By Russ and Tiña De Maris
In another post we explained why you might need a brake controller. Now we talk about choosing one. It can be a bit confusing, as there are several different “types” of controllers, not to mention brand names.
For RVers, brake controllers fall into four different categories; two of the types are quite common in use, the other two, much less so. We’ll cover all four types.
Time (or timing) activated brake controllers: Are probably the least expensive of brake controllers on the market. We’ve seen at least one that retails in the $50 range. Time activated controllers receive a signal when you step on the tow vehicle brake, then after a predetermined interval apply a preset amount of current to the trailer brakes.
They are inexpensive, but do have a drawback: The tow vehicle does the braking to begin with, then the trailer chimes in. This puts more wear on the tow vehicle brakes, causing them to wear faster than they would normally. In the case of a lightweight trailer this might not be a real problem, but our personal recommendation is that heavier trailer owners avoid these guys.
In an emergency “panic brake” situation, the lag time between when the tow vehicle brakes and the trailer brakes come on could also be an issue. We once were towing a 28 foot fifth wheel at a fair amount of speed on an Oregon two-lane highway. Coming around a bend in the road we came face-to-face with a highway flagger standing in the middle of our lane with a STOP sign in her hand. There were no warning signs posted ahead of the curve. We laid plenty of rubber on the roadway–and when the smoke cleared we found the flagger had taken a dive out of the lane onto the shoulder. Had we been using a timed controller, the outcome would have been ugly.
Enter inertia activated controllers: A pendulum inside the controller senses the amount of deceleration of the vehicle and sends braking current to the trailer in direct proportion to the deceleration. The stopping is smoother, the wear on the tow vehicle brakes is lessened, the results overall are much better.
The hang ups? Inertial systems are best for level towing; throw in up and down hill grades and the pendulum can be “confused” resulting in less than stellar results. And (heaven forbid) you should be towing and have a catastrophic tow vehicle brake failure, the system will not sense deceleration, and simply pumping on the brakes will not lead to a tow vehicle brake actuation. If you keep your head you’ll be able to activate the “manual” lever on the controller and get the trailer brakes to wake up.
Proportional brake systems: Are perhaps the most popular among RVers. Inside the proportional controller is a gadget industry calls an accelerometer that measures the tow vehicle’s g-force in deceleration. Touch the brake and a proportion of the full amount of braking power is immediately sent to the trailer brakes; as the vehicles decelerate the controller senses this and adjusts the amount of “braking power” required for the stop.
In our terror scenario, should the tow vehicle completely lose braking power, the proportional system will still send some braking power to the trailer, helping you to begin to get the combination under control. This would theoretically give you more time to regain your composure and think to grab the manual override lever and apply all the juice. Between us, we’d rather not have to contemplate this scenario, but it’s nice to know it works.
Proportional brake controllers do cost a bit more; we’ve seen “entry level” models–those without a lot of display whistles and bells, for less than $100.
All brake controllers we’ve discussed have some amount of “adjusting” to the specific trailer they’re connected to. We don’t find it too difficult to make these adjustments, but if you’re not into a bit of fiddling, you could consider the fourth type of brake controller.
Hydraulic over electric brake controllers: These controllers are similar to their three cousins we’ve already mentioned–they send electrical current out to the trailer brake system. However, these characters add a sensor to the tow vehicle’s hydraulic brake system and use the brake system pressure to gauge how much current to send to the brakes.
Simply put, step lightly on the brakes, a small amount of current is sent. Step a little harder, more current is sent, and so on. They’re easier to “learn,” and some claim no “adjusting” is required to set up a new trailer.
The most recently released models of these units are said to be compatible with ABS brake systems; this overcomes a problem with some of the first entrants onto the market where ABS systems presented real operational problems. Some early systems also required a hydraulic line be run through the firewall to the controller–leading to installation issues including leaking hydraulic fluid and serious (and dangerous) operational safety issues.
We’ve never tried one of these, so we can’t speak much about them. They are certainly more expensive, ranging from the mid-$300 range clear up to over $1,000.
As you cogitate the differences between the types, be aware that different levels of the different types of controller will offer things like digital visual displays (some allowing choices of what language). Like anything else, the more options you want, the more you can expect to pay.