Hauling a trailer may be part of your job, part of your hobby, or just an occassional jaunt to pick up some materials, regardless of why you haul, safe trailering is paramount. One of the single most overlooked aspects of trailering is the brakes. Where most people are more concerned about how fast the tow vehicle will be able to pull the loaded trailer, the real concern is getting that load slowed down. Using the tow vehicle’s brakes alone works in many situations, but there is a better way—trailer brakes.
There are two main types of trailer brakes, hydraulic and electric. Hydraulic brakes are just like the ones on your car, a hydraulic master cylinder pushes fluid to the pistons on the wheel hubs on each axle, operating the brake pads, slowing down the trailer. These are commonly found on boat trailers and some others. They are operated by inertial force. When the tow vehicle slows down, the trailer pushes forward on the ball hitch. The hydraulic systems are mounted to the tongue of the trailer, as the trailer pushes forward, a pushrod operates the master cylinder. This means that the trailer brakes only work when the tow vehicle slows down. That is all fine and dandy under normal circumstances, but what about emergency situations?
Trailers have several bad habits that can cause catastrophic accidents if you don’t know what you are doing. One of the biggest is called “whipping”. This is when the trailer starts walking side to side. If not brought under control whipping will grow like a tidal wave, eventually taking the entire caravan out of control and into a nightmare. There are two ways to control whipping- brakes or speed. If your tow vehicle has the guts to pull the trailer out of the whip, then that usually pulls the trailer back into line with the truck, settling things down. If you are going too fast or the vehicle just doesn’t have the power, then you need brakes. Slowing down a trailer with just the tow vehicle under whipping conditions is risky too, because if it is down too fast, the trailer can push the tow vehicle aside, and the nightmare begins. The best solution is electric trailer brakes.
Electric trailer brakes operate under a similar principle to an emergnecy brake, only they are not cable operated, rather a magnetic piston pulls when energized, operating the brakes. These are connected to the vehicle through a trailer brake controller, which is connected to the vehicles braking system. Older systems required hydraulic lines be tapped into the vehicle’s brakes, but that is no longer necessary. Today’s brake controllers are all electric and connect to the brake light switch.
There are two types of these controllers, time-delay and proportional. Inertia controllers use both an electric connection to the brake switch and a built-in inertia gauge that meters out the braking power. These provide smooth braking response as the controller reacts just like the vehicle; if you stomp on the brakes, the trailer brakes are instantly applied, if you are gently cruising to a stop, the trailer brakes are not used much if any. The end result is better braking efficiency. The installation of proportional controllers is more difficult, as they muse set at specific levels and tuned to the vehicle. They also cost more.
Time-delay controllers apply the trailer brakes in the same manner every time, with an adjustable delay between when the brake pedal is pressed and when the trailer brakes are applied. This is adjustable through the gain setting for road conditions, load, and the driver’s preference. These controllers are cheaper, easier to install, and to use.
Both types of controllers have a button or slider to instantly apply the brakes to the trailer. That means you can slow the entire caravan down with just the trailer brakes. This is good for emergency situations such as whipping.
Installing a trailer brake controller is not difficult, in fact, it took less than an hour to complete the task on a 2001 Chevy Silverado 1500. We picked up a time-delay controller from our local auto parts store, along with a plug-n-play harness, and got to work. Because the Silverado had the factory-installed tow package, this was a simple plug-in operation. Had the truck not been equipped with the tow package, we would have needed to add a jumper wire for the power source for the controller and connected a couple of wires in the rear of the vehicle at the trailer plug. Most tow-capable vehicles have the wiring readily available, it just might not be connected.
On our truck, the harness plugs into a port underneath the dash. This can be located through your owner’s manual or by internet search. The instructions for the harness may list the location as well.
We mounted the controller in the change pocket under the radio. Since this is a time-delay unit, we could mount it anywhere, even upside down.
Once the harness is connected to the unit, and the ignition turned on, the system was checked. Press the stop button, and the reader quickly jumps up to 99, that is full application. Press the brake pedal, and the display read up to the max gain, which is adjustable by using the two arrow buttons on the left.
Out back we needed to mount a 7-pin trailer plug connector. We could have mounted this under the truck with a bracket, but we chose to cut a hole in the bumper for a more factory-looking install.
Using a rota-broach 1 ¾” hole saw, we cut the bumper to mount the new plug. This takes some time, so be patient.
Once the hole was cut, the inner plug harness was dropped through the bumper.
Next, the exterior plug was centered and squared to the vehicle.
We pre-drilled the 4 mounting holes and then used some stainless-steel screws to secure the plug to the bumper. The result is a factory-looking installation with proper trailer brake controls.
We tested the system hauling a 24-foot Pace American enclosed trailer loaded with a 4800-pound car. Even though the ½-ton truck is capable of hauling this load, the brakes have always left something to be desired. With the trailer brakes now functioning like they should, the truck is much better at slowing and stopping. In a heavy crosswind, the enclosed trailer was getting pushed around, which before would have been a bit scary. With the trailer brakes, we were able to tap the actuator button and bring the trailer back in line without issue.
If you are going to haul a trailer on a regular basis, you need a proper brake controller. For less than $100, we equipped this Silverado 1500 with an excellent brake controller and made hauling heavy loads less nerve-wracking. Don’t take a risk hauling heavy metal without trailer brakes, it just isn’t worth it.