When I was purchasing my first caravan, the guy selling it to me asked if I had an electric brake controller already installed and ready to go. At the time I was unaware of what they actually were or how they worked, so I did some research to see if I actually needed one.
Turns out that for vehicles over 750kg GTM must have an effective braking system fitted to the towing vehicle in compliance with the Australian Design Rules. The type of braking system that is specifically required depends upon the weight of the RV you’re towing. All of the wires, indicators and other electrical accessories must run through the system of your towing vehicle.
With so many different systems and rules out there, it can be difficult to understand which product you actually need to purchase for your RV. To help newcomers I’ve put together a short guide for everything you need to know about electric brake controllers that I wish I had when I first made my purchase!
Jump To Section
The purpose of an electric brake controller is to be able to slow whatever you are towing with smooth proportional braking. These devices have to be installed within the tow vehicle in order for the electric trailer brakes to operate in the load you are towing. Commonly the device itself is installed under the dashboard or another place that is easily accessible by the driver. This is the case so you can choose to engage the brakes at any time you deem necessary rather than stretching and trying to reach the device.
If you have driven a vehicle while towing a load before you can feel the difference that the load has on your trip. When the electric brake controllers are set up correctly they counteract the effect of the load pushing your tow vehicle when you are trying to come to a stop. Generally speaking, these devices come with a manual override in situations that call for you to make the decision to turn it off or on.
Smaller trailers don’t usually tend to have these brakes installed as the weight isn’t that big of an issue. However larger loads (especially those that weigh over 2,000 kilograms) will have them preinstalled. If you are planning on towing a load of this weight it is highly recommended that your vehicle has an electronic brake controller installed for this reason.
There are many different models of these controllers so it is important that you understand what you are towing and what device you need before making your purchase. They only cost about $200 but at that price, you want to be sure that you buy the right model for the job you have at hand. You can pick them up from any RV accessory store or online from eBay and Amazon.
If you’re reading all this and realise that the trailer you own has a trailer surge braking system already installed, you don’t have to worry any longer. These systems don’t need a controller if they are run by electricity rather than a hydraulic device. You don’t need one as the brakes have actuators already in them which are able to control the movement of your trailer without your input.
In order for the electric brakes on your trailer to work effectively, it is necessary that you have a brake controller. Without this device, the brakes simply won’t work as there is nothing to send power or a signal to the brakes. It is technically possible to tow a load without one of these devices however the dynamics of the tow load changes and you will notice in the event that you are forced to make an emergency stop the tow load will not following the tow vehicle as smoothly and safely as it should.
There is an exception where the loads are less than 750kg, you do not have to have any electric brakes installed on the trailer at all. When you exceed the 750kg load mark it is required by law that you have the brakes and a suitable system equipped on the trailer. If your trailer has pre-installed electric brakes it is recommended that you invest in a brake controller before you attempt to tow the load.
We have briefly touched upon the legal implications of electric brakes and the rules within Australia. Single axel loads that are less than 750kg in total don’t need to have electric brakes installed, let alone having an electric brake controller. When you are in the 750kg to the 2000kg range it is a legal requirement that your trailer has electric brakes fitted to at least one wheel. Additionally, you need to equip an electric brake controller on your tow vehicle as well.
For loads in the range of 2001kg to 4500kg, the trailer must have electric brakes fitted to every wheel as well as having the electric brake controller fitted to your tow vehicle. It is also important to note that loads in this weight range need to be fitted with a breakaway unit. These units automatically engage the electric brakes on the trailer in the event that it becomes disconnected from your tow vehicle. This limits the potential damage and danger that the run-away load will have on the road.
If You Are Travelling Internationally Always Check Local Laws
If you are planning on doing a road trip throughout the states it is important that you familiarise yourself with the towing laws of different states in different countries. The USA has different weight regulations when it comes to whether or not you need an auxiliary braking system fitted so always check local laws as different states may have different laws when it comes to the maximum load limit.
As we mentioned before there is a tonne of different brands for these devices that claim they are better over their competition. While there may be hundreds of options on the market, they can all be categorised into one of the two groups; time delayed or proportional.
Proportional Brake Controller
A proportional brake controller is the more automatic option of the two devices. Instead of relying on you, the device can sense when the tow vehicle is slowing down or coming to a stop. When it understands this scenario it relays information to the brakes of your trailer to apply the same amount of braking intensity. As both braking intensities of your vehicle and trailer are matched, you will experience a uniformed brake rather than a staggered one. To explain it in layman’s terms, if you brake suddenly and forcefully your trailer will do the same.
This factor is what mainly differentiates the two different types of devices. You will brake with different intensities so your device will be able to pick up whether you need to stop suddenly or merely slow down. While this type of device does come with many benefits, the drawback is that it is a lot more expensive compared to its counterpart and is also more difficult to install. You may have to seek a professional to install this device if you have no prior experience.
Time Delayed Controller
The cheaper option of the devices activates the trailer’s brakes with a pre-set intensity and rate of application that is set by you prior to your trip. This means that when you apply your brakes a signal is sent to the trailer to apply the brakes at the certain intensity at the specified rate that you have chosen. As with the name of this type of device, there is a delay when you initially apply your brakes and when your trailer reaches the maximum intensity in its braking system. This can be adjusted with the sync settings of your device to ensure that you have the right setting chosen.
Due to not relying on sensors this version of the device can be installed at any angle of your vehicle. Certain models also have the feature to be able to pulse the brakes on and off when you turn on your hazard lights when it is set to aggressive mode. This is possible as the power from the lights feeds a signal to the brakes in the trailer. While not all people will want this feature, you can opt to install a pulse preventer to isolate the problem entirely. Additionally this potential problem is not an issue for vehicles with amber lights which is the norm in Australia.
Generally speaking you should be able to find installation and safety instructions for electric brake controllers on the website of the manufacturer. However, there are still some installation and safety tips that you should be aware of.
Trailers and caravans that are over 2,000 kilograms require a breakaway cable or device. This is required in the off chance that the load you are towing disconnects from your vehicle. When the cable is detached, the brakes will operate automatically to prevent any accidents. Additionally, it is required within Australia to have two safety chains attached to any load that you are towing.
When you are wiring up your vehicle it is also recommended that you consider installing an auxiliary wire as well. Most caravans have a three way refrigerator (240V, LPG gas and 12V) and with the auxiliary cable installed the fridge will be able to operate on the 12V whilst you are driving. Additionally, the internal lights of your van will then run from the vehicle battery. If you stop for an extended period of time it is recommended that you disconnect this cable as to make sure that you don’t drain your vehicle’s battery entirely. Installing an isolator in your vehicle will ensure that the battery will never run flat which is a big deal when you are travelling.
If you have a battery installed in your caravan boot or trailer you will need a heavy-duty cable that runs through a separate socket (generally Anderson plug). It is recommended that your set up has some sort of battery management system in the vehicle to ensure that the alternator and computer system of the tow vehicle are protected.
Some trailers and caravans have solar panels installed which would eliminate the need for the heavy duty cabling. It is still recommended that you install some sort of battery management system however if you are planning on running a portable chest refrigerator such as an Engel or Waeco in the back of your towing vehicle.
Do Electric Brakes Work Without A Controller?
While it is possible to tow a load without an electronic brake controller it is highly recommended that you don’t. There’s nothing stopping you from attaching the load to your vehicle but without the brake device installed on the tow vehicle, the electric brakes won’t work. Electric brakes that are installed on trailers are powered by brake controllers which is why it is crucial that you obtain one. These units are separate to your load that is required to be installed on the tow vehicle.
How Do Electric Brake Controllers Work?
While there are many different types of brake controllers the general run down of how they work is that they provide the same amount of braking power as your vehicle to the trailer. When the vehicle starts to slow down, the device relays this information to the brakes of your trailer to also tell it to slow down. This is why the electric brakes won’t work without a controller as they have no way of understanding when the vehicle is slowing down or coming to a stop.
Do Electric Brake Controllers Work In Reverse?
The short answer for this question is yes they do. As long as the trailer that you are towing has the electronic brake system installed the controller will still work regardless of what direction you are travelling. As long as you are applying the brakes and the system is installed correctly you have nothing to worry about.