This is the year you got serious about your trailering set-up. You've treated yourself to a new, top-of-the-line pickup truck with a tow rating high enough to pull your house off its foundation if necessary. You used your annual bonus to get that bigger boat you had promised yourself (with your spouse's blessing, of course). The boat dealer told you that you could use the truck to pull that new trailer "with no problem". What he did not tell you is that you still need to figure out a way to operate the trailer's brakes. That is done with a brake controller. The good news is, we have a great selection of them, and we will even show you how easy they are to install.
Do you really need one of these things? We know that you don't want to get talked into purchasing something that's not necessary. Let's explain: most trailers with Gross Trailer Weights (GTW) of 3,000 lbs. and above have trailer brakes. Most states in the U.S. require trailers at that weight and above to have brakes. That figure includes your boat and trailer combo. (An average range of weights for recreational boats is 2,000-4,000 lbs. Add in the trailer ranging from 500-1,000 lbs., and you're pulling between 2,500-5,000 lbs.). These brakes are electrically operated, meaning, they need an electrical signal delivered to them from the tow vehicle.
In theory, it's all rather simple. A wiring connection is made between the brake pedal switch in the truck you are driving and the trailer you are pulling. Whenever the driver steps on the brake pedal, the brake lights come on. That same electrical signal that illuminates the brake lights sends voltage to the trailer's brakes. Since those brakes are electrically operated, they apply when they get the signal. Release the brake pedal, the electric signal goes away, and the trailer's brakes are no longer applied.
In reality, you want there to be a way for the trailer's brakes to not work as an on/off switch, but to apply at different rates, depending on pedal force, road speed, trailer weight, angle, etc. This is the job of the brake controller. The controller is the interface in this set-up, plugged in between your brake pedal and the trailer's brakes. Brake controllers are available in two basic versions: "timed" controllers, and "proportional" controllers. Let's look at each in greater detail:
Two Kinds Of Brake Controllers
1. Timed Brake Controllers
Timed brake controllers are given that name because they have a built-in time delay between the moment the driver applies the brakes, and the moment when the controller sends the signal to the trailer brakes. Timed controllers are simpler and more affordable than proportional controllers. Although there are some adjustments that the operator can make to the amount of power and the exact timing of the application, once those parameters are set, the controller will apply the brakes the same way every time, no matter the speed of travel or the angle of the road. The timed controllers are best used by those who tow only occasionally, or tend to travel shorter distances over the same kind of roads.
Examples of timed brake controllers include several outstanding models from Hopkins, such as their Brake Force, Impulse, and Reliance models. Timed controllers from Curt include their Venturer and Discovery models (you will find these within the Product Options drop-down).
2. Proportional Brake Controllers
Proportional controllers have some advantages over the timed controllers, because these devices measure the rate of deceleration of your entire rig, and will apply the brakes accordingly. While there are still adjustable settings (which you can vary based on total weight, your driving style, etc.), the proportional units do an overall better job of modulating the trailer's brakes. Drivers report an overall smoother and less jerky feel to the brakes. They can even account for uphill and downhill situations, when you will want the brakes to apply differently. These units typically cost a bit more than the timed controllers; however, for those who tow more frequently and over longer distances, these are the way to go.
The Tekonsha line of brake controllers are all proportional. Choose among their P3, Primus, and Voyager models. Curt also makes proportional controllers, in their Triflex and Reflex models (again, find these Curt controllers in the Product Options drop-down). The Hopkins Agility controller is a proportional model.
Both timed and proportional brake controllers have a manual override function, which allows the driver to apply the trailer's brakes with more force in an emergency situation, such as if the trailer is swaying.
Brake Controller Installation
Earlier in this article, we told you that there needs to be an electrical connection between the tow vehicle's brake pedal switch, and the trailer's brakes. We would imagine that you might have images of an interior with seats and carpeting completely removed in order to route a harness from front to rear.
It's much easier than that.
Over the past few decades, the truck makers got smart - knowing how popular trailering has become, they have built their rigs from the factory with wiring harnesses that can accept brake controllers. If you do not intend to do any towing, it's no big deal. The harness stays taped up and out of sight under the dashboard. If you are installing a brake controller, one of the first things to do is locate and free up that wire harness. It's usually tucked up under the left side of the dashboard; on some vehicles, it's to the right of the steering column, but it will be on the driver's side somewhere. Remove whatever tape is holding it in place, and bring the plug down toward the floor.
Find a suitable location to mount the controller. ALL brake controller manufacturers strongly recommend that it be placed in a location accessible to the driver, so that the manual override can be easily reached. When drilling holes for the mounting bracket, take the time to ensure that there's nothing behind the panel you're drilling into that might get damaged. Follow your controller manufacturer's instructions, as some of these controllers must be mounted relatively level in order to work properly.
Once the bracket is installed, you only need the vehicle-specific wiring harness to connect the brake controller to the connector you found under the dash. Secure the wires out of the way with cable ties or electrical tape, and you're done. It truly is a plug-n-play operation. Most towing suppliers estimate an installation time of 5-10 minutes to complete this job.
Vehicle-specific controller harnesses are available from Hopkins, Tekonsha, and Curt. Note that some Hopkins brake controllers are available as a kit with the needed harness. Check the Product Options.
If your truck was not manufactured with a pre-wired plug for a brake controller, does that mean that you cannot install one? Absolutely not. Curt makes a universal brake controller wiring harness. There's a little more work involved, using a test light and some basic electrical tools like wire strippers and crimpers, but it is eminently do-able.
Wrapping It All Up
Trailering is usually done so that you can enjoy your hobby, whether it's camping, horse-riding, boating, or whatever. The fun of the hobby must be balanced with the seriousness of pulling a substantial amount of weight at highway speeds. Braking, it should go without saying, is a most critical safety element. It's still only one element. The hitch itself, trailer, trailer lights, and tow vehicle are also factors you must understand and find solutions for when performing any trailering task. We want you to have fun, and want you to be safe while having your fun. Brake controllers are a straightforward but critically important part of your towing enjoyment.