By far and away the most common trailer brakes are electric operated, and these are controlled by an Electric Brake Controller.
In Australia, any trailer that weighs more than 750kg must have brakes fitted, and operational. There are two types; mechanical and electrical. Mechanical brakes use a system that is compressed which makes the brakes come on as the vehicle brakes.
Electric brakes use a controller in the vehicle to apply the trailer brakes, as it brakes. Electric brake controllers are the most common option today for caravans and camper trailers, with only a few trade, boat and car trailers running a mechanical setup.
Why do you need trailer brakes?
Before we get any further, if you have ever towed a heavy trailer, you’ll understand the need for brakes on the trailer itself. Put simply, a vehicles brakes are not capable of reliably, and quickly stopping a combination moving down the road. If you take a 3 tonne 4WD, and put a 2 tonne trailer behind it you have a heap of extra force that needs to be slowed down, and the factory brakes are simply not up the task.
Combine this with extensive hill work, or traffic, and you need the extra braking power. Set up correctly you have the potential to make the braking time almost the same as if you were not towing; they are extremely effective when working well. Trailer brakes also share the load, and keep the whole setup braking evenly and proportionally so the trailer stays behind you, where it belongs!
Types of trailer brakes
Some trailers have hitches that incorporate brakes, so when your vehicle slows down, the hitch compresses and this pulls the brake cable on. These are reasonably affective when they are adjusted properly, but you cannot manually activate the brakes and they can be annoying when reversing. Most have a tab that you should get out of the vehicle and flick over, to stop the brakes engaging as you back up.
In terms of caravans and camper trailers, the most common brakes that you will see are drums, controlled by an electromagnet, which receives its signal from the brake controller in your vehicle. This is super important; you cannot tow a trailer that has electric brakes unless you have a brake controller that will talk to it.
From there, you can get drum brakes (which are the most common, in 10 or 12 inch) and then there are also manufacturers who are doing disk brakes as well. These are better for a number of reasons, but they are less common and you will pay for the extra performance!
Who makes brake controllers?
There are a couple of manufacturers of brake controllers:
Redarc Electric Brake Controller
Redarc is the most common, and probably the most recommended. They make the Tow Pro Elite V3, which is installed behind your dashboard and you have a small knob sticking out that tells you what the controller is doing, and allows you to set the brake strength from 0 – 10.
These work off a GeForce meter, and need to be secured properly under the dash or they will not work properly. The harder your vehicle brakes, the harder the brakes are applied to the van progressively, but also based off the setting that you have the controller on.
On a trailer that is well made and adjusted, if you have the brake controller set to 5 or above and you brake hard in the vehicle, its not uncommon to have the wheels on the trailer lock up. When set up well, these really pull a vehicle up quickly.
Tekonsha is probably the main competitor to Redarc, and they sell the Voyager and the Prodigy. I’ve heard good things about them, but they are probably fitted about 95% less than the Redarc units.
The most well known tow bar manufacturer sells the Sentinel and the CompactIQ brake controller, but to be honest I’ve never even seen one in the flesh!
Elec brakes, GSL Electronics, Alko, Ironman, Bainbridge and WiTi also sell brake controllers, but these are even less common than the Tekonsha.
Portable Electric brake controllers
One of the most frustrating thing about most brake controllers is that they are a permanent installation. However, there are a couple of portable brake controllers on the market that can either be quickly moved from vehicle to vehicle, or that are mounted on the caravan or trailer itself. This means that as long as your vehicle is set up to tow (correct weight ratings, tow bar etc) you can easily change vehicles without much effort or cost.
Elec Brakes and WiTi make portable brake controllers. The first is a 10 minute installation on the trailer itself. The second is a wireless unit that plugs into your cigarette lighter plugs.
Having a portable unit, or one that is mounted onto the trailer is quite clever, and I’ve often remarked how daft it is that your trailers brakes rely on the inherently unreliable trailer plugs that often don’t make a good connection.
On our previous 4WD is wasn’t uncommon to have the trailer brakes stop working because the trailer plug would work its way loose, and then you’d have no way for the signal to pass through.
How much is a brake controller?
Most brake controllers are around the $300 mark, plus installation. We paid $550 for a Redarc Tow Pro Elite V3 installed in our Dmax, along with an Anderson from the cranking battery to the rear, which is used for charging our camper trailer as we drive along.
You’ll get a variety of prices for labour, but the Redarc units should not be more than $300.
Electric Brake Controller Installation
If you are good with 12V, and general installations, you could possibly mount the brake controller yourself. The Redarc units need to be firmly secured as they rely on change in motion to apply the strength of brakes, so you need to bolt them in place.
We paid for an auto electrician to install our Redarc, as I’m clueless with hooking into factory wiring and even if I could get it done it would take far longer than it does for a sparky to do it, who does it each and every day.
Electric brake modes
Brake controllers work in a variety of ways. The Redarc one has a gyro inside that detects a change in motion, and when its in auto it proportionally applies braking power based on how hard your vehicle is braking. If you just touch the brakes it will brake lightly, but if you stomp on them, it will apply a much higher force to the trailer brakes.
You can put it in manual mode too, which is useful for going down a hill as you can slow the vehicle down without using its own brakes, ensuring they don’t get too hot.
Other brake controllers run off a time delay setup, where they activate the trailer brakes harder as you brake for longer. As you’d imagine, this is not as good as the proportional operation like the Redarc unit, which makes your trailer react in the same way the vehicle does.
Electric brakes are amazing
You need decent brakes on your trailer. There’s no doubt about it. Nothing is more scary than slamming the brakes on and having a 3 tonne trailer behind you keep the vehicle ploughing down the road. The difference between good electric brakes and none on a 4WD towing more than a couple of tonne is absolutely huge, and you can try this out for yourself under safe circumstances just by turning the brake controller down.
If you are getting yourself a trailer, seriously consider a decent brake controller, and make sure it all works properly. There’s no better feeling than being able to pull up in a hurry when towing!
The trailer brakes on our Hybrid Caravan are an absolute necessity, and it only weighs 2.2 tonnes!