Trailer brake controllers sync up the two sets of brakes in a tow vehicle and trailer, which helps manage stopping distance and control trailer sway. In this post, we’re looking at the key features of trailer brake controllers and how to make an informed decision to get the best trailer brake controller for your towing setup.
- 1) What Is a Trailer Brake Controller?
- 2) Do Some Vehicles Come Equipped With Trailer Brake Controllers?
- 3) What Are the Top Brands of Trailer Brake Controllers?
- 4) Do I Need a Trailer Brake Controller?
- 5) Free RVing Tips, Tricks, Reviews & Giveaways
What Is a Trailer Brake Controller?
A trailer brake controller is an electronic device installed in a tow vehicle that activates the brakes of the trailer being towed. When you apply the brakes of the tow vehicle, an electric signal in the brake controller sends the message to the brakes of the trailer, telling it to slow down and stop accordingly.
So, brake controllers sync up the brakes of the tow vehicle and trailer so that both are activated when they’re needed. The primary goal is to balance the braking between them so that the tow vehicle’s brakes stop the tow vehicle, and the trailer’s brakes stop the trailer.
Most electric trailer brake controllers are installed inside the cab of the towing vehicle. From there, they integrate with the vehicle’s brake signal to detect when you’ve applied the brakes. They send a trigger or controlling signal to the trailer’s brake system to facilitate smooth, controlled braking.
The intensity of the braking force and the speed at which your brakes are applied are adjustable based on the size of the trailer, the load weight, road conditions, and other factors.
Brake controllers have a manual override so that you can apply the trailer brakes without applying the brakes in your tow vehicle if needed. For example, this might be done to stop trailer sway.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to choose your brake controller based on the following:
- The size of your trailer
- The number of axles the trailer has
- The amount of weight being pulled
- The types of driving scenarios you’re likely to face
There are two main types of trailer brake controllers:
With a proportional electric brake controller, the amount of force applied to the trailer’s brakes is matched to the amount of force you apply to the towing vehicle’s braking system. This type can also be referred to as an inertia-based brake controller.
A proportional or inertia-based brake controller uses an accelerometer (a type of electrical circuit). When the driver steps on the brake pedal, the controller applies power to the trailer brakes in proportion to the momentum of the vehicle.
This type of trailer brake activity results in efficient braking and smooth stopping, which is especially beneficial on a hill. If you’re driving up a hill, for example, the brake controller will apply less power. However, if you’re driving down a hill, it will apply more power.
Not only can the amount of force (the “gain”) be set on many proportional systems, but the amount of time it takes (the “boost”) to reach that force can also be adjusted. Check your tow vehicle’s owner’s manual for details about your system’s operation.
With this type of trailer brake controller, there’s a delay between when the towing vehicle’s brake is applied and when the trailer’s brakes are applied. There is pre-set force, however, so the trailer brake’s application force – or gain – is always the same.
The time-delay method isn’t as precise as the proportional approach. However, the driver can still adjust the gain setting on a time-delay brake controller to accommodate any specific trailer.
Here’s a video with some good information on how to use and adjust a brake controller:
Do Some Vehicles Come Equipped With Trailer Brake Controllers?
Many new vehicles come with factory-installed trailer brake controllers either as a standard feature or as an available option. These are typically referred to as integrated brake controllers. These are, of course, most common in vehicles that are often used for towing, such as pickup trucks. As a matter of fact, the truck we currently have on order to tow our new RV is equipped with a brake controller as part of its towing package.
The type (and quality) of your built-in/integrated brake controller depends largely on the age of your towing vehicle. Older vehicles are more likely to have a time-delayed controller, while newer vehicles are more likely to be proportional.
If your towing vehicle already has a trailer brake controller, you simply need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to configure the controller to work properly with your trailer’s brakes. You may need to identify the type of brakes (electric or electric-over-hydraulic), the boost/length of delay, and/or the gain (how much force the trailer brakes apply in response to the towing vehicle’s braking).
The Autowbrake listed below is one of the only trailer-mounted proportional brake controllers on the market, eliminating the need to install anything inside the towing vehicle. This means that you can switch tow vehicles, but still have proportional brake control of the trailer.
But again, most trailer brake controllers are installed inside the cab of the towing vehicle.
What Are the Top Brands of Trailer Brake Controllers?
The biggest names in trailer brake controllers are:
- Redarc (TowPro)
Let’s take a look at some trailer brake controllers from these companies.
Tekonsha Prodigy P3 Electronic Brake Control
The Prodigy P3 is a proportional brake controller with an easy-to-read LED display and 5 storable setting options. This allows you to set the preferences for multiple drivers and gives you the ability to pull different trailers (up to 4 axles).
With the Tekonsha trailer brake controller, if you’re ever in a situation where you have no trailer brakes, a flashing red light provides a warning. The unit also offers a manual override that’s easy to apply by setting the P3’s override lever to the desired power output. The sliding level allows for increasing the trailer braking at variable rates.
A boost button on the P3 provides a more aggressive setting that increases the sensitivity of the inertial sensor, enhancing braking when towing a heavy load. There are also five storable setting options for pulling different trailers, or for towing preferences of multiple drivers.
The P3 allows braking proportionally in reverse to apply the right braking power to allow for smoother stopping even when you’re backing up.
With multiple mounting options and a plug-and-play wiring port that adapts to all Tekonsha 2-plug wiring harnesses, this is one of the top brake controllers on the market, a position supported by its incredibly high ratings on Amazon.
- A distinct, easy-to-read LCD display with multiple screen color options..Fit Type: Universal Fit
- Up-Front controls provide easy access to all P3 features.
Reese Towpower Brakeman IV Digital Brake Control
The Reese Towpower Brakeman IV is an electric brake controller that mounts in any direction with no leveling required. The unit itself is small and offers a pre-wired plug-and-play connection to 2-, 4-, 6- and 8-brake systems.
The Brakeman IV uses 100% solid-state electronics, including push-button adjustment controls for different trailer weights (output) and activation speed (sync). The bright digital display makes it easy to read the output and sync settings and other information like brake overload and short connection.
The sensor determines the pressure being delivered to the towing vehicle’s brakes and helps to accurately adjust the trailer brakes for city or highway driving. This one is also very highly rated on Amazon.
- Digital display output setting, sync setting, brake overload or short connection
- Small compact design, mounts in any direction and no leveling is required
Redarc Tow-Pro Liberty Brake Controller
The Redraw Tow-Pro Liberty features inertia-sensing tech and offers vehicle-specific wiring harnesses for easy installation. This is a proportional brake controller that measures the vehicle braking force and applies the trailer brakes to match.
The Liberty self-calibrates and is compatible with both electric and electric-over-hydraulic brakes. It features a 3-axis accelerometer, and the main unit can be installed in any position or orientation.
The Tow-Pro Liberty was designed, manufactured, and tested in Australia, and comes with a manual override function that allows you to avoid dangerous trailer sway with the tap of a button (maybe a good thing, considering the number of kangaroo crash videos we’ve seen on YouTube)!
Redarc recommends installing the Tow-Pro Liberty with the universal pigtail brake controller wiring harness, or using one of their vehicle-specific wiring harnesses and switch inserts for easy installation in specific major vehicle makes and models. This is yet another very highly-rated controller.
- Rugged reliability meets everyday ease-of-use
- Perfect factory look with no more knee knocking
Curt Echo Mobile Brake Controller with Bluetooth Connection
This Curt trailer brake controller is different in that it doesn’t look like it’s installed at all, as it sits in line with the 7-pin trailer plug. So, installing this model is as easy as plugging in a 7-way trailer wiring connector. It requires no tools, no extra wires, and no hardware.
The Curt Echo is completely non-invasive and is easily transferrable from one vehicle to another. It wirelessly links to your smartphone using Bluetooth and syncs with your Apple or Android phone, turning it into a brake controller interface.
The Echo uses a triple-axis accelerometer for smooth, safe stops and maintains responsive braking even when your phone is locked or receiving calls, or if the Bluetooth connection is lost. If that happens, the controller will continue to function safely using the last known settings.
There are a lot of people who really love their Curt Echo brake control unit. One reviewer points out that each controller comes with a specific PIN printed on the directions and also under a flap. That PIN is required to link the controller to your phone.
The app will reportedly suggest that the PIN is “1234” as an example, which could be causing issues with connections for some users who attempt to use that as the PIN. As always, we suggest thoroughly reading reviews… and instructions.
The Curt Echo is also more expensive than the others we’ve mentioned so far.
- PORTABLE. The Echo trailer brake controller has a non-invasive install and is easily transferrable from one vehicle to another. It plugs into any...
- SMARTPHONE-READY. The Echo brake controller wirelessly syncs with your Apple or Android phone, turning it into a brake controller interface with the...
Autowbrake Trailer Mounted Electric Brake Controller
Speaking of more expensive, the Autowbrake is the highest-priced model we’re featuring here by a good margin, although it also has many great reviews. It’s a trailer-mounted unit with no installation at all in the towing vehicle.
With the Autowbrake, general braking and emergency braking from your trailer brakes are automatic. So, unlike time-delay controllers (which send the same amount of preset power to the trailer brakes every time) this proportional controller can adapt to each braking situation differently.
The Autowbrake is mounted onto your trailer and connected to your vehicle, and there’s no syncing necessary. It’s made to endure all kinds of weather and has a 3-year warranty.
- FREE 3 YEAR WARRANTY: Wireless communication between the remote hand unit and trailer mounted power module
- QUICK & EASY INSTALLATION: Once the Autowbrake is mounted on your trailer and connected to your vehicle, there is no sync up necessary to the key fob.
Do I Need a Trailer Brake Controller?
There are trailer braking requirements in virtually all of North America. Though laws vary, it’s typical for trailers weighing 3,000 pounds or more to require auxiliary brakes. That means a brake controller to go with it.
The heavier the trailer is, the more important it is to avoid having all of the braking responsibility falling fully on the towing vehicle. If only your tow vehicle brakes, while the momentum and mass of the trailer continue pushing the tow vehicle forward, this increases your stopping distance, possibly causing an accident.
So, for lots of reasons, a brake controller is an important piece of equipment for anyone wanting to tow as safely as possible… and follow most local towing laws.
For more related information, see our post about trailer brake systems. You may also be interested in knowing how to connect a trailer breakaway cable, and in our post entitled, “Do I Need a Breakaway Cable On My Trailer?”
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