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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Whoa!! - Slowing Down A Trailer Properly...Use A Brake Controller!

The Sun Sets...
    A few weeks ago, I towed a trailer a long way over various roads including some big hills with steep descents. It all worked out OK, but when I arrived home I noticed a significant amount of additional brake pad wear. Hmmm...Why was that? I'll tell you, I made a mistake. One that could have cost me dearly. I was under the impression that the trailer had surge brakes. These are actuated when you slow down the towing vehicle. They work pretty much on their own. Not the best solution, but they do not require any additional hardware. The trouble was, I was wrong. This trailer did NOT have surge brakes but rather ELECTRICALLY actuated ones. These REQUIRE a separate brake controller be installed in the tow vehicle/RV. If they are not hooked up, you have ZERO braking from your trailer. Your tow vehicle brakes do all the work. This is a dangerous condition! Well, hindsight is most always 20/20 so I ordered up a brake controller and installed it post haste! It's not all that difficult to do and may save your...well, bits you'd like to keep.

The P3!
How do you choose what kind of controller to buy? Well, after some basic research, it boils down to two main types. Time Delayed and Proportional. To begin with, Time Delayed tends to be much less expensive. So what's the difference? In a nutshell, a Proportional controller applies braking to the trailer in the manner you apply braking to the towing vehicle. You gently slow down, the trailer gently slows down a proportional amount. You slam on the brakes in a panic stop and the trailer brakes get applied as aggressively. There is some setup involved to "tweak" the proportions, but it's not all that difficult. The time delay version simply waits a set amount of time and applies the trailer brakes at a single setting. The amount of delay and the amount of braking force applied is adjustable. Because of the way it is wired, there could be some pulsing of the brakes when you hazard flashers are on.

Complete Kit!
To me, it was a no brainer. I found the best Proportional controller I could, based upon reviews and features and ordered one. (I got the Tekonsha P3 and paid 115.00 incl. shipping) The install wasn't really difficult at all. It came with a wire harness with bare ends to splice into my existing wiring. Only 4 wires needed to be connected. 12V Negative, 12V Positive, A Ground and a single wire to the trailer brake wire in the hitch connector. While you can buy prefabricated harnesses with connectors for various vehicles, mine (being as old as it is and an "orphan") didn't have that option. The first three were easy and obvious. I did put an inline fuse rated to protect the wire on the positive 12V connection. The last one required me to run a wire from the hitch connector at the back of the RV all the way up to the left side of the driver's footwell. That's about 26 feet of wire. Not difficult, I used good quality outdoor rated automotive wire and lots of wire ties (of the "zip" variety) to keep it tucked up out of harms way.

Next up is locating an appropriate spot to mount the controller itself. The instructions said I could  mount it in essentially any orientation with ethe exception that proportional brake controllers need to be mounted inline with the direction of travel. Some vehicles have a spot that's made for one. Mine didn't. I wanted to be able to see the screen when I wanted to and have access to the manual braking lever and settings on the fly so I mounted it down under my dash above my left knee. Well a bit further outboard as I didn't want to smash my knee into it all the time! Believe me, that would be a really...well.. P.I.T.A. (figure that one out for yourselves!)

Nifty Little LED Screen
Once connected up and mounted, the fun begins! On mine (which has a nifty LCD computer screen) I went to the setup page and selected the brake type. Mine were electric, but you could have hydraulic as well. Then you have to tweak the basic braking effect the controller applies. Your brake controller may be different, but mine suggests a default of "6" (somewhere in the middle) then you drive the trailer and tow vehicle 25 MPH and use the MANUAL lever to apply the trailer brakes. If they lockup go to a lower setting and repeat. If they don't, go to a higher setting. The idea being to set them up so it applies the brakes at a maximum level WITHOUT locking them up. Once that's done, use your tow vehicle brake pedal to make a few low speed stops to check the "feel." Mine worked out well on the first try.

There are a few other settings on mine, color and contrast of the display. A "Boost" feature that changes the amount of initial braking and force, to adjust for various weights of the trailer and the ability to store settings for 3 different trailers. It's also got a nifty Voltage gauge and lots of troubleshooting messages to let you know if something is connected wrong or malfunctioning.

Anything that increases safety and ease of use is all right in my book. This addition surely fits the bill!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"
www.thewanderman.com

22 comments:

  1. We use a P3 and it is hands down (in my opinion anyway) the best controller out there. And when we went to disc brakes on our trailer it was a simple matter of changing the controller setting from electric brakes to "electric over hydraulic" brakes. A great product worth the added expense.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Mr. Tommy,
      It's good to know my research was spot on. Lots of compliments for the P3.

      Thanks!

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete
  2. When I bought my first trailer with brakes, before closing the deal, the salesman made sure I understood the need for a brake controller. I had to have it installed before taking delivery. Of course this was a chance for the dealership to make extra profit by selling and installing a controller for me. However it was also a valuable service to me at the time as I was new to using a larger trailer. (Previously I had owned a much lighter pop-up which did not have brakes.)

    If your trailer came from a dealer, you should have received a similar orientation. You would have learned more than you'll ever need, or want, to know just by talking about brakes with other campers in your wanderings. Most are more than happy to have a new audience for their stories and love to talk about their rigs.

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    1. Scof1945,
      It was just my own stupidity. I know I need a brake controller for electric brakes, but in the ice storm i was taking possession of the trailer in, I was informed it had surge brakes. My own fault for not checking. Thankfully the trailer and load combination wasn't all that heavy!

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete
  3. Had this done on my 4Runner. Having it done now on my Winnebago. An absolute must do!

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    Replies
    1. Unknown,

      I couldn't agree more!

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete
  4. It seems to me that having a brake controller is the obvious addition to any towing configuration. But, in addition, I am a huge fan of slotted and bored brake disks. They keep the discs and pads cool and allow for better braking and longer pad use. The second item I would address is that so many of the lube shops where peole take their vehicles to be service, (oil change etc) top off the brake fluid. DON"T DO IT! Low brake fluid means worn pads. The lower the fluid the more the pads are worn. Occasionally fluid will leak, but that is rare and easily noticed if you look at your parking space before and after you park. Pads are cheap and actually easy to change. Disc are not.. Slotted and bored disks can last up to three hundred thousand miles with no service what ever. just change the pads when the fluid is low.

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    1. xraydid,
      An absolutely excellent suggestion about brake fluid!! I've been using that pad wear trick for years. Spot on!

      Thanks,

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete
    2. "Pads are easy; discs are not" -- I have to scratch my head at that. I can change my pads reasonably quickly, but the rotors literally fall off while I'm doing that. I'll put back new ones if I need to, but it adds ZERO extra time to a brake job.

      If you can get them from AutoZone, rotors and pads are free after the first set, so I try to change mine when I have any doubt.

      Delete
    3. Wolfe,
      As usual an excellent tip. I try and keep my rotors (they were recently new) in good shape by replacing the pads on time, before they begin to gouge the disks.

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete
  5. Shame you didn't call me... I have a P3 on my shelf you could have. And yes, it's a GREAT brake controller in my opinion -- I would NOT GO NEAR the time-delayed type ever again. Set properly, you can't even feel the difference stopping with or without my 10,000lb trailer attached. My new truck has a controller built-in which works OK, but I can't use my P3 without significant re-wiring to avoid cross-interfering. I have the plug-and-play harnesses you mentioned for some of my family's trucks, and move the controller between them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wolfe,
      Of course! I can count on you to have exactly what i need and, as usual, we are on parallel thought processes.

      Brother from another mother? Maybe we went to different high schools together?

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete
    2. The dealer for my first 6000lb trailer installed one of those pendulum/time delay controllers, and every stop was Lock-THUMP-Lock-THUMP as you'd try to pump the brakes to keep from jackknifing. I changed to the P3 and kept checking my rearview to make sure the trailer was actually still attached. IMHO, the ultra-cheap controllers are *dangerous* in their kick-jerk lockups. Locking up is bad, especially if you drive gravel or icey roads. It burns up tires the rest of the time.

      Speaking of setting the power, I've heard many ways to set up your brake controller, but ultimately the objective is to "have the trailer stop itself." Some people advise a certain amount of extra drag relative to the tow (when towing a heavy trailer with a light tow vehicle, the theory is to avoid overrun-kick shoving the tow sideways into a jackknife). I think the P3 "Boost" levels are another approach to that extra drag, but I still think a proper tow/trailer weight ratio and independent braking is safest for control -- no over-run kick forward nor premature-braking jerk backward.

      I'm still surprised you towed that helicopter behind your (minimal tow rating?) RV, on ice, without brakes, and made it home... Good driving!

      LOL... you don't want my mother or high schools... can I adopt yours instead?

      You still gotta fly that new heli over to Rochester -- land right in my yard!

      Delete
    3. Wolfe,
      Everything you said was spot on! Setting up the trailer to, essentially, stop itself with a TINY bit of extra drag to keep everything linear works terrifically.

      The helicopter weighed 1075 lbs, the trailer around 1850, so it wasn't really that heavy. My RV manual states, 500 pound tongue weight and 5000lbs max. To be honest, I rarely use my brakes in the RV when driving. It's all about planning ahead. I didn't really notice the trailer behind me causing any issues. THAT'S precisely why it was so dangerous in retrospect.

      As soon as i get through the inspections and "improvements" Rochester here I come!

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete
  6. The entire purpose of a trailer brake controller is to apply just enough trailer braking to have the trailer brakes stop the mass of the trailer. This means that the trailer will not be "pushing" the tow vehicle during any mode of braking. All of the electronic systems sense only what is happening inside the tow vehicle, not the forces at the hitch, and setting them is a matter of guesswork (uhh, try a "6" but maybe more, but not so high that the trailer wheels lock up, and remember, these settings change with trailer load).

    A hydraulic surge brake senses and counters hitch "push" at just the right place, so why are surge brake systems always declared inferior? (Yes, I realize that backing is a problem with a surge brake. However, why couldn't there be an "electric over hydraulic" relief system, that prevents braking when backing?)

    Finally, a surge controller stays with the trailer, so it doesn't require moving a tow vehicle controller when changing vehicles. And, towing different trailers doesn't require changing the tow vehicle controller settings to match each trailer.

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    1. Ed,
      I LIKE surge brakes...my other trailer has them and I've never noticed any issues with braking or control.

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete
  7. in 2007 i had a brake controller installed. it had a slide controll,if you wanted more or less brake controll i would just slide the button,real simple.i had a new one installed on my current motor home and its digital,i dont like it. the older one was simple to turn on and adjust. im not much on electronics.

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    1. Vernon,
      Once you get the digital proportional ones setup..you'll be convinced! I was.

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete
  8. I've had boats that have surge brakes, no issues at all. My old Ram has a brake controller that has the inertia pendulum and the manual slider. It worked okay probably because I didn't know any better. With our new Ram, we got the exhaust brake as well as the built in trailer brake controller, it's a night and day difference with just the brake controller. Add the exhaust brake to the mix and I'm a very happy camper (pun intended). Driving sensibly and using the exhaust brake I don't have to white knuckle going down a grade.

    A few years ago, in the Turbo Diesel Register, they wrote about an aftermarket brake controller that tapped into the hydraulic system and caused no issues with tow vehicle's ABS system. They used hydraulic pressure to trigger the electronics to activate the trailer brakes. A more difficult installation but seemed to be a better system overall.

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    1. Craig,
      I've always had an issue with tapping a closed hydraulic system to run an external device. I am sure it would be fine, but something in the back of my mind says, "NO!"

      Rich "The Wanderman"

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    2. I have to agree that diverting brake fluid (like connecting implements on a tractor) seems very bad, but I've always wondered why brake controllers DON'T use a simple pressure transducer to drive the brake signal. With self-braking drive-by-wire, the transducer may not even be needed if we tap into the "intent" to brake. Sensing motion with pendulums and gyroscopes looks like a sloppy solution.

      The tow brakes wouldn't know there is a trailer, but might even provide some antilock ability to the trailer by pulsing if the trailer tried to overrun.

      Maybe this IS how newer built in controllers work, but it doesn't seem so (at least, that option is crazy priced if there's only a 10cent varistor inside the controller...)

      Good discussion!

      Delete
    3. Wolfe,
      Hmmm...that actually sounds like a VERY practical and elegant solution to the issue. Quick! get a patent and see it to Teknonsha before the "borrow" it!

      As a very side note, did you ever do any work with server power supplies and cages (Delta/NEC)?

      Rich "The Wanderman"

      Delete

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