Time-delay controllers are typically the least expensive, and they also perform consistently and work as designed in most situations. They can be mounted in any orientation since there are no internal moving parts. They are often the best choice for vehicles that are rough riding, such as medium-duty trucks.

image from p.widencdn.net

Proportional trailer brake controllers: These use an internal pendulum or accelerometer to determine how much braking force should be applied. They typically function much smoother than time-delay systems, and when properly set, drivers can brake as they would without a trailer attached. Most offer three areas of adjustment: gain, minimum output and sensitivity of the sensor(s). Sensitivity adjustments allow the brakes to be applied based on the tow vehicle's braking abilities. Some offer additional settings for specific trailer setups such as the number of axles, type of brake system and boost settings.

image from p.widencdn.net

image from p.widencdn.net

image from p.widencdn.net

Prices have come down significantly for proportional controllers, but they typically cost a little more than time-delay controllers. Some high-end models can be mounted in nearly any position, but many are limited to being mounted flat, level side to side, and within a certain angle up and down. When used with vehicles that have a stiff suspension and bounce a lot, proportional controllers can become jittery and apply the brakes with more force than needed when hitting a bump while braking.

image from p.widencdn.net

Factory trailer brake controllers: These controllers are typically the best for most situations because they've been tuned for the tow vehicle. They work by sensing how much the brake pedal is depressed and apply the trailer brakes equal to the tow vehicle's brakes. The gain is still adjustable to dial in the perfect braking performance for any given application. This allows for smooth and consistent braking every time they are used. Besides being truly proportional, factory systems typically offer multiple trailer settings. Rather than adjusting each time a different trailer is hooked up to your pickup, simply select which trailer you are towing on the vehicle's computer and it's ready to go. One of the best features of a factory-installed trailer brake controller is that it allows the tow vehicle's computers to help control trailer sway. When your pickup detects trailer sway, it can automatically apply the trailer brakes and vehicle brakes to correct the sway. The driver can then safely stop and adjust the loading of the trailer to prevent further sway.

image from p.widencdn.net

image from p.widencdn.net

While most new factory trailer brake controllers work with electric over hydraulic brakes, that wasn't the case as little as five years ago. If your trailer has an electric over hydraulic braking system, check that the factory controller works with your trailer's braking system.

image from p.widencdn.net

Summing Things Up

While using trailer brake controllers will drastically improve braking performance when towing, some systems are better suited for certain applications than others. Understanding how different types of trailer brake controllers work will greatly improve the chances of getting the safest system for your vehicle. Having properly functioning trailer brakes is one of the best ways to improve safety and have a more comfortable towing experience.

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Comments

Photos show the big 3 brands.

The GM truck is owned by a family business, doing work. The RAM truck is driven by a family taking their camper on vacation.

The third family at first glance appears to be on vacation but is actually is a Ford family living in the wild on the run from their creditors.

Ford truck cost so much the family sold their house and live out of their RV and cook over an open fire, after having used all their wooden furniture for fuel.

We use EOH brakes on a larger boat trailer - it is nice to be able to brake the rig when backing down boat ramps, can't do that with surge brakes, and electric brakes are too vulnerable to corrosion.

We use a Prodigy RF controller, since we pull the rig with different trucks. Had to add some resistors ( via black box) to the brakes to send a false (load) signal to the controller to fool it into thinking they were electric brakes.

@longboat

Have you considered opting for a different trailer?

@papajim,

I just financed a new Ford back in October. I did exatensive research for 6 months before I found everything I wanted. I can tell you , gm is more expensive. And they did not even come close on financing, even on the outgoing '18 model.

I am a gm fan as well but when I can get 0% on a ford, vs 6%! On the outgoing gm, it's a $7k difference.

@papajim,

I just financed a new Ford back in October. I did exatensive research for 6 months before I found everything I wanted. I can tell you , gm is more expensive. And they did not even come close on financing, even on the outgoing '18 model.

I am a gm fan as well but when I can get 0% on a ford, vs 6%! On the outgoing gm, it's a $7k difference.

That Tekonsha Voyager was the industry standard for... forever. It just worked.
The new factory stuff is nice. The Controller on the Gladiator looks to be the Australian Redarc unit.
@papajim- why would he want a different trailer? EOH is awesome for reliability and longevity, and lets you run a weight distributing hitch on a boat- which is nice.

@Rowdy. Congrats on your new truck! Seriously.

I was mostly making a wisecrack in the above comments about big 3 trucks. When compared to what foreign producers offer there's nothing in the market that's superior to the RAM, Ford and GM HD's.

Some of the guys on this site hail from Australia and they like to pretend that their markets offer similar trucks.

Regarding finance. I don't think there's ever been a better way to buy a sizeable asset than cash. Cheap financing is usually worth ever penny you pay for it (sarcasm intended).

Even if the GM was 10k more expensive it won't make the Ford a better investment, based solely on interest rate. This is another reason why American bankers and politicians need to stabilize the dollar.

Someone like yourself who's spending a big chunk of change on a big truck (or even a house) is ill-served by a scenario where you don't know what your dollar will buy in five years.

Why Does G.M.C. have far less sales than Chevy which is in the recent past the same truck with a different badge and now is the same truck with different styling and more options? ...........Hint, price. $$$$$.

Factory Trailer brake controller in a PU... another Ford innovation everyone else had to copy.

at HEMI V8. If GM was smart it would do away with GMC as a brand and instead make and integrate it into Chevy as a top trim level/package. It would save them on advertising, production, parts, distribution, dealer network, beauracracy, lead to additional sales, and allow them to at least occasionally claim to have the best selling full size truck in the US.

I like the standard factory brake controller on my ZR2. It has worked great with several trailers

Photos show the big 3 brands.

The GM truck is owned by a family business, doing work. The RAM truck is driven by a family taking their camper on vacation.

The third family at first glance appears to be on vacation but is actually is a Ford family living in the wild on the run from their creditors.

Ford truck cost so much the family sold their house and live out of their RV and cook over an open fire, after having used all their wooden furniture for fuel.


Posted by: papajim | Feb 15, 2019 7:54:17 AM

Thanks for opening your mouth and removing all my doubt.

Thumbs up.

@Frank---You are a Ford bummer and a dolt to boot!

@Clint, "Ford innovation" lol
As Ford Motor Co. expanded, it became a threat to the association. On Oct. 22, 1903, Selden and Electric Vehicle Co. sued Ford for patent infringement.

"Three engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) allege that Ford engines have their patented process for combining port and direct fuel injection, and the automaker isn't paying for the technology's use."

"Ending a long-running legal battle, Ford Motor Co. agreed to pay a Baltimore-based technology firm and the Abell Foundation to use a hybrid engine technology"

Can you show me where Ford invented the trailer brake controller?

If GM was smart it would do away with GMC as a brand and instead make and integrate it into Chevy as a top trim level/package. It would save them on advertising, production, parts, distribution, dealer network, beauracracy, lead to additional sales...

BEAURACRACY???

RE: GMC and Chevy. I've explained this so many times it hurts. Evidently Clint the genius hasn't been paying attention.

@Frank---You are a Ford bummer and a dolt to boot!

Posted by: Philo Beddoe | Feb 15, 2019 1:03:45 PM

papadim

I love my 2018 gmc SLT with a 6.2L. Has a few more options than ltz and costs less than high country

Plus I like the looks better

If you can sell 2 why not!?!?


Clint wouldn't be saying this if Ford was still selling Lincoln trucks?

GMC is the General Motors brand of trucks that GM allows car dealers (Buick, Caddy) to sell as an alternative to sending their customers down the street to the Chevy dealer. The Buick and Caddy dealers would raise hell if GM ever blocked them from selling pickups, it's just too big a market to take that away from them. GM needs their Buick and Caddy dealer to be happy.

A lot of small town dealerships cannot support a Chevrolet shop but they can support a Buick or Caddy shop. This was even more true back when Saturn, Pontia and Olds were on the menu.

Another brake controller 'news' story from PUTC. Yawn...

A truck without a brake controller is like a car without a steering wheel.

A truck without a brake controller is like a car without a steering wheel...Posted by: papajim | Feb 16, 2019

Another annoying entry by the FAKE PAPAJIM

Papa, you have no clue!!!! My gm truck the traiker brakes never work!!!!!!!! Piece of junk GM!!!!!!!!!!

So the doctor told you to stop the near-constant "fiddling with yourself" and let the damn thing heal! That means we can expect to see your pathetic comments all over PUTC today.

I guess I can always paint the gutters or rake leaves. Too bad. I was hoping I could have a few minutes on the only decent trucks website uninterrupted by your drivel.

@Fake TNTGMC

I have had two GM's with the factory brake controller from 2007-present, and have never had any problems with either one. I do a lot of towing, up to 3,500 miles in one trip. I would have complete confidence in a Ford factory brake controller as well.

A lot of small town dealerships cannot support a Chevrolet shop but they can support a Buick

Fake news. That's not how it works anymore.

@Tom

please define: Gratuitous Assertion

Buick does not build trucks, but GMC is like a Buick version of a Chevrolet. Usually GMC and Buick are sold at the same dealership and then Chevrolet has it's own dealership.

two gratuitous assertions in a short space of time, including one by the fake pj

Some of us have nothing better to do then scan the comments at PUTC all day long.

including two by the fake pj

@Mr Knowitall
Redarc is spreading fast they were only introduced into the US market not too long ago

why would he want a different trailer? EOH...lets you run a weight distributing hitch on a boat- which is nice...Posted by: Mr Knowitall | Feb 15, 2019

@Mr Knowitall

Did not say he wanted one--I asked if he looked at that option. I once had a neighbor who put a trailer hitch on the front of his pickup so he could deal with challenging ramps. He liked it.

@Mr Knowitall
The younger generation are helping the industry a lot
https://i.postimg.cc/6QqRMSDj/image.jpg

@ Papajim -- i had the trailer custom-built, along with the 26-foot boat that rides on it. I have no problem at the boat ramps. I only use the side mirrors for backing the boat, been doing it that way for 30 years. Most folks are pretty impressed with how quickly i back the boat and/or empty trailer down the ramp, more impressed by how little time i spend fiddling around at the ramp during either launch or load. Practice makes perfect.

Good to hear that's working out for you.

nowadays transport was fully developed and day by day more of the vehicles coming with new feature.. pickup tracks also play main role in this year..

nowadays transport was fully developed and day by day more of the vehicles coming with new feature.. pickup tracks also play main role in this year..

nowadays transport was fully developed and day by day more of the vehicles coming with new feature.. pickup tracks also play main role in this year..

nowadays transport was fully developed and day by day more of the vehicles coming with new feature.. pickup tracks also play main role in this year..

nowadays transport was fully developed and day by day more of the vehicles coming with new feature.. pickup tracks also play main role in this year..

If your truck has good brakes like GM trucks you don't need trailer brakes in a lot of cases.

Clint, I wish I could be there to help you relax. I wish I could take away all the tiredness you feel and replace it with joy and happiness. Clint, I wish I could help soothe your mind. But in the meantime, while we’re not in each other’s presence, I hope this note is enough to lift your spirits. Clint, always remember that I’m thinking of you every moment of the day. And if only thinking about you could help you feel energized and awake, I’m sure you’ll never feel tired again!



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